No faith in faith schools

Why not get rid of the lot of them?

Marilyn Mason

Topics Politics

‘Do not make the admission policies of faith-based schools the scapegoats for all the ills in what should be a multicultural society.’

So said UK education secretary Estelle Morris during a heated debate in the House of Commons on 6 February 2002. Instead, she seems to be suggesting, we should allow faith schools to compound divisions within society by segregating children by faith.

Of course, we can’t blame schools for the fact that people live in racially segregated areas. Schools dominated by one race or faith are simply side-effects of wider social ills. But surely schools should offer a cure rather than an exacerbation of the symptoms of a divided society?

Events such as the 2001 race riots in northern cities in the UK, the terrorist attacks of 11 September, and ongoing demonstrations against Catholic schoolchildren and their parents in north Belfast highlight the importance of intercommunal understanding. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) recognises the folly of encouraging divisive religious schools – but seems incapable of scrapping faith schools or thinking creatively about alternatives.

Why not think the unthinkable and get rid of the lot of them, instead of using the anachronistic existence of state-funded Christian schools as a Trojan horse to bring in other kinds of religious schools? Why not make ordinary state schools truly inclusive of all faiths or none, by replacing their continuing ‘default Christianity’ by a common secular core, with religious observance as an option? No – all that ministers can come up with are statements and policies that try to persuade us that the worst effects of religious schools can be alleviated.

So the government claims that citizenship education is a potential cure-all – allowing children in their racial and religious ghetto schools to learn about each other and to become good citizens by learning about human rights, democracy, tolerance and harmony. But Estelle Morris, as an ex-teacher, ought to be more sceptical about learning by theory alone.

Another cunning government plan is that religious schools should have more inclusive admissions policies. But when former health secretary Frank Dobson proposed a mild amendment to the recent Education Bill demanding that religious schools reserve 25 percent of their places for those of other faiths and none, most ministers opposed him. The Church of England, in an striking volte face, is even asking for its schools to be compelled to be inclusive – but still the government isn’t taking up the invitation.

However, inclusion is a fudged solution to the problems of faith schools, and it won’t happen universally without compulsion: individual Church of England schools are opposed to the idea, as are Catholic, Muslim and Jewish schools. This is understandable – faith groups campaign for their own schools in order to serve their own communities, and any dilution of their intake defeats their purpose. And even when religious schools are open to including children from other faiths, it doesn’t always happen – the head of the Islamia Primary School in Brent, London told BBC News in December 2001 that, despite his desire to be inclusive, he had never had a single application from a non-Muslim.

Finally, the government keeps pushing the absurd idea of ‘school partnerships’ – schools getting together to promote interfaith harmony – without offering a vision for how this might happen. Generating real relationships and real understanding will involve getting whole school populations together on a regular basis. The odd debate or school play or social gathering between different faith schools won’t do it. And nor will the out-of-school activities that some community workers promote – parents who choose to segregate their children in school are hardly likely to encourage them to join multicultural youth clubs or Brownie packs outside school.

It is easy to plan and promise further inclusion and understanding between schools. Far harder to deliver these promises and for external agencies to monitor and enforce them. Once created, new faith schools will prove as difficult to get rid of as the old ones. What is needed is radical surgery – all we’re being offered is Elastoplast.

Marilyn Mason is education officer at the British Humanist Association, which is actively campaigning against the existence and expansion of religious schools.

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Topics Politics


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