4:40 am - September 1st 2008
There are several phases in most campaigns for equality and social justice. First denial that there is any real problem, then attempts to ameliorate it, then an admission that something substantial needs to change, and finally (hopefully) some substantive action.
That is the reason for the launch today of Accord, a new coalition making the case make the case that every state school in Britain should be open to all, irrespective of differences in belief and background; that schools should be places where those whose paths might not otherwise cross learn how to listen to one another, learn together, value one another and build a common future together.
Accord is in some respects an unlikely coalition. In addition to a teaching union, a religious think-tank and a humanist organisation, its backers include secularists and Hindus, Christians and Jews, people of various faith backgrounds and none.
It counts amongst its individual supporters both philosopher AC Grayling, whose views on religion are trenchantly critical, and Christopher Rowland, who holds the major British university chair in biblical interpretation at the University of Oxford.
This diversity will increase in the coming weeks. It represents a growing awareness, backed up by a number of opinion polls, that if, as the government categorically says, “faith schools are here to stay” (Children’s minister, Kevin Brennan), then the regulations that currently guide them need changing in order to bring them into line with an overall schooling policy based on building bridges rather than barriers in local communities.
In particular, Accord is calling for non-discrimination in admissions and employment, a balanced curriculum, a common inspection regime and assemblies that reflect the whole community (rather than being based on compulsory worship).
The immediate response has indeed been denial, but in an interestingly contradictory way. The Faith Schools’ Providers Group, a network representing the interests of state-funded Church of England and Catholic schools (the great majority) plus Methodist, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu organisations, says that their schools do not discriminate and that they have “signed up to a shared vision for promoting community cohesion through schools with a religious character.”
On the other hand, Independent on Sunday columnist Melanie MacDonagh championed them by saying that discrimination is “what makes a faith school a faith school”! What she is referring to, and what the Faith Schools’ Providers are coyly sidestepping, is the reality that they are allowed by law to select pupils and staff on grounds of belief. Of course this does not happen in every case, and there are some notable examples of good practice among religiously sponsored schools. But that does not alter the fact that it happens in far too many cases – and this in schools which are overwhelmingly funded by the general taxpayer.
Accord is not a campaign that divides people into religious and non-religious boxes. Instead it is seeks to unite them, building a consensus for fairness focussed on practice and policy, rather than ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ faith schools ideology.
At present, the government seems inclined to interpret every concern expressed about faith schools as an expression of hostility, and every proposal for change as a threat to its intentions towards diversity.
Over time, the aim of the Accord coalition is to show that it is a positive vision of community schooling, not the defence of outmoded restrictions for the few, which points the real way forward in education.
You can support Accord here.
(Editor’s note: Sunny is also a signatory)
Simon Barrow is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is co-director of Ekklesia, a think tank looking at issues of religion in society from a radical Christian perspective. He is a writer, theologian, consultant and commentator and also blogs at FaithInSociety
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