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Changing the agenda on faith schools

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Simon Barrow (London, Ekklesia): For a number of years now the media has both witnessed and rehearsed a ‘debate’ about publicly funded faith schools in which two narratives pass each other in the night and important issues get lost in the shadows.

On the one hand, some say that religious schools are divisive, sectarian and biased, hijacking what should be the secular enterprise of education to perpetuate religion at the taxpayer’s expense. Others retort that faith schools are part of a rich diversity of provision, support community cohesion, give affirmation to minority communities and promote tolerance.

Again, different statistics are bandied around which indicate the great popularity of faith schools among particular demographic groups (especially New Labour’s beloved ‘middle England’) – or, alternatively, the fact that polling evidence shows between half and two-thirds of the population not wanting them.

The launch of a new coalition called Accord today is an attempt to shift the conversation onto different ground – that of practice and policy, rather than irreconcilable ideology and irresolvable 'pro' and 'anti' rhetoric.

Accord is a growing coalition of organisations and individuals, some of whom are highly sceptical of faiths schools, others of whom think they can play a constructive role. They are humanists, Christians, Jews, Hindus and more. What they passionately agree on is that if, as the government firmly says, faith schools are here to stay (and no other party likely to take power will say anything different) then we need a significant change in the way they operate.

The common principle upon which Accord thinks schooling in Britain should be developed - especially as partnerships grow between the state, businesses, bankers, philanthropists, religious and civic groups - is that of full community access.

To that end, Accord exists to make the case that every publicly-funded school in Britain should be open to all, irrespective of differences in belief and background; that schools should be places where those whose paths might not otherwise cross learn how to listen to one another, learn together, value one another and build a common future together.

In terms of faith schools, it is calling for a universal policy of non-discrimination in admissions and employment, a balanced curriculum, a common inspection regime, and assemblies that reflect the whole community rather than being based on compulsory worship.

For the reality is that, in spite of a number of examples of integration and good practice, faith schools are still given the in-principle legal right in law to choose who they will accept as pupils and staff on grounds of belief. In many places that kind of selection, which critics call discrimination (not least because these schools are overwhelmingly funded from the general public purse), still takes place.

One of the influences behind Accord, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) trade union, which set it up jointly with the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia and the British Humanist Association (BHA), has emphasised that it has no argument with faith schools per se, but wishes to see them as part of a common climate of support, open access and regulation. Its 2007 position paper shows how that can be implemented.

The BHA, understandably, has been more critical, and is particularly concerned about the marginalisation of the growing number of non-religious people under current policies. But first and foremost it wishes to look for solutions to problems with others.

Likewise, the religious members of the coalition stress that ending discrimination is no threat to the ethos of schools that wish to uphold community values, whether in the name of a faith or on the basis of universal commitments to dignity, respect and human rights. On the contrary, it is fully consistent with the ‘love of neighbour’ commitment that is echoed in different ways by all the major faith traditions.

The chair of Accord is Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, and its backers include Oxford biblical scholar and theologian Professor Chris Rowland, a number of Christian clergy and commentators, the Hindu Academy in the UK, former Minister for Education Baroness Tessa Blackstone, Rabbi David Goldberg. Sunny Hundal from Asians in Media, writer Philip Pullman and education campaigner Fiona Miller. Others are waiting in the wings.

Once the initial media furore is over (Independent on Sunday columnist Melanie MacDonagh stirred the pot on Sunday by championing faith schools in a curious way – she said that discrimination was of their essence!), the task of consolidating an approach which recognises both the successes and failings of this sector, and which shows government why it should embrace reform rather than retrenchment, will go on.

The significance of the challenge and the need for change is illustrated by one of today’s other events – the coming into force of Section 37 of the Education and Inspections Act. This makes it legal for voluntary controlled schools to reserve the headship for those of one belief only, and for voluntary aided schools to discriminate against non-teaching staff on the basis of their beliefs. There is clearly a long way to go.

Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, and a member of Accord’s steering group.


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