Twenty years ago New Labour rode to general election victory on the wave of Tony Blair’s notorious “education, education, education” mantra. Blair promised to reform schools but now Labour’s focus is ‘education, not segregation’.
The new campaign aims to tackle Theresa May’s grammar school proposals but the crusade ignores the issues surrounding faith schools, which have consequently failed to enter the wider public discourse despite May’s proposal to eliminate the ‘50% cap’. This would mean faith schools could choose all of their students dependent on their religion instead of half of them.
Should May’s proposal be approved, British Humanist Association’s campaign coordinator Jay Harman foresees danger: “The effect of discriminating against children based on who you admit to the school is segregation. That is not good for social cohesion and this is at a time when it’s more important than it’s ever been.”
Post-Brexit Britain has become a very discordant destination; infamously, in the fortnight after the referendum hate crimes rose by 41%. Research from Cardiff University observed a rise in hate speech online and now the Metropolitan Police are gathering intelligence to protect vulnerable communities.
‘Faith academies’ and ‘free schools with a religious character’ are not obliged to strictly follow the national curriculum and Harman believes this could also lead to further intolerance. As Harman discovered when he attended a Church of England school, there can be insufficiencies in faith school education. “Our sex and relationships education was incredibly minimal. I remember some slightly dubious views being espoused around LGBT relationships.” Religious Education at such schools does not have to examine other faiths or non-faiths, like atheism. This provides an obvious catalyst for myopia and perhaps even brainwashing, as Harman testifies.
“An important part of growing up is respecting authority. But when you have to respect an authority which is teaching something that might be damaging to you….that is a form of indoctrination and yet it is something that schools are technically allowed to practice.”
The UK has become more secular since The Education Act 1944 made collective worship compulsory every morning, but faith schools still make up 7,000 of 21,000 British faculties. Blair’s government’s drive towards multi-culturalism helped to open two Muslim schools, a Sikh school and two Jewish schools. Although, this was outweighed by opening 100 new Church of England schools and a 2005 poll revealed that two thirds of people disagreed with Labour’s desire to state-fund these institutions.
Yet faith schools are still incontrovertibly popular with young parents. The schools are typically renowned for their sporting and academic prowess and a survey from the BHA found that ‘36% of parents said they had lied about their religion or would do in order to get their child into a good local school’. Harman accepts parents “want the best by their children” but this can still have consequences.
Tanya Barad went to two Roman Catholic schools in Birmingham growing up and given the choice, says she would do so again: “The schools gave me a good education and loads of opportunities but I think the religion also added a level of grounding.”
However Barad believes she only became conscious to the religious element of her education late, aged 15. Perhaps this becomes apparent when asked about Our Lady of Compassion School’s admissions policy; when over-subscribed, her primary school has criteria to admit catholic children before non-catholic children. Barad thinks this is fair: “The school has a theme – it is unfair to give someone a space who isn’t in the theme.”
She continued: “In my secondary school we had a guy who wore a turban and wasn’t catholic – it made him stand out as someone who wasn’t one of us.”
Comments like this resonate with Harman’s fears of a lack of integration in faith schools, yet intolerance is likely worse in some of London’s unregistered Abrahamic schools. Hackney Council is now investigating numerous ‘yeshivas’ which teach a ‘culturally and ethically insular’ curriculum to 800-1000 ‘lost’ Jewish children. In six Muslim schools in Tower Hamlets, OFSTED considers ‘pupils… may be vulnerable to extremist influences and radicalisation’.
Radicalisation is a taboo that all registered faith schools are keen to avoid association with, so says Roman Catholic Oratory School chaplain Kenneth McNab: “There is the question of getting tarred with the same brush, but generally speaking, they’ve (faith schools) served the nation pretty well.”
McNab has taught at the private school in Berkshire for 12 years. 60% of the students are catholic and they are ‘presented’ with notoriously divisive catholic viewpoints, such as forbidding contraception, divorce and same-sex marriage, but are not taught them. Regarding the latter, McNab is exasperated: “One of the great things about fundamental British values is tolerance but you are branded some sort of Neanderthal if you say that marriage is a tradition between a man and a woman. There is a lack of tolerance with that point of view.”
Still McNab acknowledges Article 30 of the UN Convention of the rights of the child: ‘each child has the right to practice their own religion’ and Oratory students receive one non-exam RE discussion lesson a week where they can talk about anything from the Quran to reincarnation.
“One of my tasks is to make the catholic faith as attractive as I can. But if a child asks you a straight and sensible question, they get a straight and sensible answer.” Perhaps at odds with Harman’s humanism, McNab explained why faith school education enriches children: “Maths is maths, but hopefully in a faith school, even behind a maths lesson, there’s an understanding of human beings.”
Unfortunately for Tony Blair, support for faith schools is still slowly dwindling despite parent’s preferences. 72% of people and now the Liberal Democrats believe state schools should not discriminate by faith. But for Jay Harman, this is welcome news: “Children are blind to the differences and the labels that we start seeing and start identifying with later in life. If you make friends with people from different backgrounds when you’re a child, those relationships are likely to last”.