Faith School Menace?
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Films and TV
Faith School Menace? is a documentary film by Richard Dawkins which was first broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in August 2010. Over the course of the film, Dawkins examines and explores how an increasing proportion of UK schools are now "faith-based" and its implications for parents' choice and the teaching of evolution.
Once upon a time, most schools in the UK were faith-based and actively attached to churches which funded and hosted them. These were entirely Christian in nature, with other faith schools being practically illegal. This changed during the Labour government of 1997-2010, where two things happened. Firstly, the door was opened for other faiths to have their own exclusive schools and secondly, the Academy scheme was introduced. In the UK, these Academies were schools that were given greater autonomy from the government in how to distribute their budgets, what they were allowed to teach and the methods employed. Many faith schools chose to become Academies in order to take advantage of the greater autonomy. These schools, however, are not privately funded, but receive their funding entirely from the taxpayers—and often faith-based schools are given greater funding.
Early on in the programme, Dawkins interviews Charles Clarke, who was Education Secretary at the time faith schools were given the go-ahead. In the past, Clarke was very much against faith schools; however, once actually in a position of power to do something about it, he opted for the "lesser of two evils" option and allowed other faiths to form their own schools. During the robust exchange, Dawkins criticised the decision and asked why the former Education Secretary didn't cut government funding to faith schools. Clarke responded that such a thing would lead to the immediate closure of 7000 schools, and would be political suicide. Dawkins rejected this view as pessimistic, claiming that perhaps the schools would be able to find private funding or drop their faith aspects to remain open.
Throughout the documentary was the theme of parental choice—a buzzword often bandied about by faith school supporters. However, Dawkins was critical of this idea, stating how the existence of faith schools limited the choice, and that in some areas non-faith schools were either too distant or too scarce to accept numerous children. He also interviewed several parents who actively converted to Catholicism in order to get their child into the school, reluctantly becoming Church regulars in order to secure their child's place in the school. At one point, the accusation was made (and denied by the Church in question) that priests said donating to the Church would improve a child's placement prospects—about £5000 would do the trick, apparently.
The apparent effectiveness of faith schools was questioned by Dawkins. He examined carefully studied statistics of not just ability and exam performance (in which faith schools clearly do better) but in child improvement. When this was taken into account, faith-based schools performed no better than non-faith schools. This leads to the conclusion that the high performance of faith-based schools is entirely due to the selection of able pupils in the first place. The greater autonomy of the Academy system also allows such schools to actively discriminate and deal more ruthlessly with unruly or inept pupils—and discrimination on grounds of faith provides the perfect cover.
Out of all schools approached, only one faith-based school allowed the documentary to film inside a classroom. The Islamic school in question was queried by Dawkins over its teaching of evolution. The teacher claimed to have taught the evidence and let the pupils "decide" for themselves. Unsurprisingly, all the pupils, independently, "chose" special creation over evolution. When asked, a pupil did literally put forward the "how come there are still monkeys?" argument against evolution - to which Dawkins cheekily pushed the science teacher for an answer. When she was unable to provide an adequate response, Dawkins answered the question in his characteristic style.