Have we lost faith in faith schools?
Earlier this year, the education secretary, Damian Hinds, caused uproar when he said he would abolish the cap prohibiting new faith schools from selecting more than half their pupils on the basis of religion. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, joined forces with arch-secularist Richard Dawkins and others who wrote to Hinds calling the move divisive and ‘deleterious to social cohesion and respect’ and the government duly backed down. But new plans to make it easier for faith groups to open new voluntary-aided schools, which can select 100 per cent of pupils on faith grounds, are just as controversial. The National Secular Society has launched a new national campaign, ‘No More Faith Schools’, which has attracted widespread support from national teaching unions and celebrities.
Secularist critics argue that faith schools enable religious groups to use public money to evangelise to pupils, thereby segregating children and undermining social cohesion. The government itself seems ambivalent on the issue, especially in the context of broader anxieties about extremism. Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools in England, has called for a ‘muscular liberalism’ in order to ‘confront the indoctrination of impressionable minds’, having found that private faith schools run by religious conservatives were deliberately resisting British values and equalities law. Headline-grabbing examples tend to come from a small number of Orthodox Jewish and Muslim schools like Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School, a state secondary serving a strictly Orthodox Charedi community in north London, which has removed all examples of women socialising with men in a standard textbooks.
The Department for Education has now issued new draft guidelines, including the stipulation that faith schools should teach about same-sex relationships and should not teach Creationism as fact. Nevertheless, some argue such extreme examples are a red herring, especially when faith schools remain oversubscribed and extremely popular with many parents – one reason the government tends to favour them. Supporters of such schools contend that the real prejudice lies in the ‘illiberal campaign’ against them, which refuses to allow for real diversity of choice. And for many people of faith, the current campaign against Church schools is perceived as part of a broader war against religion and religious freedom. They argue that narrow-minded militant atheism, not religious extremism, is the problem.
So what would constitute a tolerant, open education system for a genuinely pluralist society? Would no more faith schools make for a more or less progressive society? Are accusations of religious extremism in our schools something we should be concerned about? Is the growing popularity of faith schools in Britain a sign of a tolerant or an intolerant society?