By Pat Murphy, Leeds NUT
The government is all over the place on the issue of faith schools. On the one hand, a set of prominent Blairite Ministers have been given license to stoke up a debate about the dangers of segregation and the need for “community cohesion”. On the other hand, the government seems to lack the will or the capacity to introduce even the most limited measures to ensure ethnic and religious integration.
There is no clearer example of this than the recent debacle over faith schools.
Secretary of State for Education, Alan Johnson, chose the school half-term to announce that he intended to legislate to ensure that faith schools would admit a substantial number of pupils from other religions or no religion. Except he didn’t quite go that far. What he promised was that local authorities would have the power to insist that new faith schools would have to ensure that up to 25% of their pupil intake came from a different religious background or none.
Compared to what a socialist (or for that matter even radical liberal) government committed to secular education would do this was a very modest proposal indeed. Such a government would promise to open no more new faith schools at all and begin the process of bringing the existing voluntary-aided schools back into the local authority system and ending their religious character.
Johnson’s proposal would not have made existing faith schools fundamentally more inclusive or less sectarian. Nevertheless it would have marked some small progress in the right direction. It would have signalled a belief, however lamely expressed, that religiously exclusive education was not acceptable and should not be funded by the state. It might have put a bit of pressure on existing faith schools to change their admissions policies. Given the government’s plans to expand the Academies programme and to encourage hundreds of schools to opt out of local democratic accountability by becoming trusts it would have been a tiny paddle in the opposite direction.
But it was all too much for the churches, synagogues and mosques. They protested. In the face of the protest, New Labour’s commitment to “community cohesion” collapsed without so much as a whimper.
Less than a week after making his announcement Alan Johnson declared that, after talks with Anglican and Catholic Bishops, he had decided legislation on faith schools was “no longer necessary”. The bishops, he said, agreed with the government’s aims but preferred to achieve them on a voluntary basis. Compulsion would only cause unnecessary confrontation. It would risk denying Catholics and others access to “their schools” and would run counter to New Labour’s much vaunted “choice agenda”. Better to rely on good will and allow schools to adapt to local circumstances.
This was a humiliation for New Labour. The period between Johnson’s original statement and his climb-down was marked by very public and aggressive propaganda from the religious lobbies denouncing the proposals.
The leader of a lobby for Muslim schools made it clear that if they had to abide by such a law they would but that there would be a compulsory dress code under which all girls would have to wear the veil.
Jewish leaders claimed that the proposals misunderstood the special role schools run by minority religions played in their communities. It was unreasonable to expect them to be as open as Church of England and Catholic schools often were.
On top of all this predictable special pleading the major church leaders sought — and quickly gained access — to the Minister to demand an urgent review of the proposals. Within days the whole thing was dropped.
All this has been an alarming reminder of the power that faith organisations continue to hold in a largely secular society in which religious attendance is declining.
It was also a stark reminder of why the demand for secular education is so important. It goes to the heart of the residual power of the churches, mosques and synagogues.
What all of these religions fear most is the loss of their young. For the established religions this is particularly important, not only because of the need to build new future congregations, but also because many of those who currently attend their churches only do so to ensure a place in C of E and Catholic schools.
The vast majority of the existing faith schools in Britain are Anglican or Catholic. There are a very small number of Jewish and an even smaller number of Muslim schools. Since the proposal to make schools take 25% of pupils from outside their faith was to apply only to new faith schools the strong reaction from the Christian churches might, at first glance, be surprising. Certainly these churches wanted to use any new opportunities to protect their privileges and promise school places to their own flock but there was more to their anger than that. If it became established that new faith schools should be inclusive then very soon it would be untenable for existing faith schools to continue to be exclusive.
The basic case for integration and against religious control of schools is strong and popular enough for the tide to be turned in this debate. Religious leaders could easily find themselves on the defensive again.
However the lack of conviction and leadership throughout the labour and trade union movement on religious control of education impedes the fight for secular education.
That is why socialists need to reassert the basic principle that priests, vicars, imams and rabbis have no right to state funding to help them recruit and control their flocks. Children have a right to be educated in a safe environment free from religious indoctrination whether fundamentalist or relatively “benign”.