Faith Schools debate at Labour Conference

October 5, 2012

On Wednesday the Accord Coalition hosted a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in conjunction with the Christian Socialist Movement, which asked whether religion in education lead towards division or inspiration?

Joining the Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, on the panel of speakers was Martin Dore, the General Secretary of the Socialist Education Association. Mr Dore explained his belief that schools which admitted pupils of all faiths and beliefs allowed religion to be a “source of solidarity, not division” in education. In contrast he labelled schools that admitted pupils on the grounds of faith, which forced children to travel long distances to only mix with children of the same ilk, as unchallenging and lacked a true educatory purpose.

He argued that in schools where only people of like minds congregated offered a subliminal message that the belief community was “only okay if we stick together on our own”. He also argued that the Government’s expansion in the number of Academies may help to increase this. Religion could not be ignored and should be celebrated, he believed. However he predicted that the “insular, monochrome faith institutions” would only lead to greater division in society, and that they had “no real place in the modern world”.

Rabbi Romain told the audience how practices at many faith schools went against wider understandings of fairness in society. He noted that while society does not accept religious discrimination, it is permitted in faith schools by law, where both students and teachers could be denied entry based on religious belief and practice. He argued that the discrimination was not just unwanted, but potentially illegal according to a recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. He also drew attention to the suggestion made in 2011 by the Bishop of Oxford, The Rt Revd John Pritchard, that Church of England school’s limit the proportion of pupils they select on the grounds of religion to ten per cent.

He acknowledged that very good faith schools existed, but said “net effect” of the faith school sector was to produce division, which he said could otherwise be labelled as aiding an “educational apartheid”. Rabbi Romain also urged that if Stephen Twigg became Secretary of State for Education that he make Religious Education part of a nationally prescribed curriculum, which all state funded schools had to follow, to ensure that the RE provided was a broad based, tolerant, inclusive syllabus, covering all major faiths and belief systems.

Rabbi Romain was also joined by Stephen Beer from the Christian Socialist Movement Executive who acted as meeting Chair. The Reverend Stephen Terry, Rector of the Parish of Aldrington in Hove, was sadly unable to attend for personal reasons, and his speech was read out by the Chair.

The Reverend Stephen Terry noted the historic mission of Church of England schools to provide education available to all children, not just those from well heeled families. However, he detected that a trend had become current in the Church of England in recent years, which viewed Church schools as an opportunity to help maintain adherence, symbolised in the Church’s 2001 ‘Dearing Report’. The report set out the future of the Church’s involvement in education and described its schools as ‘mission fields’. Mr Terry labelled this approach, along with the use of religious criteria in the admission policy at many Church Schools, as defensive and potentially socially divisive, and predicted they would in the long term serve to undermine, rather than improve the standing of the Church in Society.

During a questions and answer session Stephen Beer asked the panellists if schools could ever really occupy a neutral position in regards to world views, or if all schools always projected a certain way of looking at the world onto its students. Mr Dore agreed that it was “almost impossible” to be neutral, though Rabbi Romain insisted that schools could instil “values, not doctrines”, and noted the convergence between the main religion and belief systems on questions of basic morality and ethics.

An audience member raised the issue of faith schools encouraging, consciously or otherwise, religious extremism. Mr Dore said he had more faith in religious groups running schools without breaching domestic laws.

David Mellon, a Councillor from Nottingham, agreed with the importance of children being given  an understanding of other faiths, and argued that disturbances along race lines often involved a religious ignorance.

A Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) member said there were “big deficiencies” in the way RE was organised, saying the whole structure should be amended. Rabbi Romain said SACREs were “worthy”, but were inevitably coming to an end.  On the question of what would replace them, he said national guidelines already existed, so the Government could simply ask schools to follow these.

An audience member suggested that religion and religious schools sometimes became “manipulated” by the wealthier groups in society, as parents from these groups often preferred their children to go to faith schools, rather than standard comprehensives. Rabbi Romain agreed that some faith schools were manipulated in this way, saying that sadly some had “become grammar schools by the back door”. He pointed to research released in March by the Guardian, which indicated that the number of disadvantaged children in faith schools were usually significantly lower than in other schools, which be believed contrasted with how faith schools should operate.

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