Faith schools: Ulster card played yet again

In the edition of the New Statesman before last (19th Sept 2005), Nick Cohen had an article published in which he questioned the religion and religiosity figures in the 2001 census and called for the state to abandon its commitment to faith schools. The position is one Cohen is well-known for. The chief issue I took with it is that once again, he trotted out the theme of Northern Ireland. I had pretty much stopped working on it as I didn’t have time to finish it and meanwhile another issue of the NS came out. He repeated the tired old claim in today’s Observer, however (third section down, “New Labour’s poisonous legacy”), and there’s an approving article on the topic at Harry’s Place. That’s why I’ve decided to resurrect the piece.

Why do we have faith schools at all? Why aren’t state schools in this country all secular, as in France for example? The reason is that this country has never had a revolution; the state of affairs today is that we have a democracy and an established church, in which state and church (and other religious institutions) have some co-operation but the church does not dictate matters. Church organisations have a long history of providing education, something which has been allowed to continue in the form of volunary-aided state schools. The alternative is the situation in France, where “secularism” has been the excuse for a malicious policy to deny education to Muslim girls who dress as their religion and culture dictates.

Cohen invokes Northern Ireland to justify abolishing state-aided religious schools. To quote his NS article from the week before last:

Respecting difference sounds and often is admirable, but it will lead to a liberal apartheid that separates Christians, Muslims, Jews and Sikhs. How any British government can contemplate segregated schools after 30 years of an Irish conflict in which you could guarantee that every IRA bomber had been to a Catholic school and every UVF sniper had been to a Protestant one is beyond me, but there you are, this one is.

In today’s Observer, he predicts that extending the current system of faith schools will cause the segregation of society here:

More importantly, what is true in England won’t be true in the future. There are no legal or moral grounds for denying Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus faith schools of their own. Indeed, 150 Islamic schools are on the way and more will follow. When they arrive, British education will be divided along lines of religion and race, the two most toxic causes of strife on the planet.

The obvious problem is that it totally ignores the history of Northern Ireland and why the two sides are in conflict there when the different communities are not, at the moment, in this country. The difference is that there has been no Plantation in England. There has been no instance of a whole community being planted in land belonging to another community for strategic reasons. Yes, the two sides divide more or less neatly along religious lines, but the situation is the result of politics - one side trying to build a homeland the other feared would become a reactionary religious state (which it did), the other seeking to free their own country from domination by a planted minority. Religious schools did not bring this about, and I find it difficult to believe that religious schools alone will do the same here; after all, they have existed as long as the British educational system, and have not brought about sectarian division yet.

In my time at school I experienced both religious and secular education. I attended three Catholic schools in south London (St Mary’s infants’ and juniors’ in Croydon, Thomas More in Purley), I can vouch for these schools (one of them being pretty reactionary) never teaching us sectarianism. We were never taught to hate Protestants, let alone people of any other faith; the schools also had much diversity, as the Catholic community in Croydon includes a considerable number of African and Indian people (mostly Portuguese colonies). Apart from one incident at the juniors’ where boys kept chanting “your dad’s a vicar” at me in the playground, which I didn’t understand, I don’t remember anything saying untoward about my dad not being a Catholic. (On a later occasion, my sister was rejected by a well-known local convent school which, research showed, rejected an awful lot of the daughters of mixed marriages. The same school also rejected a girl with mild cerebral palsy who walked with crutches, on the grounds that she might have difficulty in the corridors between lessons with all those girls running, or some silly excuse like that.) And my main secondary school was not religious (at least, not by affiliation), and was a dump, as I’ve mentioned here in the past.

I find the arguments advanced at Harry’s Place similarly unconvincing. The first is that parents’ right to withdraw their children from assembly, which must include an “act of worship” of a “broadly Christian” nature as mandated by the Education Reform Act of 1988, “publicly [marks] them out as non-believers”, and “parents who do not believe in God at all are left wholly in the lurch”. “The solution, surely, is to take religion out of schools altogether.” But if a school is secular, or neutral, I do not see why teachers should be expected to conduct a Christian act of worship. Perhaps they might relate moral tales from different traditions, including religious ones. This hasn’t much to do with not allowing religious schools at all.

A valid argument David T advances is that it encourages hypocrisy:

I know a number of people who have been so desperate to get their children into the local faith school, which happened to be the best school out of the ones available, that they spent every Sunday in church, despite not believing in God. I know one woman - a catholic married to a muslim - who takes her family to a church where the priest takes a register of attendence which is then handed to the school before the admissions decision is made. It is generally understood that if you start to miss services, your child will not get in. The woman in question works extremely long hours, and has her Sunday destroyed by the need to spend the morning genuflecting. This is pretty rich: considering that she has already funded the school through the tax which she pays.

Fair enough: she pays her taxes, and is entitled to expect that her child will get a decent education without having to feign religious devotion to please the people who control the only decent local school. Surely the problem here is that the non-faith-based school happens to be a dump, and something needs to be done to improve it, rather than break up what may be a working and productive school community. The people in that community, after all, pay their taxes as well, and if you integrate a good school with a dump, you may well end up with one big dump.

This argument, however, is less valid:

Moreover, those who involve themselves in religious politics and who therefore have an important say in the schools run by their faith are often at the more extreme end of the religious spectrum. They are, after all, people in whose lives religion plays a central role. Bringing these sorts of people into partnership with the state, and giving them public money to play with is not, in my view, a particularly sensible idea.

This is, from my limited experience at one Muslim school in London, not necessarily so; I do not recall meeting a single staff member from any of the well-known political fundamentalist groups at the Islamic school at which I briefly worked in early 2000 or 2001 (I can’t quite remember which year it was). The headmaster and the imam, in particular, were both of decidedly Sufi inclination. People involved in religious education do tend to be more serious about their religion, but it does not necessarily follow that they will inculcate sectarianism or abuse the children. Even at my boarding school, our religious education teacher who was obviously serious about her religion (she also taught drama, and I remember her stopping a play because someone exclaimed “Christ!”) never told us the denomination to which she belonged or which one we should belong to.

Parents from religious backgrounds are often more interested in the religious and moral education these schools offer than simply their exam statistics; besides being given religious education by a trained professional who could possibly articulate it better than the parents could, they would be in an environment where the prevailing manners and values are the same as those to be found at home. Parents don’t really want to throw their children into a big melting pot at an age when they perhaps couldn’t deal with what they see or hear. The behaviour of some teachers now is shocking to some Muslim parents I’ve met; they don’t want their kids seeing their teachers’ underwear, thank you very much.

In the final analysis, we have to recognise that there is no panacea that guarantees a good education for everyone. If we mix everyone up together, the bad will drag the good down and those with special problems will not be catered for. If we allow different groups to establish their own schools and assist them with funding, as we already do, it’s possible that some will be denied the advancement that these schools offer. (Not all religious schools are in fact centres of excellence, but that’s a whole other topic.) Perhaps the voucher scheme David T suggests, which has been advanced here in the past as well, is a good solution.

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