Britain’s Nick Clegg, an Atheist, Sends Eldest Child to Catholic School

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.

Nick Clegg (via The Telegraph)

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.

It’s fair to wonder what Nick Clegg thinks of this, though it’s really far from me, or anyone else for that matter, to demand to know.

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.

About Mark Turner

Mark Turner was born and raised as a Catholic in the North East of England, UK. He attended two Catholic schools between the ages of five and sixteen. A product of a moderate Catholic upbringing and an early passion for science first resulted in religious apathy and by mid-teens outright disbelief.


  • CottonBlimp

    I think Nick Clegg is just a sell-out in general. Wasn’t it his decision to maintain the clergy seats in the House of Lords?

    Despite being the leader of the supposedly Leftist party, he leads a coalition with the austerity-obsessed current Conservative prime minister. This has led to the Lib Dems being more unpopular than ever, which is probably the reason behind his doing shit like this, to pander to conservative voters.

  • Randomfactor

    Good way to produce an atheist.

  • Martin James Bridges

    That mendacious self-serving coward wouldn’t recognise a principle if it were paying his expenses.

  • beatonfam

    he may or may not be a sell out in regards to his politics. I don’t know, I don’t follow British politics. What I do know is that I am considering sending my oldest to a Jesuit boys high school near my parents’ house because it is one of the most academically rigorous high schools in the country. My parents happen to be Catholic, hubby and I are nones. Will he be attending some Catholic classes? Yes. He will have to learn how to politely agree to disagree. After the compulsory religion classes in the lower school, in the upper grades he wil have a choice of comparative world religion, ethics, philosophy and logics courses that rival some universities. Their motto of Men for Others is one I think can be embraced outside any particular religious bent. Most important, are their math and science offerings which could put him light years ahead in his preferred areas of study. Would I do this for all my kids? No. The prospect of sending him away to high school is very daunting. For this particular child and his particular academic needs, it just might be the right way to go. I don’t think this makes me a religious sell out. I would like to think it makes me a pragmatic parent.

  • CottonBlimp

    “Their motto of Men for Others is one I think can be embraced outside any particular religious bent.”
    Christ’s motto was “love thy neighbor”, and he was a racist who went around condemning people to hell.

    It’s a trifling matter to invent a platitude compared to actually following it.

  • Marco Conti

    Gesuit Schools are a much different breed than US style fundamentalist schools. If I had to speculate, I’d think you’ll find many more atheists among the Gesuits than in any other order. I personally knew at least two back when I lived in Rome. Established Gesuits intellectuals with PhDs that pretty much all but admitted to me they did not believe in god and certainly not in all the other nonsense.

    Of course, going from my anecdote to a wide generalization is wrong. I realize that, but every time I hear a Gesuit interviewed about science their answers are always very carefully coded.

  • DougI

    Maybe they’ll teach those Christian values like the war criminal Tony Blair learned.

  • Gus Snarp

    Jesus was a racist? I’d be curious to know what chapter and verse supports that.

  • gg

    I sent my two (now atheist) children to Catholic schools because they were the best around. My eldest decided he didn’t believe in gods after years of bible class in the school. He outed himself in class. The teacher agreed with his statement.

  • anataboga

    “Non-Catholics sending their children to Catholic schools is common practice in the UK.”

    Actually it’s quite unusual for non-Catholics to send their kids to a Catholic school (and so too with non-Muslims to a Muslim school or non-Jews to a Jewish school). It does happen but not anywhere near the scale of non-CofE sending their kids to CofE schools That is however mainly because a large minority of schools, particularly primary, are CofE affiliated (though the vast majority do not select on adherence) and often the only practical option.

  • CottonBlimp

    It’s the miracle of exorcising the Canaanite woman’s daughter, in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. While Jesus is performing miracles and exorcisms, a Canaanite woman approaches him and pleads for him to exorcise her daughter. Jesus refuses to even talk to her as she begs, until he finally snaps – he calls her a dog and says she’s unworthy of his miracles (this is explicitly because she’s a Canaanite). She responds that even dogs are worthy of scraps, which convinces Jesus to help her daughter.

