Category Archives: Comment

THE REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION OF FAITH

‘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.

NEGOTIATING THE NEW NORMAL

A big picture always sparks my curiosity and none more so than this week, when a new thread appeared in various media. It’s the thought that there must be more to the weary left-right posturing that characterises our political scene; more to society than the inexorable clamour of identity politics where the one who shouts the loudest takes the prize.

Wound into the new thread were discussions about compassion, about human flourishing and about the fact that beyond the economy, beyond school standards, beyond the endless drive of unrelenting social mobility, there are real human people; people living in relationships, in families and in communities. There is a searching for something more; a search that is epitomised by two voices on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Good Right and Blue Labour  are both looking for moral credibility within compassionate politics. Even if their architects (Tim Mongomerie/Stephan Shakespeare and Maurice Glasman respectively) articulate the thinking in different ways, their searches share a similar focus.

And much as it scares the new atheists, who really thought that religion was in the final death throes of an inevitable fade into pre-enlightenment history, the God botherers are not only not going away, they are taking an active part in the debate – witness the Bishops’ pastoral letter.  That particular debate centred on whether the letter was a left wing polemic from people who should leave politics alone and get on with the business of the Church or whether it was a call for a moral compass in politics, but the fact is, there was a debate. Even party political leaders are beginning to realise that they need to engage with people of belief. In an interview for Premier Radio this week, Nick Clegg talked quite openly about going ‘with great joy’ to Mass most weeks with his family. He sometimes thinks it would be wonderful to have faith and if it happens, he says he will embrace it. And he doesn’t have much time for aggressive secularism.

Nor does Maurice Glasman, who says that secularism must not only let go of its superior position, but also accept that faith plays a big part in the lives of many people and so those people must be part of the debate. His preferred route to the common good is clear: ‘Stay in the room and represent our interest and explore how we can be reconciled with others.’ Maybe we have entered a post-secular era, one in which Christians can express their faith in the public square; one where Christians are not forced by statute to conform to the secular liberal agenda.

This is a theme picked up by Archbishop Cranmer, the God and Politics blogger, who suggests that it’s time to reclaim our religious liberty.  We aren’t asking for Christianity to become the dominant culture. We aren’t asking for society to embrace our faith. But we are asking for the freedom to be listened to as part of the social debate and to express views in accordance with ethical and moral values informed by our understanding of the Bible.

What would this mean in education? It would mean that Christian teachers could articulate their worldview without fear of reprisal under the Equality Act. It would mean that children had an opportunity to examine faith in action and understand how it informs what its adherents say, do and think. This will, no doubt, raise the hackles of those whose first and only response is the charge of proselytisation and indoctrination. Well, we have mechanisms in place to deal with that, should it occur, but frankly, I think anyone who seriously believes that you can force a person to believe anything against his or her will has never worked with children or young people.

So, as the move towards compassionate politics and a new found focus on the common good sharpens, consider the fact that Will Hutton, writing in the Observer, chose to sum up what people are searching for by quoting the words of the apostle Paul when writing to the church in Philippi: ‘Finally … whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things’.  Negotiating a new normal from that premise should hold no fear for secularists, and great hope for people of faith.

THERE IS NO MAGIC BULLET

That’s according to the House of Lords Select Committee on Affordable Childcare report, published this week. Currently parents of all three and four year olds, together with 40% of the most disadvantaged two year olds, are offered 15 hours of free weekly education. Ed Miliband plans to extend this to the working parents of all two year olds, as well as offering childcare for all Primary school children by opening schools from 8am until 6pm. But the system has inherent flaws, which Ministers seem to be wilfully ignoring.

The first problem lies in the multiple aims of the policy, which are to: promote child development; narrow the attainment gap for disadvantaged children; enable parents to work, and (implicitly) reduce child poverty by enabling children trapped in inter-generational poverty to break out of the cycle. But this creates a tension – cheap childcare enables parents to work, but provision may not be of a high enough quality to support child development. One policy is seeking to solve two issues; childcare and early education are not the same thing.

The second problem lies in a lack of empirical evidence. There is insufficient data to know whether the policy is having any impact on maternal employment or to judge the effectiveness of spending – many three and four year olds, for example, would be in some form of early education regardless of the policy.

The third problem lies in the nature of provision. The policy is heavily reliant on the Private, Voluntary and Independent sector (PVI) to implement (96% of two year olds access provision this way), but funding inequity means that maintained sector nurseries are given more money than PVI providers. Without adequate funding, these providers cannot employ trained, qualified staff at the same level as the maintained sector. In fact, in many PVI settings, funding does not cover costs, so parents are making additional payments, thus subsidising a government flagship policy which claims to be free.

The fourth problem lies in the clear statement from the Committee that this policy alone is not enough – the home environment is critical and not enough is being done to support this aspect of child development. And this exemplifies the limited effectiveness of single policy solutions. Emergent theory says that social problems are complex and so need a whole picture solution which addresses all the problems in one go. Offering free childcare, giving book gifts at birth, improving housing or expanding Sure Start centres (via charities) all have limited impact, as each strategy addresses just one issue.

A separate report from Jubilee + recently concluded that 52% of children in England access some form of parent and toddler group via churches. Other churches and faith groups also fall into the category of voluntary nursery provision. Christians are motivated to do this because they care, and because they want to live out in practice the law to love your neighbour as yourself.

With the new culture of social investment in childcare’ created by the government this week (for which read ‘rely on the voluntary sector because there’s no money’), it looks probable that whichever government is in power after the election, it will be looking to churches to increase childcare availability. There is no magic bullet, but there are many, many people, motivated by their love for God and love for humans created in His image, who will meet the challenge of giving each and every child and family the opportunity to flourish. That is faith in action.