Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Faith Schools and the Academies Programme

On 11 September, two stalwarts of Dorset Humanists, Chair David Warden (“yes”) and Education Officer Chris Street (“no”) will debate the question: “do faith schools have a place in modern society?” This post puts the debate in the context in a major development in education, which has occurred as a result of the “regime change” and from which the issue is inseparable: the academies programme.

But first, we must consider the meaning of the question itself: do faith schools have a place in modern society? It begs several other questions: What is “society?” What is “modern society?” What does it mean to have a “place in society”? Stripping out the rhetoric (“a place in modern society”), we have the underlying question: “there ought to be faith schools: true or false?”

But the statement: “there ought to be faith schools” is neither true nor false; it is an evaluative judgment. We can debate, till Kingdom Come, the merits and demerits of faith schools: whether or not they produce greater academic success and, if so, whether or not (and, if so, how) there is a causal connection between faith and success; whether or not they possess, and instil into pupils, some indefinable – almost mystical – “ethos”; whether or not they are, in some sense, “divisive” or “discriminatory”. But, ultimately, one person (“A”) can say “true” and another (“B”) can say “false”. Neither is right but neither is wrong; these are purely subjective, evaluative judgments, and neither is objectively superior to the other.

The real question is this: if A says “there ought to be faith schools” but B says “there ought not to be faith schools”, is B entitled to impose his or her judgment on A (or vice versa)? The answer cannot be “yes”. Therefore, A must be allowed to send his children to a faith school, and B must be allowed to send his or her children to a non-faith school.

Suppose there is an independent, fee-paying faith school (the Benedictine Ampleforth College is a prime example) which receives no state funding. Parents, who can afford it, are free to send their children there. Only on the most authoritarian view would such a freedom, or the school’s freedom to exist, be denied. So, the issue here is only about faith schools within the state education system. But, the academies programme completely changes the concept of state education.

“Academies” stand in contrast to “maintained schools”. They we established by Tony Blair in 2000 (although only 203 were founded under New Labour) and the wholesale conversion, of maintained schools into academies, is now the Coalition’s flagship education policy.

Even maintained schools are not mere branches of the State; they are separate entities, to a greater or lesser extent private and self-governing (many of them having a “religious character” – so-called “faith schools”), but which are “maintained” by the State (in the form of the local authority) and regulated by statute. To “maintain” essentially means (although this varies according to the type of school: community, foundation, voluntary-aided, voluntary controlled) to defray the cost of maintaining; in other words, to fund.

Underlying the academies programme is the notion that the local authority drops out of the state education loop. Academies are independent schools, entirely self-governing and hardly regulated by statute, but the State (now in the form of central government) provides the funding for them (although much of this is still raised locally, by way of council tax) and they are free to parents at the point of delivery.

In principle, the funding (which is the basic per-pupil cost of education) follows the pupil, to whichever school the parents choose to send him or her. In practice, because this amount is effectively capped (under the preferred “Swedish” model, academies will not be permitted to charge top-up fees to parents) and probably inadequate, this will not happen immediately. There will be state-imposed rationing of resources, and the local authority will continue to do this by retaining, for the time being, its principal function of “co-ordination”, the allocation of pupils and resources to form the education structure in its area.

The notion, of the local authority (at least, in principle) dropping out of the loop, calls into question the very meaning and purpose of state education. A local authority’s overarching duty, in relation to state education is laid down by statute as follows:-

A local authority shall (so far as their powers enable them to do so) contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community by securing that efficient primary education, and secondary education are available to meet the needs of the population of their area.
So the statutory definition and purpose of state education, which has its origins in the 1944 Education Act. Is, in effect:-
The spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community.
The word “spiritual” is deeply objectionable; the word “moral” is, at best, highly problematical. Leaving those issues aside, however, the essence of state education is the development of the community; not the pupil, the community. That is why the local authority – as supposed representative and builder of the community – has traditionally been regarded as an essential part of the state education loop. With the local authority removed, no equivalent duty is place on either of the remaining players, central government and academies. Therefore, the academies programme marks a fundamental shift from the traditional “communitarian” view of state education to an “individualist” view.

What is probably (he must correct me if I am wrong) David’s central thesis is expressed in the following:-
Religious parents are taxpayers just the same as non-religious parents. For the government to fund non-religious schools but not religious schools is clearly a case of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the allocation of public funds.
… religious parents, who pay their taxes just the same as everyone else, should be able to choose to send their children to such a school if they want to and that a liberal democratic state has no business withholding funds from such schools.
A sizeable proportion of taxpaying parents prefer to send their children to schools with a religious ethos. I believe that a liberal, democratic society should accede to this preference unless there are overriding reasons not to do so.
Implicit in this is the idea that parents pay taxes in return for the state education of their children. That is not so; parents (and all taxpayers) pay taxes because, if they did not, their property would, ultimately, be appropriated by the State. There is nothing – state education or anything else – in return for taxes.

But there is a common fiction that people do, in fact, pay taxes for things – including state education – in return, and we will pretend that this is the case. But there is a problem: as we have seen, state education is not regarded as the development of pupils (the parents’ children); it is the development of the community.

Former pupils contribute to the community through the provision of goods and services to others, who are taxpayers. If a taxpayer receives a benefit from the “development of the community”, he has paid twice for it: first in taxes which have funded the education of those former pupils, and secondly in the price of those goods and services. The cost, of that education of those who provide them, is part of the cost of the goods and services. So, the “development of the community” is a flawed notion.

So, taxpayers are paying tax in return for the state education of children (but not necessarily their specific children). The community drops out of the loop and so does the local authority. That is reflected in the academies programme.

Academies are independent schools, funded by the state out of taxation and free to parents at the point of delivery. But we can look at this in a different way (the difference being merely a matter of accounting): parents pay fees to the academy for their specific children’s education; to the extent that they cannot afford to do so, those fees are subsidized by the State out of the taxation of others who can afford to pay. This is precisely what will happen; tax, paid by the parents, will off-set the per-pupil cost which follows the pupil to whichever school the parents choose to send him or her.

On that analysis, parents do, indeed, pay taxes in return for the state education of their children.

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