Choosing the right primary school (when you are an atheist)

It’s that time of year when parents all over the country are visiting primary schools so they can choose the right one for their child to attend next year. It feels like Toby only just turned three (well it was only in July) but it’s really not that long until he’ll be starting reception. But how do we go about choosing the right primary school?

choosing the right primary school when you are an atheist

We only moved to this area in the summer and part of the reason we moved from Scotland when we did was so that we would be here before we needed to apply for Toby’s primary school place. In Scotland the system is totally different. When a child starts school depends on how old they are at the end of February. With Toby being a summer baby if we had stayed in Scotland he wouldn’t start school until he was five but here he’ll only just be four. And Gabe will only have been four for two weeks when he starts school but we have a couple more years before we need to worry about that!

We have moved to quite a small town but there are quite a lot of primary schools here. Realistically though there are only a few that we would consider, and that Toby has a chance of getting into. To be honest I don’t really understand the big panic a lot of parents have about choosing the right school. Perhaps it depends on where you live but round here there aren’t really any bad schools, they all follow the same curriculum and I would probably be happy for Toby (and eventually Gabe) to go to any of them…but for one thing. And is one thing that is really concerning me about this whole process.

All but one of the schools in our town is a church school. There are two catholic schools near by and the rest are Church of England schools. Our nearest school is a ten minute walk away and it is one of the C of E schools. And yet we are atheists. I do not believe in any kind of god but I certainly don’t have any issue with those that do. What I do have an issue with is my children going to a school where they will have to go to church every week and where they will be taught Christianity as fact.

We went to the open days of the non-church school and our catchment C of E school a few weeks ago. Both schools had positive and negative points but overall we preferred the non-church school. It isn’t within walking distance but if I am back at work by next year (which I hope to be) then the chances are we wouldn’t be able to walk to school anyway. The only real problem with this school is that it is over-subscribed, we live at the other end of town, and it is unlikely that Toby will get in.

I feel quite strongly about this – I really think we should have the option to send our children to a non-church school if we choose, but I did wonder if I was making it more of an issue than it needed to be. So I asked some of my fellow bloggers if they had sent their children to church schools, even if they weren’t religious themselves and this is what they had to say…

Quite a lot of the bloggers I asked didn’t have a problem sending their children to church schools, even if the aren’t religious themselves, or follow a different religion.

I don’t see any harm its not like it’s rammed down their throat that they must believe in God. I’ve found its more to do with the values of the school.

Tammy, Mummy of 2 +1 

I am a child of atheist parents who attended C of E schools and don’t remember any home/school conflict at all! I just grew up knowing that’s what Christians believe and that I didn’t have to be one but I could be if I wanted to. I think as long as that message is clear it probably doesn’t matter where you send them.

Amy, 2boys1mum

We have sent all of ours to the same C of E primary school although neither of us are religious … I have not found it too overpowering and each of the children know their own minds on the subject.

Mandi, Hex Mum

Even non-church schools have to include a “daily act of worship”, which is generally Christian in nature, so even though my kids don’t go to a church school they still get taught a lot of religious stuff at school. We have conversations at home about how different people believe different things, and encourage them to make their own decisions about what they believe.

Ruth, geekmummy

I think if you feel strongly against religion then a faith school probably isn’t for you, if you’re ambivalent and other factors are more important (mine were proximity to home, the other children attending that we knew and general ‘feel’ of the school) them give it a chance.

Pippa, Red Rose Mummy

I taught in a non church school and we still had to include daily collective worship. It’s also part of the curriculum to learn about other faiths and cultures and of course religious festivals are celebrated such as Easter and Christmas. I often explained to my class using terms such as ‘Christians believe/celebrate’, ‘Muslims believe/celebrate’. I think it is important for our children to understand and respect different beliefs without saying ‘this one is right, this one is wrong’. Personally I am much more interested in the standard and style of teaching, the provision, resources and opportunities available [than whether it’s a church school or not].

Sarah, Arthurwears

We’re Muslim and Z goes to a C of E school. The only difference is that we don’t believe Jesus is the son of God. He’s one of the greatest prophets in Islam and so I was happy with our choice. We pointed out to Z that difference and his reaction was “oh ok!” And that’s it! They cover all faiths but Christianity the most which is fine. They do prayers every day and lots of stories from the Bible (all the famous ones). They’re always told with a good moral behind them so they’re mostly just learning to be kind and compassionate.

Taslim, Not My Year Off

My children attend a C of E school and we are not religious in the slightest. My girls happily learn about religion. they are taught all religions and they know my opinion on it all. They know that it is their choice as to what they believe.

Chantelle, Mama Mummy Mum

As someone of firm faith who has worked within both systems, I’ll be happy to send my child to any school, provided the school’s ethos resonates with my family’s values.

Mo, Adventures of a Novice Mum

I’m not religious but taught for several years at a C of E school and absolutely loved it there. I would love them to go to a church school because I found the ethos was absolutely lovely and there was a much greater community sense than in the non-faith schools I’ve worked in.

Rachel, Coffee Cake Kids

But there were also quite few bloggers who have similar opinions to me on the matter…

Syd goes to a supposedly non religious school. They still pray daily and have been to church at Christmas and Easter. It annoyed me no end as we chose the school specifically because it wasn’t religious. We love the school overall, and I’d never move her now but my initial decision may have been different if I’d known then what I know now.

