Church schools are not an expensive conspiracy theory funded by the taxpayer, says Ben Phillips. They save the state money, and if they are designed to fill the pews with children and young people who don’t know any better, it’s hardly a strategy that’s working

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Source: Instagram / Humanists UK

Professor Alice Roberts is fast replacing Richard Dawkins as the enfant terrible of the Humanist cause. While Professor Dawkins has, in recent years, admitted he has a “certain love for the Anglican tradition”, Roberts has become the poster woman for picking a fight with Christians – and particularly the Church of England.

It is therefore no surprise that Roberts’ recent quote, shared on X by Humanists UK, raised eyebrows: “We really don’t need more faith schools in this country. I wish the government would prioritise inclusive schools, rather than using taxpayer’s money to fund the Church of England’s indoctrination programme.”

If Prof Roberts were correct in her conspiracy, we would be filling our churches with children

While her first sentence is an opinion, on which Professor Roberts and I would respectfully disagree, her statement at the end of the second sentence undermines her entire argument – for it is an absolute fiction.

It’s rooted in an idea that the Church of England knows what it is, what it wants, and what it will get. But, regrettably, nothing could be further from the truth. Further, Roberts seems to believe ‘her truth’ to be absolute on this, refusing to engage with fellow commentators in reasoned debate. As an academic, you’d expect her to engage; as a scientist, you’d expect her to be able to read the data available.

In numbers

At present, the CofE claims that approximately 1 million children attend their 4,630 schools – covering a quarter of all primary schools and 228 secondary schools in England. The 16 universities of The Cathedrals Group, originally established as teacher training colleges by dioceses in the 19th century, share a common faith heritage and a strong commitment to values such as social justice, respect for the individual and promoting the public good. Around 100,000 people are educated in this grouping of universities each year.

Readers of Premier will know that none of these translate into congregation numbers; the Church of England remains expected to hit statistical ‘congregant zero’ by 2060. So, if Professor Roberts were correct in her conspiracy, we would be filling our churches with children, young people and families from these examples. Our strategic pivot would be complete; we would be inundated with millions of instant Christians. If indoctrination through education is the strategy Church House has chosen, then it has proven a colossal failure (note to reader: it has never been the strategy).

For richer and poorer

While Professor Roberts is entitled to her views on the role of the established Church and its involvement with public life, she may wish to know that the “taxpayer’s money” she so desperately wants to save was already safe. Twenty per cent of the capital costs of running church schools are met by the Church of England - a cost that would be passed back to the state should they cease to exist.

Wider engagement with young people also contributes to the £206 million a year that churches save the government by providing community services such as youth groups, foodbanks and mental health services.

In effect, what Professor Roberts would like to do by abolishing faith schools is add further burden to taxpayers. If the Humanists got their way, the only net result would be making schools (already struggling with squeezed budgets) even poorer by dumping burdensome capital costs upon them, and depriving communities of youth engagement (which the state and local authorities have already stepped back from funding).

Stand up and be counted

Is this what Humanists UK really wants? Of course it isn’t – they just want to remove the Church and replace it with themselves.

20 per cent of the capital costs of church schools are met by the CofE

For that is what Humanists UK wants – to remove any hint of Christian values from public life. The Christian values that have helped build a tolerant and inclusive society are being brushed out; it’s a reshaping of Britain that has quietly been going on for a very long time – slowly, and often unnoticed. 

As Christians, we see daily how our faith and values are eroded and mocked in ways that would be deemed intolerable if directed at other faith communities. We remain an easy target because we have too easily retreated from the public square.

The time has come for all Christian traditions to stand up and say: “Enough is enough!” and return to playing a fuller and more unapologetic role in wider society.