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.