By Mike Rowley
In the context of the debate on the banning of the hijab in French public schools, it is instructive to consider the contrast between the educational systems of France and Britain.
In theory at least, the French school system is much more secular. The reasons for this are partly historical.
The idea of universal education in France was established by the Revolution. The ideology of the French Revolution being secular, state schools were of course also secular: education, like church lands, was wrested from the hands of the clergy and massively expanded. Of course there were 'blips' (Napoleon made the teaching of Catholicism compulsory) but by and large the framework established in the first years of the French Republic has survived to this day.
Universal schooling developed differently in Britain. It derived its beginnings from Owenite utopian socialism which encouraged employers to provide free schooling for the children of factory workers. Finding that most bosses preferred instead to exploit these children, religious institutions stepped into the breach, and when the first Education Acts were passed in the mid-19th century almost all elementary schools in working-class areas were run by churches.
This system was chaotic, and even the bourgeois-elitist Matthew Arnold (pioneer state school inspector and great poet) called for a complete structured state system of schooling on the French model.
The state system was built up by a process of piecemeal construction and consolidation culminating in the Butler Education Act of 1944. Of course the resulting system was elitist and far from secular - the Church of England running many state schools in accordance with Arnold's recommendations.
In the '60s and '70s Harold Wilson's Labour governments tried to resolve these problems by introducing comprehensive education, bringing together children from all backgrounds and of all levels of ability. At its best this system worked wonders, but sadly it was, like the previous elitist system, frequently underfunded by government.
Furthermore, a religious ethos continued with churches running many schools, especially primary schools, and 'religious studies', usually Christian-biased, even in 'secular' schools.
This reflects the historically ambivalent attitude of the British state to religion. While law and administration do not acknowledge the existence of God (and this was confirmed in a famous court judgment on religious charities a century ago) there is nonetheless a church tied to the state, the Church of England, and 'the promotion of religion" is assumed in charity law to be beneficial to the public for secular reasons (the promotion of 'social harmony" and so on).
In France, by contrast, religion is an entirely private matter, excluded theoretically from the public sphere by a Rousseauian insistence on the separation of the state from individual interests. Of course, in practice the theory falls a bit flat. Rousseau also thought that by observation of this principle the state could be separated from capitalism, and that didn't happen! State secularism does not prevent many French children being taught in private Catholic schools, although it does prevent those schools from imposing Catholic mores or excluding subjects like evolution.
Current developments must be seen in this context. In France the banning of the hijab (and other 'conspicuous religious symbols') in state schools is quite consistent with the philosophy of secular education. However, as one of the architects of the proposal recommended, the Muslim bourgeoisie could simply set up private Muslim schools where the veil was not banned. The proposal as it stands is a sop to the FN-voting and Catholic-nationalist right and an incitement to segregation.
In Britain, meanwhile, there is a danger of similar results being achieved through an opposite policy (though worse, because of the lack of regulation and secular standards.) Unlike the French government, the born-again Thatcherites in Charles Clarke's Education Department are quite ready to let the private sector intervene in state education, and if an individual PFI capitalist happens to be a religious maniac, then in true Victorian style he is permitted to subject children randomly selected by postcode to a barrage of religious propaganda.
Such is the 'charitable foundation', run by a Christian fundamentalist named Vardy, which has taken over one school already, has started teaching creationism and trying to force all children to carry Bibles, and now threatens to expand its miseducational empire. Many religious people, even, oppose this imposition of some individual's version of religion as propaganda.
Of course, most capitalist penetration of schools carries with it no religious indoctrination. Nonetheless, indoctrination does take place. The conversion of comprehensive schools into specialist 'business academies" or attempts by multinational clothing companies (such as Adidas in Edinburgh) to 'sponsor' schools are attempts to feed children an entirely secular 'opium of the people'.
It is urgently necessary, for the good of our children and preserving a rational political culture, to fight against all manifestations of religious ideology in schools, and to reassert, as the French teaching profession does, that religion is strictly a matter for each individual (and not that individual's family). But, as both the French and British experiences show, to do this it is also necessary to confront the problem of private involvement in the education system.