The Westminster Faith Debate report A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools has, as expected, provoked heated debate. Is it time for a new settlement? Yes, and then again, no.
There are several problems with the report’s assumptions. The first is its definition of religion as a sociological phenomenon that just won’t go away. And if it won’t go away, then it has to be accommodated or endured. And if it has to be accommodated, let’s make sure that it’s as inoffensive and bland a form of religion as we can possibly make it – an amalgam to bond society. That’s 3 assumptions stemming from a limited understanding of spirituality.
The report is much more far-reaching than anything that has gone before with its proposal for all faith and independent schools to be ‘invited’ to the party, but it’s also hardly surprising. Matt Ridley in an attack on faith schools last year argued that faith is a ‘virulent infection’ and the best protection against it is ‘a mild and attenuated form of the … virus’ viz. the nationalised fusion curriculum that this report advocates.
On the issue of abolishing a statutory requirement for collective worship I broadly agree with the report’s suggestions and I agree for very personal reasons. We live near a Buddhist monastery which my children visited as part of their Religion and Philosophy curriculum. But when one of my children was told that she also had to take part in temple worship, she refused. As she met with no support from the teacher concerned (himself a Christian) I stepped in. I was upset by 2 things – a refusal to accept that no pupil should be forced to participate in an activity against their will and also the blank incomprehension of why I might want to deprive my child of such an amazing opportunity.
I’m right with the Rt Rev John Prichard on this when he said that ‘the problem is with the word ‘worship’ [which] is by definition a voluntary activity, and I think it may be better to reframe the discussion, and to call this time that we are discussing spiritual reflection’. I have a real problem with requiring children to worship within any religion until they wish to make that choice for themselves. Reframing collective worship as a time of spiritual reflection and allowing schools to define this in accordance with their ethos is, to my way of thinking, a reasonable step, as long as faith schools are allowed to interpret this from their distinctive perspective.
If this happened, I would fully support the removal of parental opt-out. If you sign up to a faith school, you know what you’re getting – choosing faith education for academic reasons then opting out of the religious bits really is cheating. But this is where the report is very clever and carries more than a whiff of the Accord Coalition/Tristram Hunt arguments that were aired last year. Having tacitly accepted that parent power alone would secure the continuation of faith schools, they changed tack. Now they are harnessing that power to ensure that with a 50% open admissions policy, enough parents will object to the faith ethos to dilute it beyond effectiveness.
I’m also right with this report in defining British values as counter-propaganda, although less supportive of the view that RE is the place to park the only critical discussion that will lead to a liberal democracy, particularly when it’s a very illiberal liberalism that is being proposed. The report is peppered with reasons for this liberal kickback:
‘churches are taking more radical ‘counter-cultural’ stances against a perceived secular mainstream … The influence of more conservative and ‘fundamentalist’ elements of religion relative to less activist liberal or ‘moderate’ majorities is also likely to increase … Currently, the most serious concerns are those to do with Islamic and far right forms of extremism, but we have noted the growing power of more conservative elements in all religions’.
It’s less to do with liberal ideology and more to do with feeling threatened by the perception of power bases, outside of government control and among those inconvenient people who take their faith seriously. That’s why the report even suggests the inspection of Christian family prayers and Sunday schools ‘to safeguard against abuse or coercion’. It simultaneously asserts that ‘Religious instruction should be principally the responsibility of religious communities and families’ and that the state should control even these expressions of faith by inspection.
So is it time for a new settlement? Yes, I think it is. There is much to commend in the report regarding the teaching of RE and provision for spiritual development in secular maintained schools. But to suggest that faith schools must abandon a distinctive curriculum and its inspection by people who understand its purpose, is a step way too far. Anyone who wants to remove faith schools should say so, and campaign to close them down. Except, because that can’t possibly happen, we have ethos reassignment by stealth.
In a survey that Christians in Education is conducting, a participant observed that secularist curriculum influences can sometimes be tricky to spot; they’re so embedded in our thinking that we just don’t notice them any more. I think it applies to this report, too. Although it seems to suggest an entirely reasonable way forward, it is actually just a set of old arguments brought together and dressed up in new clothes. The real message is conformity to a liberal secular agenda until, through a sustained programme of inoculation by fuzzy liberalism, the social phenomenon of faith is one day eradicated.
Thank goodness we don’t live in France, where you can’t start school without an inoculation certificate. Or maybe that’s the next step.