‘We are faced with two roads — one of narrow ideology and the other of broad tolerance and co-existence — and the Department for Education is at the heart of the decision about which road to take’ claims Sir Edward Leigh, MP. His pertinent observation came on the same day as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) issued an interim report on its survey of ‘Religion or belief in the workplace’ and days after the Council of Europe passed a resolution calling for reasonable accommodation of belief, with particular reference to Christianity. So where does this leave faith in education?
It leaves a situation of great confusion, but with clear guidance from the Council of Europe and the promise of advice from the EHRC on clarification of the law. It’s obvious from the EHRC report that some employers offer genuinely diverse workplaces where staff feel valued and coexist peacefully. But it’s also clear that some employers are (some wilfully and some in ignorance) abusing the right of their staff to tolerance, respect and reasonable accommodation within the needs of the organisation. That’s something of which I have personal experience, having been told that my career progression was at an end for courteously declining to abandon my Sunday school class, my right to worship and my right to family time, in order to attend school social functions on Sundays.
But legal clarification does nothing to deal with the everyday frustrations caused by poor communication, the determination of one person to exert their rights over another or the instant assumption of offence where none is intended. It does nothing to overcome the Christian=homophobic, Christian=extremist, Christian=proselytiser rhetoric that predominates. At its heart is relationship; the ability to respect expression of belief and the ability to express that belief positively and respectfully. Schools, you would hope, are places where positive relationship building is part of the community ethos. Sadly, this is not always so.
One parent described how her son was told that he wouldn’t be getting any Christmas presents because he didn’t believe in God – the school took no action on her complaint saying that it had been a joke. Pupils with and without religious beliefs described being ridiculed by teachers because of their views. Christian parents expressed concern that their children were being mocked by teachers for their beliefs, particularly relating to the issue of creation.
This situation has been made much worse by the knee jerk reaction of the DfE in its rushed implementation of the British values agenda. Fiona Bruce MP has called for proper consultation and clarification, following a number of questionable Ofsted inspections of faith schools which clearly demonstrated lack of understanding (possibly wilful, possibly not) by inspectors, many of them HMIs. In a letter to MPs, Nicky Morgan herself described the inclusion of the Equality Act 2010 as a British value as marking ‘a dramatic change in education policy’. In the current climate of identity politics, the lack of clarification has led to some protected characteristics being promoted and those of others (namely faith and belief) being trampled on. As Edward Leigh also observed in the debate, ‘the vague school standards allow Ofsted to treat social conservatives as extremists’.
So which direction will the Department for Education take? At the moment there is just one narrow ideology permeating the corridors of power, and the thinking of many people within the profession, who would like to see faith become an entirely private matter. It’s an ideology that masquerades as liberal, yet promotes intolerance of faith. It claims to be neutral and fair to all, yet it disregards the democratic right of everyone in a pluralist democracy to express the views that make them who they are.
The way ahead is to build bridges not barriers, but to do that, there has to be acceptance of the right of every individual to speak freely in the public square. While I’ve been writing, someone has tweeted me to say that her Catholic school is chosen by Muslims because they teach all faiths and the ethos encourages respect for all. That is the route to peaceful co-existence and reasonable accommodation.