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.