Having been rushed through parliament, the Coalition’s academies bill is a worrying example of just how familiar this ‘new politics’ can feel. Other than a handful of ‘community leaders’ and market fundamentalists, the only beneficiaries will be the private firms circling above. The bill represents not only a continuation of the market orthodoxy of the last thirty years, but also a further step down the path to sectarianism.
The familiarity is not entirely surprising: academies were first introduced by Blair’s Labour government in 2000. Though publicly funded, academies are independently run by sponsors free of local authority control. They are typically backed by private sponsors with the freedom to set their own curriculum; restrictions apply only to core subject areas. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, acknowledged in May that he would like to see academies become ‘the norm’; the government promptly wrote to all 20,000 state schools encouraging them to convert to academy status. Combined with measures to enable the setting up of Swedish style “free schools”, this move towards the privatisation of the whole education sector has been bulldozed through parliament with alarming speed. Despite the efforts of six Lib Dem MPs, the bill was passed with a clear majority and will be in place in time for the coming academic year.
The familiarity breaks down somewhat when it comes to the Coalition manifestos. Beyond the obligatory platitudes on ‘discipline’ and ‘raising standards’, the Conservatives pledged only to ‘make it much easier… to start new academies’. The Liberal Democrats proposed ‘Sponsor Managed Schools’ which would be ‘commissioned by and accountable to local authorities’. What the Coalition has now forced through parliament is a move towards converting all schools into academies independent of local authority control. Combined with the “denationalisation” of the NHS, the practice of forcing through fundamental reform without any firm mandate is still very much alive.
More troubling still, the advance of faith schools will inevitably accelerate. Earlier this month, a BHA poll showed 72% of the public are concerned that the Academies bill will lead to taxes being spent promoting religion, including 35% who are ‘very concerned’. Their fears are well founded – over 300 faith schools have registered interest in Academy status.
Public perceptions of faith schools as divisive, intellectually limiting and at times inflammatory are largely justified. In 2002, for instance, the pious Tony Blair supported Sir Peter Vardy’s teaching of ‘Biblical creationism’ at his state funded Academy in Gateshead. There is little objection to the teaching of creationism within the religious education syllabus, but the push to have it taught as science has caused serious controversy. In 2007 a Saudi-run school in London was found to be using textbooks describing ‘Jews as monkeys and Christians as pigs’. For children to be exposed to such attitudes is distinctly unhelpful – for it to be publicly funded is obscene.
It should be noted that faith schools are currently given autonomy to teach religious education as they see fit – how they portray other faiths is left entirely in their hands. After successful lobbying, they will additionally retain the right to teach sex education in a manner that ‘reflects a school’s religious character’. The exemption has led to protests from campaigners who claim schools will be free to discourage the use of contraception and condemn homosexuality as immoral.
Religious exemptions allow discrimination not only in terms of the intake of children but also in the hiring of teaching and non-teaching staff. Such privileges have long given rise to suspicions of selection; only 11.5% of faith school pupils are eligible for free school meals as compared to 15.7% in other schools, for example. Though faith organisations claim their “religious ethos” is what drives their improved results, a number of reports suggest selection is the primary cause:
Pupils in religiously affiliated schools where admissions were under the control of the Local Education Authority do not progress faster than pupils in secular primary schools (Gibbons and Silva, 2006)
In an increasingly diverse nation it is concerning that the political class have moved so firmly behind the expansion of faith schooling; policy has morphed from multiculturalism to ‘multi-faithism’. The pragmatism of Westminster deems faith schools, on balance, electorally profitable. Eager to buy the bloc votes of spurious “religious leaders”, public sentiment and common sense are routinely cast aside. There is now a vast body of research, both governmental and independent, showing the damaging effects of faith schooling on social cohesion. The 2009 Cantle Report, for example, suggests that:
The “level of segregation in schools is high, growing and more extensive than the level of residential segregation would suggest”, with a number of faith schools “a particular issue” (Accord Coalition)
The case of Cardiff councillor, John Dixon, further crystallises the absurdity of faith schooling. Dixon is now facing a disciplinary hearing after labelling Scientology “stupid”. Though it may seem a mild, even generous, remark, the case is now being brought before the public services ombudsman. If the ombudsman rules against Dixon, the sanctioning of Scientology as an “official religion” will be one step closer. Under laws concerning religious freedoms and equality, a state funded Scientology Academy would be a distinct possibility.
And here lies the fundamental problem of bringing religion into the public realm – there are no rational or objective grounds for the state to elevate one set of religious beliefs over any other. The distinction between cult and religion is purely one of numbers. Tracing humanity’s fall to Xenu, the despotic ruler of the “Galactic Confederacy”, is no more absurd an explanation than Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit. The E-meter, an electrical device (‘religious artifact’) used to ‘locate areas of spiritual distress’ has no less rational a basis than transubstantiation. The problem is not Scientology; it is the reckless support of sectarian schooling for short-term political gain.
To avoid the farce of state judgements on which of these beliefs to recognise in law and education we must either promote all or none; there is no credible middle ground. In sliding towards the former we risk fomenting division which could take generations to heal.