Why Are Faith Schools So Successful?

Here is a conundrum. At least, it’s a conundrum to me. Across the Middle East – most recently and most obviously in Egypt – people are wary of religion, the closed and inward-looking nature of belief, knowing only too well that life is too messy to be limited by the ancient ‘truisms’ from a simpler and long-vanished era.

At the same time, in Britain at least, people – even secular people – are falling over themselves, so it would seem, to send their children to faith schools. They do so, they say, on the entirely pragmatic grounds that the examination results of faith schools justify their decision. Statistics appear to bear them out and the British government recently recognized this, agreeing that the Church of England could play more of a role in British schools, albeit without forcing the Christian (or any) religion down the throats of those children whose parents don’t want it.

What is going on here? Why is there this apparent disjunction across the world, and why do faith schools do so well?

Could a clue be found in the recent experiment, also carried out in British schools, to allow pupils to start their academic day at 10.00 a.m. and not 9.00, as has been traditional, allowing them more time in bed?

Does this mark an (admittedly very belated) recognition that children are not adults and shouldn’t necessarily be expected to conform to adult practices? The experiment of allowing some pupils to ‘lie in’ seems to have been a success so far, although it has not been widely implemented.

Is something similar at work in faith schools? Like many – I would say most – people of my generation, I was raised in a school where Christianity was taken for granted, where its stories, rituals and rhythms were part of the mental furniture of my early years. This didn’t stop me losing my faith when I was thirteen or fourteen, after which I discovered soon enough that being an adult was and is more interesting, in all sorts of ways, than being a child.

But my point is this (and I am not advocating what follows, merely trying to understand the success of faith schools): perhaps young children are not ready for the hurly-burly of secular life, the many enjoyable but conflicting and ambiguous lineaments of thought that the average adult encounters. Perhaps they are too busy learning all-important facts about the world and their brains are not developed enough, yet, to be able to cope with more abstract issues. Sharing the history and rituals of a faith may not have anything to do with religious belief as such – its truth or otherwise – but it may simply simplify intellectual life when simplification matters.

Nicholas Humphrey, the psychologist, argues that children should be taught religion as history – the good along with the bad (for example, the Inquisition), and that all religions should be included in this. I think this is an excellent idea, but I wonder how early children can be guided through the issues that so divide adults. Sharing – intellectually and emotionally – is an important preparation for adulthood. Maybe faith schools keep their pupils’ minds clearer for other, arguably more important, matters.


7 commments on “The Puzzle of Faith Schools”

  • Dale Kabat says:

    Dear Peter Watson:
    Here in Asia, my fourth continent, faith schools are considered the best, too (e.g. Catholic schools in Indonesia or Thailand), up to 18 years of age (elementary, secondary), because for learning the basic skills, discipline and focus are needed (Asian parents believe so) and not distractions as in secular schools. That changes at the university level, where critical thinking is considered the most important thing that needs to be learnt. Having grown up in secular “socialist” schools myself, but with both discipline and focus, I agree with Asian parents. Why would the British parents/students be any different, even in the age of cell phones and social networks ?
    With Regards, DK

  • swapnesh says:

    In india faith schools both christian and hindu are doing far better than government run schools (which are supposed to be secular but are not )is because of level of institutionalisation of these faith school(but for all the wrong reasons) which are well managed(by churches) and funded (most of the time by parents themselves and only middle class can afford it) . The other reason for popularity is that though state dont promote such schools, the competition over takes any rational thinking on part of parents where in parents give education to their children as measure to be better equip them for high paying jobs and not to make them a better human being for a better planet, here in india survival is prime issue. English even after being a foriegn language has a status symbol and all other languages are considered to be inferior at least in education sector , these faith school have very stringent rules regarding language for communication in their curriculum and so are considered to be best for achieving proficiency in english.

  • Daniel del Valle says:

    I spent 12 ears in Catholic Schools, mostly because my parents thought that the American public schools were substandard. My father was an agnostic and my mother was a Catholic. I was indoctrinated heavily in Roman Catholic dogma, but this did not prevent loosing faith when I was 17, my last year in high school. In a way the education given in subjects, other than the obligatory Religion class, was quite advanced. For example, in my senior year I took a class titles “World Literature”. It was given by a quite liberal and enlightened nun, who gave us Albert Camus’ THE OUTSIDER to read with the caveat that we were going to enter the mind of an atheist who was also a moralist.
    Later at the university, I took a religion class that covered all the major religious faiths. I agree that religion should be taught as history, with the good and the bad.

  • C. Ardinger says:

    Does home schooling fit in here?

  • Anna says:

    Dear Mr. Watson
    I think the issue is pretty simple. People think that faith schools offer proper morals and people think they are doing the best for their children in times of turmoil (which regardless of what is going on in the universe seems to be a recurrent idea with some people). After moving from a rather isolated school on a military base into the civilian “real” world my mum thought a strict catholic school with uniform would do me good. I was overwhelmed by the hypocrisy, nastiness and overall applauded and encouraged behaviour towards double standards. All I could see is that I was being thought how you could become a respectable crook disdainful of fellow humans. By the time I was 14 I threatened to run away from home unless I was allowed to leave this school and since there wasn’t much of an alternative I wanted to go to art school. Some of the art school students had just killed a local photographer and the school had a reputation for everything wrong under the sun. Much in contrast to what my parents believed: that I was going to have sex in the school loos, get pregnant, pop all kinds of pills or stick stuff up my nose; I graduated a virgin (both in drugs and sex) believing strongly in what freedom, respect and good guidance can deliver. Did people have sex in the loos, do drugs etc… Yeah, for sure, but all of it was straight forward, honest and guided. The art school I studied at saved many wretched souls and confused teenagers. Did I learn anything from the faith school I went to, yes, that religion can be so loathsome and self serving that I had myself officially excommunicated. Did I learn anything form the “cesspit” art school I went to. Too much to enumerate, but most of all that mutual respect, honour and honesty, and a good infusion of art and learning to see beauty can turn the most wretched car thief and drug addict into a person who wants more out of life.
    My parents biggest fear, that, not having the proper schooling and “wrong” moral guidance went up in smoke: I went to university in a degree where they had a numerus clausus of two per year, did well and proceeded to have a great life? All I can say is that my time spent in faith school was poisoning my life and my morals. I would say, address your fears (in the end that is all it is), send your kids to a place they feel good in and simply spend more time with them, after all you want to pass your kids your values. Too many people think schools are a substitute for raising ones kids.

  • Steve Isle says:

    In the UK religious schools are selective, not just on religious grounds but also on how middle class the parents are. Evidence is much lower free school meals take-up in church schools. They also have a higher expulsion rate and often refuse to take ‘problem’ students from elsewhere.

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