EDUCATION BILL AND FAITH SCHOOLS
Concerns expressed in some quarters that the Bill will allow proliferation of softly regulated faith schools
In late 2001 there were a series of reports into the racial violence which had hit Burnley, Oldham and Bradford that summer . These reports highlighted the divisions between different ethnic communities. These communities lived what was in effect “parallel lives” was the conclusion. So not much of a surprise. Fear grew from ignorance about other communities and this was ruthlessly exploited by extremists. Northern Ireland’s troubles spring to mind. In the wake of the riots successive Government policies, of encouraging single-faith schools, were criticised for helping to create division and a barrier to integration. An independent review of the causes of the riots by senior civil servant, David Ritchie called for the establishment of mixed-race specialist schools which should act as beacon schools and for Faith schools to admit pupils of different faiths.
Across the water in Northern Ireland it has long been received wisdom that the sectarian strife which characterised the province from the early 1970s to late 1980s was caused in part , or at least exacerbated by, the existence of a schools system segregated almost entirely along religious lines. Catholic and Protestant children rarely mixed and were encouraged to develop separately, with all the obvious dangers and consequences that entailed. Cue, David Cameron’s 5 Feb ‘Munich’ speech on multi-culturalism, in which he blamed that policy for aiding extremism as it encourages communities to live separately in virtual ghettos. Cameron said “ Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.” But, as Phil Collins pointed out in the Times recently (Body and Soul- 8 February), the Free schools policy seems to encourage the establishment of more faith schools and therefore more separate development from a young age. If you educate pupils separately in exclusive faith schools which have significant autonomy, you could be, in effect, perpetuating the very same multi-cultural approach that was attacked by Cameron in his speech. Its not rocket science. It all doesn’t quite add up. There is a lack of coherence here. Last month seven of the ten applications for Free schools had a religious or spiritual connection . Among the approved applications are a school which teaches ‘consciousness-based education’ including ‘transcendental meditation’, an Islamic boys’ school, and a school run by a group set up by an ‘Ordained Minister of the Free Church’. Moreover, the Education Michael Gove has said that applications from creationist groups would be considered.
The Education Bill amends the Education and Inspections Act 2006 to require local authorities which think a new school needs to be established to seek proposals for the establishment of an Academy. In effect, this introduces a presumption that when local authorities set up new schools they will be Academies or ‘free schools’. The British Humanist Society expressed its concerns prior to the Second Reading Commons debate. It argued that the Bill will aid a proliferation in the setting up of ‘largely unregulated and unaccountable state-funded religious schools, state-funded religious Academies and free schools.’ Academies and free schools are particularly attractive not only to mainstream religious groups but also to minority groups it says. This is because they are largely unregulated , the BHA claims, and there is nothing to stop groups with even extreme agendas from applying to run these state-funded schools. The BHA alleges that Academies and free schools with a religious character are able to discriminate against students and parents in admissions, and against staff on the grounds of religion or belief. They can also opt out of the national curriculum and choose not to provide even the most basic sex education in biology or choose to teach creationism in science.
In addition, the National Secular Society says that according to their legal advice the Education Bill would allow a Muslim or Catholic school, for instance, to recruit entirely on religious grounds – thus threatening the jobs of existing staff.
There do appear to be some contradictions and uncertainties here, and it is hard to know where the Government will draw the line on faith schools. Catholic schools can avoid “unsympathetic meddling” by secularists if they take up the Government’s offer of academy status, according to the Education Secretary (Catholic Herald Interview). Hang on. It was meddlesome ‘secularists’ who exposed the abuse of young people by some priests in the Catholic church, wasnt it?. And we live in a secular society dont we?. Surely it is important to ensure that if taxpayers have to fork out for faith schools and subsidise faiths with which they don’t necessarily agree, they should have assurances that these schools promote mainstream values and foment integration. There is, we know, some evidence that some faith schools lack inclusivity and peddle fundamentalist views . In this context meddlesome secularists can surely be a force for good.
Free schools are about providing more choice for parents, encouraging their engagement and allowing more autonomy, which must be good. But there is a danger that the initiative might be hijacked by organised groups with an agenda that is both exclusive and sectarian.
Are Mormons, , Seventh Day Adventists and Scientologists in with a chance of establishing faith schools , financed by us benighted taxpayers , avoiding the attentions of meddlesome secularists, one wonders? Where does the Government draw the line ?