We should face up to faith schools

4:40 am - September 1st 2008

by Simon Barrow    

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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)

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About the author
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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Reader comments

An odd coalition indeed. If faith schools are so good at evangelising for their faiths and discriminating against people of other faiths or none then why would the parents of other faiths want to send their kids there? Surely because the schools are often not very committed to evangelism and happen to be very good schools – the same reason that atheist and agnostic parents sometimes start attending church around admissions time.

If AC Grayling’s anti-clericalism is as trenchant as all that wouldn’t he be better off trying to improve secular schools so that parents do not feel obliged to send their kids to schools sponsored by faiths they do not share. Or is that a bit too much like hard work? Much easier shear the troublesome religious aspects away from existing good schools and hope that the quality of the school is unrelated to the religious character.

Many here would surely counsel caution when criticising failing schools lest the criticism make it still harder for the school to improve. I fail to see that it makes more sense to excoriate excellent schools over issues not directly related to education.

(I am of course aware that not all faith schools are excellent – but since we are talking here about improving the access that those of other faiths have to religious schools I think it is reasonable to assume that this group is mostly concerned with the ones that are)

Again the Left invents more problems as to distract from it’s glaring failure on education and the ugly effects of the comprehensive dream. We are failing badly as an economy and a society and you want to play the part of little latter-day emporer Neros.

We are failing badly as an economy and a society and you want to play the part of little latter-day emporer Neros.

failing as an economy AND a society? Bloody hell, talk about doom mongering. If you think things are that bad, why not emigrate instead of moaning?

Roger@3 – Wrong formulation. It is not true that we are failing in any absolute terms, but only that we are not succeeding to our full potential (and in many cases by a large extent).

Condemning apologists for our lack of success as malign do-nothings is largely inaccurate and it is counter-productive – you imply reactionary policies will solve the problems caused by current policy when they themselves the product of reaction to previous problems.

“(Editor’s note: Sunny is also a signatory)”

Err, how is that supposed to convince anyone?

Is there an age at which religion becomes safe to learn? Just wondering…

The point surely is not whether ‘Faith Schools’ are better or worse than the State schools but should they exist at all.

By their nature faith schools seek to instill a belief in something outside of any proven existance and then call that education! All schools should be secular (as in France) and if parents wish to pass on a belief in the super natural then they can do so out of school time. As a first step I would like to see State funding stopped and ultimately faith schools banned.

freethinkeruk – Well “the state” doesn’t really exist either.

Sure people dress up in uniforms and wear badges to indicate affiliation to it, and there is plenty of headed paper being sent round people’s houses that come from so-called state agencies. But if that were grounds for belief in an entity, then God has plenty of supposed affiliates and evidence of existence! I suppose some might argue that the state exists at least legally, but then so do “acts of God” which rather implies an entity.

So I would be happy to dispose of “faith schools” so long as we agreed to stop having these so-called “state schools” too. How much of a free thinker are you:)?

Come on now Nick, you don’t have to be a free thinker to know that ‘The State’ is an amalgam of various levels of governance arrived at over centuarys and constantly evolving for the welfare and maintenance of the whole of society and therefore exists.

‘Acts of God’ is (was) a phrase used in the main, by insurance companies, as a get out clause from paying out for lightening strikes and other exceptional but natural events. I believe this has now fallen into disuse.

But are you describing a real entity or the genealogy of an idea that the majority of people happen to hold? You can’t ever see these “various levels of governance”, but you can see plenty of people invoking its authority – just like God.

Freethinkeruk, the question of whether faith schools should or should not exist is precisely the point that this group does not address. My point is that the people who constitute this group seem to be people who might with greater honesty argue for the abolition of faith schools. Why would Jewish or Methodist parents or indeed AC Grayling be so keen on the right to send their kids to a Catholic school?

Presumably because they perceive these schools to be better than average and consider that the light touch indoctrination in Catholicism that their children may receive there is a small price to pay for their children receiving a better education.

Abolishing faith schools would sling the baby out with the bathwater and get rid of a swathe of good schools and Accord seems to know it.

Surely the question that Accord (and perhaps freethinkeruk) ought to be addressing is why it is that faith schools, taken as a group, are perceived to provide a better education. Once they have discovered the answer to that question they could argue rather less hypocritically for the replacement of faith schools with secular or pluralistic schools which recreate the same ethos by different means.

(Until that time opponents of faith schools can console themselves with the thought that a solid historical understanding of any of the major faiths which run schools in this country will open up the dominant source of metaphor and reference in the Western literary canon)

No hypocrisy George V, just a burning desire for equality and fairness. I agree entirely that faith schools have a better system (in general) than most state schools. They are usually smaller making for better social contact and their ethos leans more towards loving co-operation rather than competition. There is reason, other than dogma, that these attributes could not be easily incorporated into state schools.

I generalise I know but the parents of children at faith schools tend to be the better educated, the better off and know how to work the system to get their offspring a place. That is my main objection, it is unfair. My secondary objection is that in order to achieve the placement, parents will subject their children to, albeit light, religious indoctrination even though statistically they are unlikely to have a belief themselves.

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