Accord Chair reflects on recent Richmond court case and religious discrimination in pupil admissions

December 3, 2012

Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, has written an article today for the Huffington Post on religious selection in faith school admissions, which is reproduced below:

 

Faith Schools: Richmond Opts for Religious Discrimination

An extraordinary situation has developed in the London Borough of Richmond, in which a new school is needed. However, rather than follow clear government guidelines to invite bids for a free school – and accept one being proposed by a local community group that would be open to all local children – the Council has decided to ignore local parents and open a Voluntary Aided Catholic school that can limit 100% of its intake to Catholics.

It not only rides roughshod over local people’s wishes – so much for the power of localism – but it also opts for a school that will judge children by their faith and discriminate against those with ‘the wrong faith’ or no faith.

The tragedy is that Richmond is a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere in the country, with both this and the previous government encouraging an increase in the number of faith schools.

I am a Rabbi. I value faith. However, I am very worried about faith schools and the impact they are having both on the children who attend and on the type of society that will emerge as they grow up.

It would be unthinkable to discriminate over faith in any other public-funded institution. Can you imagine Catholic not allowed to be nurses, Jews banned from the RAF and Muslims from being librarians? Yet we allow schools exactly those powers. And although government ministers proudly tell of how they stand for justice and integrity, how can they condone discrimination at the heart of the educational system? And what message does that give the children?

Even more critical are the social consequences. Most faith schools may be set up with good intentions, but their effect is to segregate the children and create an educational apartheid system.

Some of the better schools attempt to teach about other faiths, but that is no substitute for children from different backgrounds sitting next to each other in class, playing in the break and walking home after school.

Let their religious education or belief system come from the home or after-school classes or church, synagogue, mosque and gurdwara at weekends, but not be used to divide the children throughout the week.

Moreover, faith schools do not just divide the children, but also the parents – who no longer meet outside the school gates, or at sports days and parents evenings. Thus they cut a huge swathe through the social life of local areas.

In this context, it is fascinating to see what is happening in Northern Ireland. The troubles there did not erupt because of faith schools, but there is equally no doubt that separate Catholic and Protestant schools helped perpetuate the divide between the two communities and reinforced the prejudices they had about each other.

Now, though, there is a surge in parents opting for Integrated Schools, which children from both faiths attend and see what they have in common. We should learn from the Province’s solutions, not emulate its mistakes.

Britain is a multi-faith society and we do not wish it to become a multi-fractious one. Growing up together and establishing relationships is key to promoting social cohesion. Why does Richmond Council object to that and why is it opting for discrimination over inclusivity?

 

Notes

Faith Schools: Richmond Opts for Religious Discrimination can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jonathan-romain/faith-schools-richmond-op_b_2230019.html.

Last month Accord commissioned a ComRes survey showing that 73% of respondents agreed that ‘state funded schools, including state funded faith schools,  should not be allowed to select or discriminate against prospective pupils on religious grounds in their admissions policy’, half (50%) stated that they agreed ‘strongly’. Only 18% of respondents disagreed.

ComRes interviewed 2,008 adults online between 2nd and 4th November 2012. Data was weighted to be demographically representative of all British adults aged 18+. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. The full survey results and field work data can be found here.

Identities in Transition: A Longitudinal Study of Immigrant Children, by Rupert Brown, Adam Rutland & Charles Watters from the Universities of Sussex and Kent (2008) found that “… the effects of school diversity were consistent, most evidently on social relations: higher self-esteem, fewer peer problems and more cross-group friendships. Such findings show that school ethnic composition can significantly affect the promotion of positive intergroup attitudes. These findings speak against policies promoting single faith schools, since such policies are likely to lead to reduced ethnic diversity in schools.”(p9)

Among the key findings of Social Capital, Diversity and Education Policy, by Professor Irene Bruegel of the London South Bank University Families & Social Capital ESRC Research Group (2006) were that “Friendship at primary schools can, and does, cross ethnic and faith divides wherever children have the opportunity to make friends from different backgrounds. At that age, in such schools, children are not highly conscious of racial differences and are largely unaware of the religion of their friends … There was some evidence that parents learned to respect people from other backgrounds as a result of their children’s experiences in mixed schools.” (p2)

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