Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Losing faith in schools

The proposal that new faith schools should admit a quarter of pupils from outside the school’s official religion means that things might get worse less quickly. It depends on how firm the rules turn out to be: if they’re just aspirational guidelines, then nothing much will happen; but if they’re rigid quotas that must be met, then they could well act as an obstacle to the creation of new faith schools.

Or we might be treated to the spectacle of religious families pretending to be atheists in order to sneak little Jimmy or Jamal into the godless 25% for schools that are over-subscribed. (How would you do that? Walk around carrying the latest Richard Dawkins under your arm? Set up a 24-hour Sabbath webcam, showing you lounging on the sofa and definitely not going out to pray? Take a bacon sarnie/can of lager/half-empty pack of condoms in when you go to meet the head?)

Certainly, taxpayer-funded schools should not close their doors to children from families lacking the right religion; that’s a fundamentally unfair piece of discrimination. To say that such children cannot go to their local state schools on these grounds shreds the principle of freedom of religion. Imagine if our taxes supported (for lack of a better phrase) ‘faith healers’ out of the NHS budget, who could turn away patients not holding the appropriate dogma. Not a great idea.

So if faith schools are publicly funded, they must be open to the public. Here, though, another question arises that can’t be answered by 25% infidel quotas. These schools are championed for their ‘ethos’: a character, attitude and outlook that draws on a school’s religion. But how do children not of that religion fit in? How do they understand their place in a school community whose defining feature excludes them? Now, I daresay talented and considerate staff can sensitively handle these cases, and students from the religious majority can be encouraged to accept the others as equals. And this may work, to a degree.

The question goes deeper, though. If a child need not partake of religion to benefit from and contribute to the school’s ethos and community, then what role is religion really playing? Is it necessary for instilling the common basics of right and wrong, social solidarity, responsibility and respect? The many successful secular comps give us the answer: of course not. Ethos and good education don’t require supernaturalism.

The role of religion in faith schools is primarily to produce believers – more specifically, to produce distinct groups of different believers.

But a case for allowing impressionable young minds to have an open, unbiased education can generalise beyond religion: I’d oppose atheist schools or Labour Party schools. While such institutions might share my beliefs, it’s simply not the job of a school to promote particular social, political or religious ideologies to children over and above a basic citizen’s ethic of common decency. The importance of teaching such an ethic is overwhelmingly agreed, but straying from it in any direction means that you’re no longer preparing children for leading their adult lives; you’re steering them towards leading lives like yours.

And then there’s the segregation issue. Outside Northern Ireland, this has only raised its head recently, with particular reference to Islamic schools. This can suggest that somehow Islam is ‘the problem’ here. But this is just an awkward fact of demographic change. In a relatively homogeneous society, some faith schools here and there are unlikely to cause many divisions. But nowadays, Britain is much more diverse – and better for it, I’d say. However, the very large overlap between religion and ethnicity means that faith schools are much more likely to be de facto race schools.

It’s true that people tend to cluster together on these grounds anyway, alas, and many comprehensives have become disproportionately mono-racial. But there’s no reason for education policy to push even harder in this direction. And this segregation isn’t specifically the fault of Muslims: ‘voluntary apartheid’ is a tango that takes two (or more).

People understand, I think, that when you build up your group as an ‘us’, there’s a risk that you turn others into a ‘them’. But what’s far less remarked-upon is that creating an ‘us’ makes you a ‘them’ in the eyes of others. The relevance here is that faith schools may well take care to educate their students in the ways of other religions and cultures; they may well strive to produce liberal, tolerant, open-minded children; they may even take a minority of children from outside the religion, so that the students can live diversity rather than just being told about it. But however such an individual school is run, its existence automatically affects other schools nearby.

Say a Sikh school is set up in a town with a significant Sikh minority, most of whom then decide to send their children there. Now, the neighbouring schools suddenly become almost completely Sikh-free. How can the pupils at those schools help but feel segregated from these children who would otherwise have been their classmates? The town’s Sikh community will come to be viewed from the outside as just that: a different community, separated by choice. They’ll become treated more and more as outsiders – a form of treatment that human nature will tend to reciprocate.

I think faith schools (state or private) are a bad thing, full stop – even if they gently promote rather than forcefully indoctrinate, even if they keep biology lessons based on science, even if they encourage pupils to find out about and respect other religions.

The idea that religious schooling is the best way to build communal spirit and inculcate good behaviour is really quite saddening. It shows a fundamental lack of faith in humanity: in our ability to accept and value each other without theological props, to build bonds of trust and respect without forming sectarian groups, to be, if you like, good for goodness’ sake.


The Labour Humanist said...

Very good post. This 25% thing is a total distraction. It is the ownership of the school and the content of its teaching that matters. 25% or no 25% they will still be teaching creationism, dragging their heels on citizenship and all sorts of other nonsense. Besides if your local school is given away to a religious group, that they might just allow you into what was your local school under some quota scheme is a complete insult.

Tom Freeman said...

Thank you.

It does puzzle me: if the problem is that faith schools are contributing to the creation of closed minority groups, then it's a bit of a rum approach to address this by creating new sub-minorities (the 25%) within these, rather than genuinely building bridges and completely opening up.