- The conundrum of religious schools in twenty-first-century Europe
- Comparative Education
- Volume | Issue number
- 51 | 1
- Pages (from-to)
- Document type
- Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences (FMG)
- Research Institute of Child Development and Education (RICDE)
In this paper Merry examines in detail the continued - and curious - popularity of religious schools in an otherwise ‘secular’ twenty-first century Europe. To do this he considers a number of motivations underwriting the decision to place one's child in a religious school and delineates what are likely the best empirically supported explanations for the continued dominant position of Protestant and Catholic schools. He then argues that institutional racism is an explanatory variable that empirical researchers typically avoid, though it informs both parental assessments of school quality as well as selective mechanisms many mainstream religious schools use to function as domains of exclusion. He then distinguishes between religious schools in a dominant position from those serving disadvantaged minorities and argues that the latter are able to play a crucially important function other schools only rarely provide and hence that vulnerable minorities may have reason to value.
Many contributions in this issue have discussed the historical development, state support and perceived legitimacy of religious schools in Europe, each of them focussing in detail on variations of education policy in different national contexts. Implicitly or explicitly, different authors also have tried to answer this question: why do religious schools continue to garner the support that they do in twenty-first-century Europe? Why indeed. With few exceptions such as France (Pons, van Zanten, and Da Costa 2015), the market share of religious schools in Europe has remained largely unchanged over the last 45 years, and in at least one country - Germany (Scheunpflug 2015) - the demand for religious schools appears to have increased. Given what many consider to be an inexorable ‘secularisation’ trend across Europe (Berger 1967; Bruce 2002),1 what are we to make of these seemingly inexplicable trends?
To try and answer this question, empirical studies on religious schools in Europe typically focus on fairly uncontroversial institutional features, such as core objectives. Or, concerning parental motives for selecting religious schools, studies usually report explicitly observed and reported - and hence measurable - characteristics and responses. However, I would argue that the existing empirical research does not tell us all that we need to know. But that fact should not stop us from reasoned speculation. Thus given the unfortunate lacunae in the empirical literature, some of what I will argue will be couched in terms of warranted conjecture, both as this concerns the reasons why religious schools remain as popular as they do as well as what I think are reasonable grounds to support and defend religious schools serving marginalised groups likely to suffer a far worse fate in another school environment. My aim in this paper, then, will not be to recapitulate or synthesise what others have said, but rather to argue that there are other - often well hidden and non-quantifiable - variables relevant to our question than what we presently may ‘know’.
The structure of the paper is as follows. In order to sketch the background for what is to come, in Section 1, I dispute the notion of a ‘secularised’ Europe, and then summarise a number of recent policy-related developments related to religious schools, as well as several criticisms directed against them. Then, to see why religious schools continue to enjoy such a dominant market share, in Section 2, I examine a number of motivations underwriting the decision to place one's child in a religious school and delineate what I think are likely the best empirically supported explanations for the continued dominant position of Protestant and Catholic schools in twenty-first-century Europe. In Section 3, I hypothesise that institutional racism informs both parental assessments of school quality as well as selective mechanisms many mainstream religious schools use in order to function as domains of exclusion. Finally in Section 4, I distinguish between religious schools in a dominant position from those serving disadvantaged minorities. I argue that the latter are able to play a crucially important function other schools only rarely provide and hence that vulnerable minorities may have reason to value. I then sketch the outlines of a circumscribed case for what I will call ‘voluntary separation’.
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