Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has announced that his eldest son, Antonio, will attend a Catholic state school in London. The school has a history of educating the children of politicians, including those of former Labour cabinet ministers Harriet Harman and Ruth Kelly, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, all of whom sent their sons there.
The fact that this simple choice of school is national news is a little odd. As leader of the one of the parties in the coalition government, Clegg was seen as under pressure to choose a state school over a public (“Private” in the U.S.) school. He’s supposed to be a man of the people, from a more humble background — not some born-into-the-job old Etonian like the vast majority of the upper echelons of the Conservative party. It is also a matter of policy for his party, the Liberal Democrats. The party is committed to ending selection policy for faith schools when offering places to staff and students. It is widely know that many in the party oppose the very idea of faith schools.
All of that is of absolutely no interest to me, nor should it be to anyone else. It is a private decision to be made by the Clegg family. It does, however, present an opportunity to talk about the curious dynamic of multi-faith parenting, this time played out on a national scale. The school in question, London Oratory, is a Catholic school. It was a grammar school until the 1970s and only ended selection interviews in 2006. Nick Clegg’s wife, Miriam, is Catholic and in the past has confirmed that their children are being brought up as Catholics. Nick Clegg outed himself as an atheist years ago. I say outed; it wasn’t some big announcement. He’s always been an atheist — it’s just that no one had bothered to ask him about it until then. So, his children are being raised Catholic and they’re being sent to a Catholic school — no great surprise there.
First of all, the fact that it is a religious school doesn’t really count for an awful lot. Non-Catholics sending their children to Catholic schools is common practice in the UK. They are considered to offer a more community feel and higher standards of discipline and, therefore, results. I’ve heard of parents baptizing their children just to improve their chances of getting their little bundles of joy into the right school years down the line. I think this says more about the state of a secular state school education than it does about the types of people who would send their children into a religious school.
I don’t have children, but perhaps I will in the future. Will I insist on a secular education? Or will I be pragmatic if the best school in the area is a Catholic school? I think the overriding argument I hear from people in this situation is that they choose the best school and hope that the child is armed with enough spirit of free inquiry and enough of a sense of reason to choose for themselves what they believe.
Letting a child find their own way in the world is vitally important, but most are set against the fact that there are groups whose explicit or implicit goal is to indoctrinate that child into their way of thinking. Without a child of my own, it is impossible for me to say what I would do, and even more impossible for me to tell others what they should do. I can see how being in relationship with someone of another faith can work — I’ve been in a couple of them — but the introduction of a child into that equation must make it difficult. I suspect we’ll never know Nick Clegg’s thoughts, but it does raise interesting questions about how far atheists should reasonably go to impart their views of the world on their family.