Faith schools – so their opponents argue – are divisive, retrograde, narrow, insular, hostile to science and the critical mind, unable to teach their pupils tolerance, and fundamentally opposed to the values of a free society. These claims are not made lightly, nor should they be lightly dismissed.

But if they are true, there is an obvious question. Why do so many parents want to send their children to such schools? Do they passionately want their children to be narrow and insular? Is their deepest ambition to raise offspring who will have no truck with tolerance? Do they secretly long for the next generation to lead society boldly back to the Middle Ages? Maybe there are such people, but I haven’t met one yet.

Here is the paradox. We are living in what is possibly the most secular age since Homo sapiens first set foot on earth, and Europe is its most secular continent. Yet faith schools are the growth industry of our time. More and more people want them, and are prepared to go to great lengths to get their children admitted. This applies to parents who are not themselves religious. What is going on?

The simple answer is that faith schools tend to have academic success above the average: so, at any rate, the league tables suggest. But why should this be so, if faith inhibits critical thought and discourages independence of mind? This is a question worth serious reflection.

My tentative suggestion is that faith schools tend to have a strong ethos that emphasizes respect for authority, the virtues of hard work, discipline and a sense of duty, a commitment to high ideals, a willingness to learn, a sense of social responsibility, a preference for earned self-respect rather than unearned self-esteem, and the idea of an objective moral order that transcends subjective personal preference.

The parents I meet worry about the breakdown of discipline in many schools. They read about violence and drugs, promiscuity and teenage pregnancy, dysfunctional families and feral teenagers. They are concerned about the sheer numbers of children who leave school without the most basic skills of numeracy and literacy. They recall the 2007 UNICEF report that found that British children were the most unhappy in the developed world. They sense that something is going wrong and they don’t want to expose their children to that kind of risk.

These phenomena are not the fault of schools. To the contrary, they are the result of our culture as a whole, to which children are exposed through television, video games, the Internet and the sheer materialism and shallowness of contemporary society. The parents may not be religious themselves – often they aren’t – but they sense that faith schools preserve values, disciplines and habits of the heart that are elsewhere being lost.

I say this tentatively. I may be wrong. Of one thing I am convinced, that all schools and teachers are trying their hardest, but they often feel desperately unsupported by parents, the local community and the media. How can they mend what they did not break in the first place? Too often we expect schools to do the impossible. Teachers deserve our highest respect. They are the guardians of our civilization, the trustees of our collective future.

But just as – in the words of the African saying – it takes a village to raise a child, so it takes a community to sustain a school, and communities are hard to find these days. A community is held together by shared beliefs, traditions, rituals, stories, conventions and codes: the regular enactments of a sense of shared belonging. Communities last longer than any individual, so they preserve a respect for the past and responsibility toward the future. Nowadays it’s hard to find a genuine community outside the world of faith. Lifestyle enclaves, fanclubs, and virtual networks linked by Twitter and Facebook, yes; face-to-face communitas no.

So it may not be the faith in faith schools that makes them different, so much as the communities that build, support and sustain them. But this fact too should give us pause for thought. For is this not one of the great functions of faith, that it preserves values and institutions that would otherwise be swept away by the tide of time? One way or another, the critics should reflect on this simple question. If faith schools are so bad, why do thoughtful, often secular, parents think they are so good?

(First published in The Times)

This article was initially published by the Office of Rabbi Sacks. Please click here to view the original article. To find more from Rabbi Sacks, please visit www.rabbisacks.org