    There is a lot of bullshit theological obtuseness about the passage (like with all the horrid shit in the Bible) but the message, that the Canaanites are a lesser people who should learn their place, is pretty fucking clear.

    It’s especially horrid given the history of the Jews and the Canaanites; this is an ethnic rivalry and a very old hatred dating back to nearly the beginning of Judaism. Some of the horrors of that hatred are explicitly spelled out in the Bible, and some are more euphemistic. For example, did you know the Canaanites worshipped a god named Baal who took the form of a golden calf? So when, for example, Moses executes thousands of Jews for worshipping a golden calf, we can make a pretty good guess as to what that’s actually referencing.

  • tubi

    I would do everything I could to improve the state of public(US) education options instead of subjecting my kids to an indoctrination camp like that. As it happens, I have a 5 year old and an 8 year old in the state-run school now, and I volunteer with the PTO and the district’s Legislative Action Team to work with the legislature to ensure sufficient funding for all schools in the state. I also serve on the district’s committee to provide citizen input on curriculum issues.

    I sincerely hope Mr Clegg’s son doesn’t get buggered one day after class. Not that it doesn’t happen in secular schools, just seems more likely at a Catholic one.

  • Gus Snarp

    Thanks. That’s really one of those hidden gems, isn’t it?

  • CottonBlimp

    I’ll say! I think they have good reason for hiding it.

    It’s just another example of how little our modern, Western Jesus has to do with the Jesus of the Bible.

  • Bob Becker

    Ah, guys, there are circumstances where Catholic schools provide hands down, no question about, the best education locally available, especially compared to local public schools. In such a situation, I’d not hesitate to put a child of mine in the parochial school. Asking someone to make a political statement with his child by putting him in a bad public school rather than a good parochial school is asking too much. My kid’s education would come first for me. Every time.

    Before anyone asks, none of my children attended parochial school ( nor did I), but one was on the application list for a Catholic school and would have gone had his name not come up in the lottery for the magnet school in the district. The alternative public school option was not acceptable.

  • Gus Snarp

    I can’t fault you for that, but it’s also the root of the problem with public schools.I would like to say my kids will go to public schools no matter what, but honestly if they don’t get into the magnet high school that probably won’t be the case, unless we move.

  • Rovin’ Rockhound

    I spent 12 years in a Jesuit, all-girls Catholic school. My parents said they sent me there because it was the best school around (I did come out very well prepared) and to “teach me morals” (that part annoys me). I thought the school had been pretty harmless and I did become an atheist, but I’m finding that a lot of the “morals” that we were taught (about sex, equality, women’s place in the world, their worth compared to men, other religious) are exactly the same as those taught to girls in fundamentalist evangelical churches, that we all openly deplore. On the outside they were all nice and liberal, all about “girl power”, but deep down the brainwashing was exactly the same and just as harmful.

  • Clarinet Box

    I went to this school in the late 80′s. It was far from posh. They make you study hard(left in my second year ha). What I enjoyed were the comparative religion studies which really kick started my ‘They can’t all be right’ path to atheism. I also remember a teacher who would let you get away with anything if you said ‘Sorry, the devil made me do it’, not all teachers were like that. My parents weren’t politicians or rich in any way, I just did well on the entrance exam and had a good reference from the local priest.

    I think Cleggs choice is in the public interest. It raises further concerns, after the student fees debacle, over the lib dems stand on education. Are we in this together? No, I’m alright Jack.

  • Emmet

    Please don’t send your kids to Catholic schools if you’re not going to bring them up Catholic. It’s really annoying for the school and especially for Religion teachers there. You generally have to sign something that says you’ll support the school’s ethos – I’m sure you wouldn’t sign something you didn’t intend to do? You’re good without god right? Good people don’t lie.

  • beatonfam

    That would depend upon the Catholic school. Mine was run by some very liberal nuns. We had several girls of Hindi descent attend for the academics. Though none of my religion teachers ever professed to being anything other than Catholic, the did teach sex ed, including birth control and condoms right next to the rhythm method because, to quote the good Sister, “you cannot make a truly informed choice without being informed.” Our brother school was the Jesuits.

