How wretchedly uncomfortable it is for the rich and famous with ideological credentials to protect when they have to find a school for their offspring. BBC presenter Alice Roberts is just the latest to have been rumbled as having her two children at a school of whose very existence she does not approve. The presence of her son and daughter at a Church of England primary would have been nobody’s business were it not for the fact that Roberts is the new president of Humanists UK. This means she is at the forefront of its campaign to ‘End Faith in Schools’, as its slogan goes, bringing an end to state funding of such schools. 

Roberts joins that roll call of hypocritical shame of those in the public eye who apparently believe one thing but do something else when it comes to the educational interests of their own children. Remember the Blairs and Harriet Harman in the 1990s? All that embarrassment about sending their progeny across London to Brompton Oratory (a sought-after school that was out of local authority control, a policy vehemently opposed by Labour) and St Olave’s (a selective grammar school in Orpington)? Remember Shami Chakrabarti and her painful justifications about her son being a pupil at the leading public school Dulwich College? Remember the humiliation for Diane Abbott when she was discovered to be sending her son to a private school after criticising colleagues who opted for selective schools for their children? None of this is new. It nearly always boils down to the position that something is good enough for other people’s children but not good enough for their own. No amount of contorted excuses or reasoning can disguise this.

Roberts, who is also Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, was at pains to claim that she had no choice but to send her children to what one can only assume is a rather good Church of England school. She said that her applications to two non-faith primary schools had been unsuccessful, adding that academic performance had not been a factor in her choice of school, only ethos. Of course, there is no way, conveniently enough for her, of challenging the latter point.

But it is disingenuous in a more straightforward way. Children do not appear fully formed at school age and it beggars belief that Roberts didn’t notice she was going to have a ‘really tricky’ issue about Church of England schools at some point. As an intelligent individual as well as a committed humanist, did Roberts really not have what it took to make sure she secured that place at one of the non-faith schools she would so have preferred (allegedly)? That is to say, a house move in the years she had to think about it? Did she and her husband not admit to themselves that, as humanists in favour of making life financially difficult for faith schools, a C of E primary for their children was simply not on: it was crossing a line? Hypocrisy, in other words. Maybe Professor Roberts just hoped she could get away with it.

Well she hasn’t. Nor does she do herself any favours by saying that at least she hasn’t been morally compromised, as she would see it, into stooping to ‘buying my way out’ and going private. No, she hasn’t, but she has gone for the nearest thing. Not only is she prepared, one presumes, to have her children intellectually harmed in an environment where she feels they might be exposed to creationism, but she doesn’t even withdraw them from prayers and collective worship. She is right, of course, when she says this is ‘socially exclusive’ and ‘difficult for the child’.

To make matters worse for the hypocritical Roberts, her own mother, a retired teacher with long experience of working in faith schools, has added her voice to the embarrassing situation. She has expressed upset and dismay at her daughter’s doctrinaire and antagonistic position, stating that faith schools ‘have been and still are a most benign benefit’. Wendy Roberts has repudiated the so-called ‘pushing’ of doctrine, saying it is more the pushing of Christian values – ‘to be aware of society, the promotion of care and selflessness’. Her fear is for the future of less privileged children if church schools lose their funding and have to close. Quite. Because such schools can be a game-changer in the lives of poor children, children whose parents are not of the professorial class like Roberts (herself Church of England primary and then the independent Redmaids’ High School, Bristol). Children need an environment where learning can take place and it seems church schools are certainly getting something right there. Religious primary schools are hugely successful when it comes to test results, beating state and private schools. Almost half of the top 500 state primaries are faith schools, with 48 in the top 100. 

The head at the school where Roberts sends her children might do well to point this out next time there are ‘positive talks’ (something Roberts has advised other humanists in her position to do). Before suggesting that the school’s success is because it is a church school and not in spite of it. And then advising that other schools are available and showing her the door.

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