Tina, MotherGeek

I’m with you. We have lots of religious schools in our town, with strong links to their churches, and it was a big issue for me as I am strongly atheist, and as a secularist I do not believe in state funded religious schools.
I was concerned about her learning religion as fact, but also about myself not feeling I could fully engage with the school community. I also didn’t relish the idea of me contradicting what she may learn in school, but thankfully, we got into a secular primary.

Simon, Man vs. Pink

We didn’t look at or apply to any religious schools, my strong atheist, brought up catholic, hated catholic school boyfriend was very firm on that one! And yet our next best option was a non-secular academy run by a Christian organisation. It took me a good while to get over that contradiction, but since he’s started school my opinion has improved and I’ve realised my objection lies more with government and education rather than with the school itself. In an area with a lot of religious schools, I did find the lack of choice frustrating when we were applying for schools.

Chloë, Sorry About The Mess

We’ve gone backwards and forwards about what the best thing to do is; whatever we decide to do we will need to put at least one if not two church schools on the application. Barry doesn’t have so much of an issue with the church thing as I do, the church school is nearer and has better outdoor space but it still doesn’t sit right with me sending the boys to a church school when we are non-believers.

In the end we have decided to put the non-church school as our first choice and two C of E schools in second and third. Realistically though I know it is very unlikely we will get in our first choice as we live too far away and it is over-subscribed. But you never know, and by putting it first is the only way we will find out. I’m kind of resigned to the fact the boys will end up in our nearest school which is one of the church schools. And I’m just going to have to work out a way to deal with that.

**UPDATE – After writing this post Toby was indeed offered a place at the C of E school near our house. He’s now in Year 1 and there are still some aspects of him being at a church school that we aren’t happy with. Generally though we just continue to tell him that he is free to decide what he wants to believe in but that mummy and daddy think that it is all just stories. It wasn’t our first choice but we are making it work, we had to really.


Did you send your children to a faith school even if you aren’t religious yourselves? I would love to hear some more positive stories to help me stop worrying about it…

Lots of things can influence your choice of primary school, and religion may be one of them. We found it difficult to choose a primary school as atheists when most of our options were church schools. Find out what we and other parents think about church schools, especially when you are an atheist.

4 thoughts on “Choosing the right primary school (when you are an atheist)

  1. You included me 🙂 I hope you do get your first choice. It’s such a big decision and I completely agree about how you should have the option of not having to send them to a religious school. It’s a bit odd how the system works isn’t it? And each area seems to be so different. Weirdly, our CoE would only accept kids from families that believe in God (and we actually had to fill out a form to confirm it!)

  2. I moved my son to a C of E Primary school this February in preparation for year 3 in September. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of why a move mid year, the long and short of it was that he was at an infant school, and it was where we wanted him to go for juniors.

    My husband is a Roman Catholic raised atheist, I am a non church going protestant. The fact it was a faith school did have an influence on our decision but NOT because of my faith or my husband’s lack of it. Our perspective is a different one. Our son has High Functioning Autisitic Spectrum Disorder. He’s autistic for short. So picking the RIGHT school was much more of critical decision for him. It could literally make or break his engagement with education.

    Of all the schools I went round, it was far and away the best fit in terms of dealing with his additional needs, and the way they handle the curriculum in general suited us best. So it was a no brainer it was where I should fight for a place for him. But the fact its a faith school brought added benefits in our mind. He would be taught why we celebrate Christmas and Easter etc in a way that took a step back from the modern commercialism of modern times. Because the religious side of the curriculum is taught very gently he would be provided with the information needed to make up his own mind going forward whether he has any faith. I have always wanted him to have the exposure to the church, but given his autism and issues with loud noises, going to church was not happening. Organs in old church buildings would make for a very unhappy boy.

    But the biggest by far consideration of why a faith school is better for him than secular is that they actively teach ‘christian values’. Honest, generosity, kindness, friendship etc etc the list goes on. To most that probably would raise a shrug, but take away ‘christian’ from that title and basically its all the various moral values we would all like our children to have. But because he is autistic, he simply does not understand. All of this is an amorphous grey area of confusion. He gets to have discussions about these values, what is good behaviour and why in his day to day education. And while secular schools strive for these things in their pupils, they do not actively TEACH them. To get this side of his education he would need special funding for support etc which he is deemed as too high functioning to be able to apply for. In short, a faith school provides a better baseline support for his emotional support needs than a secular one does. And was definitely a part of why we chose the school. And it was a definite we. It was my husband’s first choice by a long shot.

    Now he’s been there a while I can honestly say it was the best decision we ever made. He’s thriving academically, but developing emotionally and socially so much better than he was in infants, and it was noticeable in less than half a term. He’s incredibly happy there, the children there are an amazing bunch of children, and are all taking to him and his quirks with kindness, acceptance and friendship. He hasn’t shown the least interest in church or god if I am honest since he moved there in February, and I frankly doubt he ever will. But I feel he at least has the information he needs to make his own decisions, so he never feels I am pushing my views on him.

    I hope that gives a different perspective.

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