  • beatonfam

    Are there people who say Men for others or Love they neighbor but do not act on it, sure–across all faiths too. No one religion has the monopoly on jerks. What I was trying to say is that though they might mean it in a religious sense, the concept of giving back to society can and should reach across philosophical boundaries. We do not need to share religious beliefs to act together to improve the world. I can think of worse things for my son to be taught than that he has been gifted with intellect and education and he should use them for the greater benefit of society.

  • Michael

    I just wish Cameron would get on with admitting he’s an atheist.

    He’s already stood in front of the lords spiritual and told them that he doesn’t see how a man who died 2,000 years ago can hear you when you pray.

  • Georgina

    On the other hand, the only private schools in Austria are all catholic. At one time the only schools with any afternoon attendance were all catholic, private schools. All the secular schools assumed that the children’s mothers were full time housekeepers.

    So this atheist sent her daughter to a catholic school for 5 years: less indoctrination, more inoculation.

    When compared to the beautifully illustrated books of Greek myths, the handsome Norse and Roman gods, the glories of evolution and natural science, most religious books do not stand a chance.

  • Georgina

    Not all schools, or all religion teachers. My daughters informed me that she loves the challenge of converting children and ‘bringing them into the fold’.
    The fact that my daughter remained an atheist was not from her lack of trying.

  • Karen

    36 years after graduating from Catholic high school, I’ve taken up donating to the school’s scholarship program. It’s a girl’s school run by a bunch of liberal nuns who specialize in producing well-educated feminist pseudo-humanists. Seems like a worthwhile endeavor to me.

  • CottonBlimp

    I don’t know anything about the school, so I can’t talk about it specifically. *In general*, though, every genuinely moral teaching is degraded when it’s separated from a secular underpinning.

    Because it’s important to question moral authorities, so you can tell the difference between good teachings and bad ones.
    Because understanding the logical reasoning behind a moral teaching helps show how best to follow it.
    And because, similar to the points above, when you divorce morality from the observable effects of our decisions, you can completely corrupt those moral ideas. Someone could teach you you’re fighting AIDS by banning condoms, or that you’re loving gays by kicking them out of your church (not that Catholics would ever do THAT).

    It’s not like I can claim he’ll get a superior moral education in a secular state or private school. Just want to acknowledge that even some birds can parrot nice-sounding phrases without any need to understand them.

  • Randay

    Just when National Grammar Day passed a few days ago, I see you write, “even more impossible”. How can you have degrees of “impossible”? Ok, I know the American forefathers wrote “to form a more perfect union”. My guess is that it had better rhythm and sounded better. It appears to me that the Catholic schools didn’t teach English so well.

  • Gus Snarp

    I don’t like the idea of private schools, and would avoid using them generally, but if I felt the need to send my kids to private school, I would certainly consider sending them to Catholic school, especially a Jesuit school. But I don’t think I would do it for primary school. At the high school level, I would be fine with it, but I can’t imagine sending a kindergartener or first grader in to that snake den to be indoctrinated daily with religious lies. I just don’t think they’re ready to deal with that, and it could be psychologically damaging. But once they’ve learned to think for themselves, evaluate claims, differentiate truth from fiction, and realize that adults can be wrong, a Catholic high school could provide a rigorous education and an opportunity to learn how to shred religious apologists.

    Just the other night I was listening to a discussion of some Biblical point and whether it was historically accurate and I imagined raising a child to be bilingual from early childhood in English and ancient Greek or Hebrew, then sending them to the best Catholic school and making sure they study Greek, Latin, and the classics as well as all the religion and history classes they can, while sending them to Hebrew school in the afternoons, supplemented with some free thought discussions at home and summers at Camp Quest, then if they continued to be interested they could major in Classics and religion in college and ultimately become the greatest debunker of religious and historical claims around. Then I realized that, just from my perspective, religion just isn’t worth putting that kind of time and effort into, even to debunk it. But still, a good, skeptical atheist can be forged in a religious school.

  • Sindigo

    I don’t know about that. I know quite a few people who have either sent their kids to Catholic schools or attended Catholic schools despite being non-religious or Anglican.