Monday, 28 September 2009

Faith Schools article in Reform

Text of my article published in October's 'Reform' magazine :

'Faith Schools' : can consumer choice deliver 'community cohesion'?

Politicians think parental choice in education is a vote-winner. They like private/public partnerships so they're quite happy for mosques to run schools on their behalf. But they also want community cohesion.

'Faith schools' can help community cohesion across nationality and race — in our local Roman Catholic congregation, 54 languages are spoken. BUT : this is at the cost of creating division between 'faith communities' — and also within them. 'Faith school' is a misleading term. I know of a URC that lost families to its neighbouring Anglican church because the local church school required parents and children to attend the parish church.

A 'faith school' generally means a school run by a particular religious organisation, not a faith, and not all churches and mosques are ecumenical in outlook. Many haven't any sense of accountability even to other churches of their own faith.

What's important is what children — our future citizens — need in order to play an educated part in our democracy.

Sure, parental choice is an important issue. It is entirely reasonable for me, as a Christian taxpayer, to ask that at the very least the state school they attend doesn't undermine or marginalise Christian faith. The same would apply if I were Muslim. Broaden that faith, deepen it, maybe — but sadly the (otherwise excellent) state school my children went to didn't really 'do God' at all. Moral thinking — yes, it was done well, but divorced from any religious context. No RE was offered at GCSE or A-level, no assemblies (it's changed since they left).

Religious Education is supposedly a national curriculum requirement, but delivery is patchy and not the responsibility of central government. It is largely taught by non-specialists working from textbooks, and is no longer inspected by OFSTED. I have sat in on a few RE lessons that have made my hair stand on end. Our local authority's RE Advisor post — she is the only external support our 'non-faith schools' have — is under threat. Government (both national and local) is dodging its real challenge and responsibility in the name of 'parental choice'. Which parents? What choice?

We live in a world in which religious tensions — both between and withinreligions — are increasingly important, but it's also one in which religious motivation will inspire and pioneer creative solutions to global problems. Children with no experience of a religious tradition need a lot more than a few facts about festivals and the odd moral story from different faiths. They need to 'get inside' the conceptual language of faith, see how faith tradition and spirituality shapes all of life, by encountering a religious peer group. How will they do that if religious people stick to their own schools?

Children also need to see the enormous breadth even within one faith tradition, and see how conflicts arise and are resolved within them. That is far better done by a school that encourages maximum involvement by a wide range of religious people but is free of control by any one religious organisation. Children need to discover that a religion isn't a set of propositions so much as a living world language in which people with widely different approaches argue over the deep issues of human life. Simplistic suggestions, common in RE textbooks, that "all Christians believe X, all Muslims believe Y" are profoundly unhelpful. In fact there is often greater mutual understanding between people across the faith 'divide' than between various groups within a world faith.

No government could offer every parent a free choice of school for their children — it's simply not 'do-able'. What could be delivered is living religious formation relevant to every child's background in every school, alongside children of other backgrounds. This could be done with accountability. That's the real choice parents need — to be able to shape and contribute to what their school offers. I see no reason why all secondary schools should not encourage students from Christian homes to delve deeply into their inherited faith tradition by offering appropriate courses and maybe appropriate after-school clubs. A wide variety of local religious groups would be pleased to help deliver this. Why should their Muslim fellow-students not be encouraged to delve into shari'a law for GCSE, or learn about Muslim finance in economics? We might even end up with students debating religious issues with more real knowledge about the deep implications of faith than their parents. The alternative is for parents to be faced either with 'non-faith' schools which discourage their children from exploring faith for themselves, or schools run by an organisation from a different faith or different denomination from their own. And they probably won't have a choice which.

Denominational schools, however good they are, work against the very grain of 'comprehensiveness' in our dangerous world. They introduce separation and narrowness where real encounter and breadth is needed; and they stand to create 'non-faith' schools by default — schools which drive wedges between religious families and their children at a crucial stage of development.

The Reformed tradition has for 350 years believed in separating the power of religious institutions from the State, but that is exactly what church and mosque schools represent : giving religious organisations power over state education. I don't understand why the URC was not amongst the first signatories to the Accord Coalition, which calls for broad-based, balanced education for all.