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Inclusive education for all: an interview with Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham

Dr Ruth Wareham is Humanists UK’s Education Campaigns Manager, leading our national campaign for an open, inclusive education for all. We spoke to Ruth about state-funded faith schools, and the segregation, division, and discrimination they engender.

The campaign points out that faith schools are responsible for promoting social division and disadvantaging poorer families. But how exactly do faith schools disadvantage children, parents, and teachers?

Because faith schools are legally allowed to select pupils based on religious background, this inevitably promotes divided communities. But in fact, the evidence shows that it goes much further than this. Religious selection is responsible not only for segregation of children by nominal faith, but also by ethnicity and family income.

I speak to parents who have been affected by this every day – unable to jump the necessary hoops to get into a local, state-funded school because so many or all of their local schools are faith schools. The law allows faith schools to send families who don’t share their faith ethos at the back of the queue for state-funded places. It’s patently unfair.

Faith schools discriminate against teachers in very much the same way as well – because of faith-based recruitment practices, hard-working teachers are also potentially shut out of a job in over a third of state-funded schools in this country.

What does the evidence say?

Some of the most reliable figures we have about religion or belief in this country come from the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey.

In the UK, 80% of young people and 75% of people of parental age are not Christians. That’s very different from the 1940s, when most people happened to be Christians. So nowadays church schools no longer match the needs of modern society – and even perpetuate discrimination. And yet nothing has slowed their expansion; governments keep backing faith schools to open, even when local demand is for inclusive community schools.

We also have new evidence from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership and the University of Bristol that shows that religious character doesn’t produce higher grades. The reality is that discriminatory selection processes allow faith schools to select pupils from more advantaged backgrounds. Once you take this into account, their overall attainment score drops dramatically. It can’t be said that faith schools ‘produce better results’ – it’s a myth.

We also know that as a society we need to be doing more to promote cohesion and integrated communities. Ultimately, children with different religious or belief backgrounds will only learn to understand one another and build mutual bonds of trust if they are given the opportunity to learn alongside each other every day. Artificially segregating children according to their parents’ beliefs just seems absurd. The UK is one of only four developed countries that does this through state schools – along with Ireland, Estonia, and Israel.

What is the alternative to faith schools?

We already have the beginnings of a really good alternative to faith schools in the community schools that we see up and down the country. Of course, these schools are not entirely inclusive just yet – we would need to see the back of the outdated requirement for a daily act of ‘collective worship‘, and for RE to be fully inclusive of non-religious worldviews like humanism for that to be the case. But I would still point to these schools as examples of integration working well and doing its job. Simply by providing a curriculum that is largely objective and suitable for pupils regardless of their background, as well as opening their doors to all, these schools show that another way is entirely possible.

Are you a humanist? How did you come to find out about humanism?

When I was working as a teacher in my 20s I found that my non-religious beliefs didn’t square with practices such as collective worship in school assemblies. I started to become interested in the way children were taught about moral issues, and found it deeply concerning that they were being taught controversial ideas about the existence of god as factually true. This drew me back into study, and it was during my PhD that I began to identify as a humanist. Alongside my academic research, I actually used the Humanists UK website because it was a really great resource for data and other information about faith schools. It was through Humanists UK that I realised there was a whole community of people who not only share my non-religious perspective, but who also care about living a good, moral, and ethical life without god.

Want to help support Ruth’s work? Donate today to help us campaign for an inclusive education for all, and put an end to faith school discrimination.

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