Experts urge reform to the role of religion and belief in the school system

February 14, 2019

The House of Commons has this week been warned about risks from failing to ensure reforms to the role of religion and belief in the school system. The comments were made at a meeting on Monday evening (Feb 11th) hosted by former Education Select Committee Chair, Barry Sheerman MP, which was held to recognise the tenth anniversary of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education. The audience heard from four expert speakers who each urged for changes in public policy.

National cohesion and intercultural relations expert, Professor Ted Cantle CBE, criticised the reluctance of many politicians to confront segregation in society and urged government to convey a vision for schools as agents for improved social cohesion. He cast school’s capacity at bringing people from different backgrounds together as even more relevant given that social media has facilitated echo chambers, the spread of fake news and the conditions for suspicion and hatred to more readily grow.

Professor Cantle revealed statistical analysis showing that schools in England tended to be more ethnically segregated than their local areas, were becoming more ethnically segregated and that, overall, the faith school sector was more segregated than non-faith schools. Compared to non-faith schools, faith schools were found to be less likely to serve local children who were from a deprived background or who had special educational needs. He lamented the declining influence of local authorities in setting school admission policies and urged councils to apply pressure on local schools to achieve more mixed intakes, including by naming schools that do not change.

Professor Cantle expressed disappointment that Ofsted no longer inspected schools on how they met their legal duty to promote community cohesion. He urged the audience to respond to Ofsted’s current inspection criteria consultation and call on Ofsted to inspect the extent to which schools were inclusive of local people from different backgrounds.

From left to right, the Very Revd Dr John Hall; Professor Ted Cantle CBE; Accord Chair, the Revd Stephen Terry; Professor Becky Francis; and Profssor A C Grayling CBE.

The Chair of the Commission on Religious Education and Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, warned the room about the perilous state of Religious Education. The independent 2016-2018 Commission on Religious Education investigated and extensively consulted on the legal and policy frameworks for the subject in England.

The Dean said the current structure whereby local authorities responsible for education took an important role in supporting and monitoring Religious Education (RE) had become ‘dysfunctional,’ since most such councils no longer had relevant specialist staff. The Commissioners concluded that school pupils should instead each enjoy a nationally determined RE entitlement that would require the study of different religious and well as non-religious worldviews.

Such a move would require legislative changes and, despite broad support for the Commissioner’s conclusions, the Dean believed the Government did not currently have appetite for this reform. He consequently advocated building up expectations that this change will occur, to make it easier to implement and to encourage improvements within the school system in the meantime.

The Dean defended the place of Church of England schools in the state funded school system and drew upon his experience as a former Blackburn Diocesan Director of Education. He found the Diocese’s schools to be committed to promoting the understanding of faith and keen to educate those from different religious backgrounds. He drew a similar conclusion about an independent Muslim school in North London that he recently visited and believed it would be advantageous for independent Muslim schools to join the state funded school system.

In comments that challenged an important assumption of Accord’s campaign, the Dean queried the extent to which religious diversity and mixing within schools promoted greater religious understanding. He posited that this could be insufficient and instead may be better achieved by faith schools of different faiths working more closely together.

The educationalist and academic, Professor Becky Francis, argued that mixing pupils from different backgrounds in the same school was ‘hugely productive’, both in terms of promoting mutual understanding as well as boosting overall educational attainment. She cited an example of how opportunities for and understanding of pupils with disability or with special educational needs had improved in the school system over recent decades as more such pupils had been educated in mainstream schools. She believed learning with and from people from different backgrounds should be a ‘fundamental element of schooling’ and that schools should be a microcosm of local society.

Professor Francis, who specialises in education inequalities, said England was relatively good in terms of socio-economic mixing within its schools, but that there was a strong relationship between family wealth and child educational attainment. She believed this was made worse by the diversity of types of school in the country, along with some of the schools being partly or wholly selective, including religiously selective.

The Professor drew on findings from a 2013 Sutton Trust report ‘Parent Power?‘ that she authored, which explored how school choice advantaged affluent families. Affluent families were found more able to access good schools because they tended to have greater knowledge and understanding about their choices, as well as the means to take better advantage of them.

Professor Francis believed the way religiously selective admission policies at desirable faith schools were being exploited by more affluent families presented the schools and their providers with a particular moral challenge. She urged higher education institutions to also reflect on the impact of different practices, which she was keen to acknowledge could be highly selective and admit intakes that were skewed on the grounds of gender, ethnicity and social class. She criticised academic selection by schools, noting that grammar schools were found to admit highly socially advantaged intakes and lead to an overall reduction in educational attainment in the school system.

The Professor highlighted two solutions to increased selectivity in the school system. One was that schools move towards admission arrangements that are not subject to bias, such as by selecting pupils by random allocation, although she conceded this could be unpopular with some families. The other was to ensure that all schools were good schools so reducing the stakes about which schools children attend.

Philosopher and author, Professor A C Grayling CBE, said ensuring schools were inclusive was of ‘great importance’ and believed inclusivity within tertiary education should be discussed and debated. He supported the teaching of comparative religion in schools and said faith schools could be inclusive and a partner in making things better.

He believed however that schools predicated on a particular worldview were inherently divisive and that faith based education was an ‘oxymoron’ if and when faith schools sought to inculcate their religious views, which he viewed as a threat to teaching pupils critical and analytical thinking. He argued this contrasted with humanist and scientific thinking which he believed was more readily open to criticism and challenge.

The Professor urged that debate around inclusivity in schools should focus on the need to promote mixing and removing barriers. He cited his positive experience of a highly ethnically diverse school that a daughter attended, which he believed had helped pupils overcome difference and created conditions for pupils to form friendships with people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Chair of the Accord Coalition, the Revd Stephen Terry said, ‘Future generations will not thank us if we leave a legacy of discrimination or division, and we should not allow misguided lobbies from preventing us from implementing policies that will best serve them. I offer my gratitude to the four expert speakers for their contributions and for taking part. They expressed a range of sometimes contrasting views, and all argued for changes in the role of religion and belief in schools.

‘On behalf of Accord’s Steering group, I also wish to again thank Barry Sheerman for hosting the meeting to help mark Accord’s tenth year. I look forward to the campaign continuing to improve wider understanding and to increase support for inclusive educational reforms over the coming months and years ahead.’

An audio recording of the meeting is available here. To mark Accord’s anniversary, a report reviewing the campaign’s progress and which sets out pathways for further reforms also can be downloaded here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Accord depends on your support

Please give.

Sign up

find us on Facebook

News history