HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE THE FAITH SCHOOLS?

A brief history of education, before I define the problem that faith schools are heading towards.  Until 1870, the church (both Anglican and Catholic) provided most of England’s available education; everyone seemed quite happy with this status quo, apart from the National Education League which began campaigning in 1869 for free non-religious education.

In 1870 the first Education Act provided for national education, through a series of locally elected and funded school boards. Unlike ‘voluntary’ (mostly church) schools, the new state schools were to be non-denominational, a designation which persists 145 years later.

The 1880 Education Act made education compulsory between the ages of five and ten and during that decade, provision of special schools also became statutory. Church and state co-existed quite peacefully in the cloistered world of education, apart from a blip during the debating of the 1902 Education Act which brought church and state schools under the same funding umbrella. It led to cries against ‘Rome on the rates’, before education continued cheerfully on its way, with the foundations of the current situation firmly laid.

The 1944 Education Act saw a further clarification of the relationship between church schools and the state; it also made the teaching of religious education and a daily act of corporate worship which is broadly Christian in nature statutory in all schools. Nearly half a century then passed with nothing much changing. In spite of considerable Commonwealth immigration, the Judaeo-Christian foundation stones of English culture remained the social norm.

In 1997, Tony Blair came to power. Things changed rapidly. Under his management, church schools increased in number – an increase which his administration was keen to encourage, not least his Education Secretary, David Blunkett, who once said that he wanted to ‘bottle the magic’ of Christian schools. Their growth became increasingly contentious as the arguments over admissions, curriculum content and staffing crystallised. In 2002, evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy came under fire for the alleged teaching of creationism and the issue of biblical fundamentalism was placed firmly on the agenda, where it has remained ever since.

But this wasn’t the only change. The first state funded Muslim schools also opened. In an interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2002, Tony Blair said about church schools (redesignated faith schools in acknowledgement that provision now encompassed non-Christian schools), ‘I think there is a strong case for faith schools because I think parents often like to have their children brought up with the certain ethos that they believe in … we have had faith schools for years in this country, the issue is simply whether we say to the Muslim community, you can have Christian faith schools, you can have Jewish faith schools but you can’t have Muslim faith schools, I don’t know how I would explain that to them’.

And so to today: we have Church of England, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and non-denominational schools, and the debate rolls on about the place of religion in public life, the role of education in alleged social segregation, and the rights of faith schools to admit pupils and select staff using different rules.

This conflict has sharpened further in the last year. The redefinition of marriage in 2014 and the LGBT focused Ofsted British values agenda of recent months have brought faith schools into conflict with Ofsted, as the DfE seeks to impose a new liberal secular orthodoxy regardless of individual conscience. These are real and complex problems for faith schools; problems that require real and complex answers. It doesn’t help that Nicky Morgan, on the matter of British values, is ‘unwilling to “lay down rules” about how the requirement [for active promotion] was to be interpreted’.

But here’s the problem with which I started out. Tony Blair’s desire to be fair in allowing non-Christian faith schools is understandable, perhaps commendable. But at the same time, David Bell, his Chief Inspector, was warning that faith schools, particularly Muslim schools, needed to be carefully monitored as they could become a threat to national identity.

The imposition of a 50% open admissions policy is fine in theory, but the reality is that non Muslims don’t want to go to, or teach in, Muslim schools. Non Sikhs don’t want to go to Sikh schools. So what happens when there is no choice, when this is the only school place you are offered? Where non-Christian faith schools are filling gaps in local provision, this is increasingly going to become the problem with non-Christian faith school provision.

Just what do you do when the school in which you are offered a place is not representative of your cultural identity? To what extent will non-Christian faith schools be required to adapt in order to accommodate all cultures and faiths, in the way that church schools have already done? You can have food fusion. You can have music fusion. You cannot have faith fusion.  The DfE may repeat ‘preparing pupils for life in modern Britain’ as a mantra in every press release, speech and document, but what is the definition of modern Britain – now? And in the future?

The debate engulfing faith schools is a microcosm of what should be a wider social debate; a debate on the definition of our national identity. Instead, a new social orthodoxy is steadily being forged in the smithy of our education service.

 

 

 

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.