These developments – along with the discovery that Roberts sends her own children to a Church of England Primary – have since triggered howls of hypocrisy. As is so often the case nowadays, public outcry has taken the place of reasoned discussion and debate. This is a shame, because the Humanists UK campaign against faith schools throws up some interesting philosophical questions about freedom, tolerance and choice.
Currently, around a third of state-funded schools in the United Kingdom are faith schools. Many of these schools are over-subscribed – some dramatically so. We can infer that more than a third of parents in the UK would probably like to send their children to such schools.
Yet Humanists UK wants the government to withdraw funding from faith schools or to convert them to “non-faith” schools. “We aim for a secular state guaranteeing human rights,” they write, “with no privilege or discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, and so we campaign against ‘faith’ schools, and for an inclusive, secular schools system.”
“We want to see an end to the proliferation of state-funded ‘faith’ schools… a progressive withdrawal of their privileges and exemptions so that religious schools are eventually absorbed back into the wider schools sector, becoming inclusive schools for all the community.”
Their aim is clear. But it arises from muddled thinking. The Society says “Parents … do not have a right to state funding for … ‘faith’ schools…” Hang on a second. By “state funding” they obviously mean taxpayers’ money – which we already, doggedly, try to influence how it is spent through the ballot box. At present, a third or more of British parents have voted with their feet, indicating they like their money being spent on the provision of education at faith-based schools. The humanists are therefore against the allocation of resources in a way that is clearly palatable to many taxpayers.
However, there is a logical and fair way to achieve what Humanists UK want, while keeping faith schools open, and keeping all their supporters happy. This would be to move towards a voucher system of education funding.
Under this approach, we pay our taxes as we do at present, but parents receive education vouchers, or tax rebates, to pay for their children’s education. They would use these to pay for schools provided directly by the state, academies, faith groups or other private sector charities. If a parent wanted to send their child to a school with fees higher than the voucher provision, they would top up this funding themselves.
One advantage of this system would be to remove the current injustice meted out to parents who pay for private schools, but do not receive rebates for the public education they subsidise through their taxes. Crucially, it would also, as the humanists wish, remove state involvement in the direct provision of religious education. Finally, the system would promote parental choice, by allowing families to continue sending their children to faith schools if they wish.
Humanists UK, as it happens, is not explicitly against school choice. As they note, “Parents have an explicit right in the European Convention of Human Rights to bring up their children in the religion or belief of their choice without interference from the state.”
Their website argues that the welfare of humanity is central to its ethos, as are the values of freedom, justice, tolerance and human wellbeing. And yet, attempting to deprive parents of the right to send their children to schools of their choice, funded through their taxes is incompatible with these goals – particularly those of freedom and tolerance.
Conversely, joining a campaign for a voucher funded education system would be entirely consistent with all of Humanist UK’s aims. A voucher funded education system would achieve other positive goals, like giving poorer parents the opportunity to send their children to better-performing private schools.
Instead of trying to narrow our freedoms, Humanists UK should join the fight to expand them.