Education’s Conundrum: How does the ethos of faith schools and academies square with British values?

20 Apr

In England, we have a conundrum at education’s heart in England, according to Clare Foges, former speech writer of David Cameron.   Prime Minister Theresa May wants children to be taught British values while at the same time encourages segregation, by allowing the proliferation of faith schools.

I        Background to the creation of faith schools/academies

A considerable number of the 24,000 state schools and academies in the country already belong to one faith or another.    State-funded faith schools were established by Rab Butler, the Conservative Secretary for Education, in 1944.  At that time, the Church of England educated 20% of children and Roman Catholic Diocese 8% funding the education through fees and/or religious subsidies.    Several faith schools were in a state of disrepair.  Following difficult negotiations during the Second World War, they became state funded but the religious bodies continued to control their admission arrangements.  The plans to convert them into state schools gestated for nearly four years, in the run-up to the Education Act 1944.

The freedom given to the Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants to semi-control their own schools was later extended to the Jewish community and, following the influx of East African (South-East) Asians (who had dual citizenship) into the country in late 1960s and early 1970s, Muslim, Hindus and Sikh schools began to mushroom.

The two main providers of faith schools today are the Church of England and the Catholic Education Service.   There are various state-funded institutions, including voluntary aided, voluntary controlled and faith academies.  In 2014, roughly 22% of state schools/academies in the country were faith institutions – about 6,210 altogether. Broken down by religion, their numbers in 2014 were as follows.

  • 4,395 Church of England
  • 1,661 Roman Catholic
  • 36 Jewish
  • 9 Muslim
  • 5 Sikh

These numbers mask additional ones established under the Free Schools scheme.  They opened over the last few years and are permitted to take up to 50% of pupils belonging to the faiths that the founders espouse.

Several faith schools are high-performing.  However, many in the country (and it’s not just the humanists) have taken issue with the proliferation of faith schools.   Politicians and parents have raised questioning eyebrows about the alleged divisiveness they promote based on suspect admissions policies.

State funded faith schools (albeit not faith academies) must follow the national curriculum.    However, they are free to teach pupils Religious Education of their distinctive faiths.   While Ofsted inspects their secular work, they have their own cadres of inspectors to scrutinise Religious education.

II       Radicalisation and The Prevent Strategy

Religion has radicalised several of our young people, particularly those who espouse the extremism promoted by Isis.   The difficulty with religion is the idea of received wisdom and divine revelation, something akin to St Paul’s blinding experience on the Road to Damascus, when he claimed he had an epiphany.

The belief that one religion or type of religion is the truth and everything else is rooted in delusion has been the cause of considerable violence down the centuries.   In the past the conflicts were between the Roman Catholics and Protestants (in Europe) and between the Hindus and the Muslims at the end of the British Raj (on the Indian sub-continent).   It has corrupted Isis and its followers because truth is divorced from evidence.   To deal with the cancer of radicalisation, the government introduced The Prevent Strategy in 2003.  The coalition government widened its remit in 2011.

There are four strands to Prevent – Contest, Prepare, Protect and Pursue.  The first was closely allied to the government’s counter-terrorism programme.  Prevent is fashioned to counter the risk of people – especially youths – joining extremist groups and carrying out terrorist activities through apprising them of the dangers, destructiveness and futility of doing so.  Prevent has been advanced through building good relations among faith leaders, teachers, doctors and others to refer suspicions about people to the local Prevent Body.

The Prevent Strategy requires schools/academies to promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.  The question for many of us is should we tolerate the stance of adherents to a faith which promotes a rabid form of intolerance to others.   What, in short, do we do about tolerating intolerance?

According to the BBC, 7,500 referrals were made under the scheme in 2015-16.   Action was taken in one out of every 10 cases.  No action was taken in 37% of the cases and 25% of vulnerable people (most of them young and several of school age) were referred. Another 28% were still being considered.   Just over 50% were related to Islamist extremism and almost 10% to far-right extremism.

Support is given to those referred through the government’s Channel Programme, which may include mentoring. The government has earmarked £46 million (£36 million from the Home Office and £10 million from the Foreign Office) to promote the programme.   The government said that in 2015, 50 children were stopped from entering the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria because of the Strategy. It added that the programme reached more than 42,000 people in 2015-16.

The Prevent Strategy has come in for some stick from MPs, the former National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Muslim Council of Britain.  Some critics argue that it makes Islamic students feel isolated and opens them up to more radicalisation.    Others aver that it promotes distrust across communities.

III     Promoting tolerance: the dilemma

Christians have been much less violent in recent centuries, but only because they have become less religious. The farther Christianity has retreated from the idea of revealed truth, the less its believers have killed other non-Christians.  Also, internecine wars between Protestants and Catholics have lessened.  Most Christians today associate truth with evidence, reason and other Enlightenment ideals.

Which brings me back to the central dilemma of faith schools.  Foges describes the government’s plans to propose teaching British values to understand different ways of life, while simultaneously promoting faith schools and segregating vast sections of our communities. She described this as “gold-plated baloney”.  Secretary of State Damian Hinds suggested that he wished to ditch the 50% cap on admissions in religious Free Schools. Would this not result in greater intolerance something that The Prevent Strategy is trying to counter?

The Catholic International Education Office describes a Catholic school as an institution open to all but the church is so opposed to the 50% cap on religious Free Schools that it refuses to open a Free School.  During a Commons exchange in 2014, Hinds opined that if Catholic schools open admissions to children of other faiths they would “lose their distinctive character”.

Foges cites Jesus’s words in Luke 18:16, “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not”. Who is to tell the Catholics International Education Office that the Lord did not whisper the caveat “apart from little children of different faiths”, making it impossible to square this benevolence with the church’s stance.

Professor Ted Cantle wrote a major report on cohesion following the 2001 Oldham race riots.  He said: “More segregation in residential areas, more segregation in schools, more segregation in workplaces . . . drives more prejudice, intolerance, mistrust.”

It is currently impossible to do away with faith schools.  They are entrenched in our education system.  What the government, however, can do is legislate to curb the creation of new ones.  If religious schools are to open, they should be required to admit children of other faiths.  [The Jewish Community Secondary School, which opened in 2010, took a tentative step towards becoming “ecumenical” by opening admissions to pupils from families who came from across the range of Jewish beliefs.  The range is wide.]   The government can also ensure that these schools do not morph into racial ghettos by curbing one ethnic group dominating all the others.  The reality is that in pockets of the country, admissions on religious grounds is closely allied to admissions on ethnic grounds too.

Foges concludes her article by suggesting that parents should be required to opt into education by sending them to school, and formally apply to opt out.  Ofsted or the local authority should be entitled to visit and monitor every place of education, be it school, home or other organisation.  It could add to the bureaucracy, but this is worth the investment if we are to promote integration and a catholic society (in a non-religious sense) that gives flesh and blood to British values.

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