I have no intention of raking over the “Trojan Horse” scheme- the alleged plot by extremist Muslims to take over various state schools in Birmingham. However, international readers may care to read more on the issue here.
Out of the controversy has emerged a broader debate on the role religion should play in any of Britain’s state schools. About one in three of Britain’s state schools are classified as “faith schools”- mostly affiliated with the Catholic or Protestant Churches. A few Muslim schools are beginning to emerge, but they are few and far between.
The influence that the affiliated Church or religious organisation exerts on a school is actually extensive. They are represented on schools’ Board of Governors; they can dictate the Religious Education and Personal, Health and Social Education curricula. Other things which characterise Church schools are the regular Assemblies given by the local vicar (which always seemed reasonably interesting to me, by Assembly standards at least); the frequent hymn singing and the daily prayers.
But most importantly, faith schools impose religion-based admissions criteria. Children from practicing Christian families are placed at the front of the queue for places. Inevitably, this leads to some families suddenly finding God when their child reaches the age of 4 or 11. The moment the vicar confirms to their desired school that the family are committed churchgoers, they suddenly find ‘better’ things to do with their Sunday mornings. Some faith schools are a little more strict. A state-funded Hindu school made headlines by allowing school places only to children of teetotal, vegetarian families.
It is dishonest, but it’s not fair to blame parents for playing the system, if that’s what it takes to secure a decent school place. It is the system of legally-endorsed religious segregation in our schools which is reprehensible. In a 21st century liberal democracy, it is surprising that discrimination against non-Christians is still permitted. Incidentally, it’s also odd that there is still a state-sponsored Church, but I’ll spare you that particular rant. In countries like France and the United States, there is a constitutional separation between the Church and the State, and that is how it should be.
What is to be achieved by separating children according to religion? Surely in Britain’s diverse and meritocratic society, it is sensible for our children to learn to work and interact with other groups as early as possible. Boys and girls; Christians, Muslims and Atheists; rich and poor; white and black: doesn’t history tell us that ghettoising these groups only leads to misunderstanding and conflict? Most religions- and common sense- teach that humanity is better off when we overcome division.
As the Trojan Horse story has shown (with the isolation of British Muslims), children’s understanding of the world can become badly warped if not exposed to other cultures. Schools inspectors have found several cases of teenagers, many born on British soil and who have lived in a British city their entire lives, with no understanding of the country to which they should belong. Many believed that Britain is a predominately Muslim country (in fact 4.8% of British residents identify as Muslims) whilst many others did not know that London was in the UK. These myths could not have been peddled if religious influence was kept out of schools, or if there was a balanced ethnic mix in the schools.
It has been argued that faith schools must be doing something right, or else their opponents wouldn’t make a fuss about the placing of religion at the heart of their admissions criteria. That is wrong on two counts. Firstly, it is a matter of principle. For example, feminists have pressed for the right to attend stuffy Gentleman’s Clubs. That doesn’t mean said Clubs are superior to other organisations. In fact, many wish that these dated, bourgeois institutions died out. However, it rankles that people are excluded from them because of their gender. A similar principle applies to religious segregation.
Secondly, if one in three schools in the country is religious, it is inevitable that there will be many excellent schools under that category, just is there will be some dismal ones. The laws of probability lead to that conclusion.
There is a very strong case for ending religious segregation in our schools, if not abolishing state-funded faith schools altogether.