Faith Schools

Argus title : Faith schools debate is all down to rights

Faith schools are in the news. Tony Blair remains committed to them, but others are less convinced. There are concerns about Christian evangelical influence on education, both here and in the USA. And Salman Rushdie has argued powerfully against any expansion of Muslim faith schools on the basis that they encourage fundamentalism.

The debate has forced me to think deeply about why we wanted our daughter to attend a Church of England girls’ school. It was important it was a girls’ school – all the research indicates that girls do best and are safest in a single sex environment – but it was also vital that it be a faith school.

Religious education at her old state junior school seemed to be confined to making Diwali lamps and singing the odd Christmas carol or Hannakah chorus. Though I’m a person of very imperfect faith, I didn’t want her to learn about God from atheists through a prism of patronising ignorance or ridicule.

More particularly, I wanted her to learn in an environment in which teachers operate to a clear moral code, based on love and respect between human beings. I was under no illusion that such principles would always be adhered to in a Christian school – far from it. But I did want the certainty that these basic principles would be accepted and understood.

In secular infant schools children are taught fairly consistently that it is ‘good’ to co-operate and help people, and ‘bad’ to hurt them. However, once they reach junior school and the traditional age of reason (around 7) these ethical principles seem to be devalued to something approaching the status of belief in Father Christmas.

At a vulnerable age, children are catapulted into a morass of moral relativism. They are more likely to learn a consistent (though debased) ethics from Eastenders and Big Brother than they are from the curriculum. It is hardly surprising that the culture of bullying which infects our schools, really begins to impact at this stage of school life.

The most consistently expressed moral precepts in secular schools seem to be that extreme poverty in other countries, and homelessness in our own, are bad things while protection of the environment is good. These pose few challenges to children whose most pressing moral dilemmas are likely to arise within interpersonal relationships.

The ethos and teaching of my daughter’s school is Christian, but it’s relaxed and tolerant. It allows her question what she is taught and to proclaim to anyone who will listen that she’s “a syncretist”. One of her best friends is Jewish, another is a Hindu and she tells me she is getting to know an older Muslim girl who has been advising her on pop music (she recommends Omarion).

We could have sent her to the local Roman Catholic School, which is the only secondary level faith school in the state sector. But if we had, we’d have had to argue against the Church’s teaching on contraception and abortion. We didn’t want our daughter to grow up believing that women and men have no right to control their own fertility.

And that’s the nub of it, really. This debate is all about rights. Faith schools pose little threat to anyone if educational standards are maintained, other faiths aren’t excluded and students are taught their civil rights.

The real dangers arise when generations of children – in faith and secular schools alike – are kept ignorant of their own and other people’s human rights under British and international law. In such an environment undemocratic religious leaders – as well as political leaders and media owners – are readily able to mislead and manipulate the people.

All established religions in the UK have aspects which pose a danger to others. Many faiths encourage elites to act unjustly and subordinate groups to submit to it. Several are overtly homophobic and some are racist. Many are highly patriarchal and often deeply misogynistic. Few display real commitment to children’s rights.

Most religious hierarchies place men in positions of authority, providing theological justifications for subsequent misuse of power. Consequently, there is a history of abuse of women and children in religious households and institutions.

What is taught in churches, mosques, temples and synagogues can’t easily be monitored. But teaching in faith schools can and should be.

The key safeguard has to be to ensure that even though some religious teachers view other faiths with contempt and identify named social groups as sinful or inferior, they are not permitted to express such opinions in schools. All children need to learn that such views are not those of the society in which they live – and that the state will protect their right to live safely and as they choose.

Whatever the religious or political beliefs of their family members or teachers, young people should be in no doubt that the laws of this society enshrine both their own and their fellow citizens’ equal rights to education and safety, freedom of activity, movement, housing, work and expression.

All citizens need to know that they have an equal legal right to live free from forced marriage, chastity or pregnancy, domestic violence, rape, genital mutilation, homophobia, racism or sexism.

The most effective way to ensure such awareness would surely be:
• To raise standards of religious education, allowing children both to question apparent inequalities and injustices within their own and other people’s faiths and to properly celebrate and share religious festivals
• To oblige faith schools to ensure that at least 20% of the students admitted are of ‘other or no faith’ and that their particular needs are well met
• To strengthen government’s willingness to regulate teaching standards and content, withdrawing licenses where necessary, and above all
• To make it obligatory for all children – whether taught at home, or in secular or faith schools – to be educated on their own and other people’s civil rights under British law and on Britain’s obligations under international law (this could be delivered as a series of short age-appropriate courses at various stages of children’s education).

Education on civil and human rights would be challenging – and not just to people of faith. Inevitably, there would be attempts to undermine teachers, manipulate the content or withdraw children. Schools and local authorities would come under pressure to avoid ‘difficult’, ‘cultural’ or ‘domestic’ issues, such as abortion, forced marriage or domestic violence and rape.

Pitfalls could be avoided if such courses were taught to a nationally agreed curriculum based solely upon existing law and delivered by specialists in human rights independent of school management structures and local authorities.

Such independence would help ensure consistency and accountability at a national level and protect teachers and schools from undue pressure by local politicians, communities and faith groups. Attendance and completion of courses could be obligatory and a condition of entry to state examinations.

The ‘spin off’ for faith groups would be that secular society would gain a better knowledge of religious traditions and of the rights of religious communities to freedom from persecution. In addition, for the first time, we would have a society fully aware of its civil rights and its government’s international obligations to protect human rights in other countries and act in accordance with international law and conventions.

This might prove uncomfortable for religious hierarchies – and positively terrifying for governments – but it could bring unimaginable benefit to the peoples of Britain as they struggle to bring their leaders to a true acceptance of democracy.

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