Opposition to faith schools

The Guardian today published the results of a telephone poll conducted on its behalf by poll agency ICM, showing that two thirds of their interviewees oppose government funding for faith-based schools, which are, as their report mentions, “a central plank of the government’s education reforms designed to increase parental choice”. The report was a major topic of discussion on the Geoff Schumann show on the BBC’s London station this morning, which naturally included an interview with some guy from the National Secular Society.

There is, of course, an obvious problem with this poll, namely the difficulty in gathering a sufficiently representative microcosm of adult British society in just 1,006 people. Then there is the small matter of how significant a finding from such a tiny sample can be, and how responsible it is to publish it given the debate it might prompt and what may flow from it.

The discussion in any case centred around the usual, tired argument: that religious schools promote division in society. At least the “Northern Ireland card” wasn’t played - the spurious argument that religious schools, multiculturalism or whatever will lead to a similar situation here, when in fact that situation was caused by the plantation of Scottish Protestant settlers who then became a favoured class. Of course, a lot of people have had bad experience with religious schools - myself included - but then plenty of people have had similar experiences with secular schools - myself also included. The types of teachers sister Safiyyah recently alluded to exist in secular schools as well. We’ve all heard the infamous stories about the abuses in the Catholic church-state complex in mid-20th century Ireland, but others’ experiences with religious schooling, including convents, have been positive.

The argument about the division generated by religious schools does not take into account the interaction which goes on between people of different religions outside schools. If the parents work with people outside the religious or school community, or have any extra-curricular activities, friendships are likely to be formed through such links. It’s not true that we have to sit in class with people of other faiths to know and understand them (and at a very young age, children’s limited understanding of their respective religions may lead to crude and confusing exchanges between them).

It’s also a false idea that this division can lead to extremism or terrorism. None of the terrorists which have so far come to light were products of Islamic schools, and a major factor in the riots of a couple of years ago was not Islamic schools, but bad ghetto schools which just happened to be predominantly Asian. Given that these areas are predominantly Asian and Muslim, a definite Islamic ethos would be a definite improvement on the situation we have in some places now. It’s certainly possible to devise an Islamic curriculum which takes care of their moral education while teaching the children and (especially) youths concerned how to be productive members of society.

Besides which, like those who object, we too pay for our children’s education in our taxes, which are substantial - perhaps lower than in some continental countries, but still high by, say, American standards. Our children’s education is our return on our tax money. I object to having to pay for schools which my neighbours may find acceptable, but which mess up my children by exposing them to indecent language and behaviour and bullying. We live, at the end of the day, in a representative democracy - a moderated democracy in which our representatives are not supposed to allow a “two wolves and a sheep” scenario in which a greater group is able to rob or otherwise oppress a smaller group.

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