A step forward in the faith schools debate

Simon Barrow


An initial response to the Runnymede Trust's report, 'Right to Divide? Faith Schools and Community Cohesion'.

The current ‘debate’ about faith schools (that is, state-funded schools with a religious foundation) is both unproductive and unsustainable. It is unproductive, because the terms of engagement have been too easily determined by vested interests, both ‘pro’ and ‘anti’. It is unsustainable, because diversity of provision, fairness of operation and equality of access can never be achieved simply by trying to implement policies without adequate regard to their actual impact, and nor can it be achieved by seeking to ‘privilege’ or ‘ban’ certain participants a priori.

Runnymede Trust’s new report, Right to Divide? Faith Schools and Community Cohesion [see links below for full document and summary] offers a well-researched set of investigations, findings and proposals for those who wish to negotiate a way forward through reform and change, rather than confrontation and exclusion. It signals what ought to be a ‘giant leap forward’ in a vital public conversation and (often) argument.

Neither those who strongly back faith schools nor those who strongly oppose them can claim that their arguments have been ignored. Rob Berkely and Savita Vij have sought to be fair, open and independently evaluative in consulting a thousand people from different belief backgrounds (religious and non-religious) who are parents, pupils, professionals and policy makers. They have sought to demonstrate on an evidential basis both the contribution that faith schools can make to the education system and the community, but also the severe problems, divisions and challenges that the current system of provision and policy will go on perpetuating if it is not changed.

It is to be hoped that protagonists in the current debate (including government) do not seek simply to ‘cherry pick’ what suits their existing argument, but engage fully with the range of issues. Likewise, the fact that the report does not directly deal with employment issues, for example, or that it’s consideration of Religious Education may need to engage more substantially with non-religious beliefs on an equal basis, should not be used as a means of dismissing it. No report can cover all angles. But hopefully this one will open up and enable the current conversation to be broadened and developed.

The case for constructive reform

The trajectory of the six proposals put forward by the Runnymede Trust is broadly consonant with the that of the Accord Coalition which was launched earlier this year, and in which Ekklesia (a Christian think-tank on issues of religion and society) is a founding participant along with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the British Humanist Association (BHA) and a range of other religious and non-religious voices, both corporate and personal.

What marks out Accord is that its call for fully inclusive schooling for all, and for the substantial reform of faith schools in that direction, is one that has brought together those who may take different ‘final’ positions on whether religiously founded and operated schools in the community are a good thing or not. What they have seen is that much common ground can be staked out, the terrain redefined, aims harmonised, and specific ways forward offered – in Accord’s case non-discrimination in admissions and employment, a balanced curriculum, a common inspection regime, and assemblies that reflect the whole community in our schools.

Ekklesia is specifically concerned with a ‘tradition based’ (in our case, Christian) case for fairness and equality in state-funded education and provision. We have argued this elsewhere (‘The Christian case for Accord’), and in our own summation of the major issues (‘Changing faith schools for the better’). Those of other faiths, humanists and people whose beliefs are defined on pragmatic grounds will have other points and perspectives to offer.

Challenging false divisions

The important thing here is to disarm the (false) accusation that those who wish to introduce what Runnymede acknowledges to be “radical and difficult changes” in what amounts to a third of the schools sector are simply “anti-religious” or “one-sided” in their stance. In policy terms, that is materially not the case. In terms of the breadth of those who have expressed deep concerns to Runnymede, Accord, Ekklesia, teaching unions, the BHA, community organisations, parents groups and others, it is also not the case.

The only people who benefit from the current mischaracterisation of the case for change are either those who wrongly perceive that genuine reform will leave no space for religious persons and values in pubic life, or those who fear that radical change will undermine their case for excluding such persons and values – because their reasons for wishing this are more ideological than evidential.

In terms of Christian and other faith concerns, the Right to Divide? report points out that “[at] the moment, faith can be used by parents as a means of ensuring social exclusivity within a school” – and indeed it can accentuate the inequality of provision generally and in particular areas. This does not just undermine government commitments to fairness and cohesion, and in some cases (as the Ouseley report pointed out) feature in highly damaging social and cultural disintegration, it also violates some basic principles of the major faiths themselves.

For example, both Christians and Jews are enjoined to love their neighbours as themselves, not to put themselves above their neighbours. In these terms, an ethos of privilege, partiality and exclusivity is neither a ‘Christian ethos’ nor a ‘Jewish ethos’. Equal regard and treatment is also important to Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others – not as an ‘ethical extra’ but often in terms of foundational beliefs about the world and the divine.

What do we really mean by ‘ethos’?

When the word ‘religious ethos’ is used, it is often construed as heavily identified with, if not identical to, the particular institutional and ideological interests of religious sponsoring bodies. But arrogating one’s self-interest in the guise of religion is something that the great prophets in all the faiths warn and argue against time and time again. Ekklesia believes that using ‘ethos’ as a justification for privilege is unhelpful and misleading, not least from the spiritual and theological perspective that the faiths claim as their determining core.

The same question that arises in relation to using faith affiliation as a determinative factor in admission applies to its use as a determining factor in employment. In this sense, the two cannot be separated. To argue for non-discrimination here is not to say that “a church school cannot employ Christians”, as some have claimed. No one wishes to forbid particular people from particular faith backgrounds applying for staff posts. On the contrary, it is to say that no school should reject a highly capable and qualified teacher who is willing to support the school’s work and ethos (thereby possibly appointing someone less capable or less qualified) simply on grounds of personal faith and belief. To do that is to limit the diversity and skill range of the pool of applicants. It is also unfair when the school is being funded overwhelmingly by people of all faiths and none. Again, unfairness is not a ‘faith value’, but stands directly against the teaching of the great religions concerning interpersonal and social justice (‘righteousness’).

Caring for the disadvantaged, opening our doors

Among the many points raised by the Runnymede Trust’s report, two deserve special attention in our opinion. First, the case is made that “faith schools should serve the most disadvantaged.” This, Ekklesia has suggested frequently in the past, gets far closer to the question of what a genuine ‘Christian ethos’ is, for example. In the Gospels Jesus makes it absolutely plain that God’s concern for all translates, in a unequal and unjust setting, to a particular love and concern for the excluded and marginalised – by which he means those marginalised by certain interpretations of religion, too. No school which practices discrimination, which privileges its own, and which perpetuates social or cultural division can claim to be truthfully ‘Christian’, even if it uses that label and perpetuates it ‘religiously’, so to speak.

Similar debates about authenticity and community are occurring in other areas of society, including other religions and belief systems, too. This is the second point. Schools funded by the whole community should be open to the whole community. At church, in the mosque, gurdwara, temple, synagogue and meeting house, children and parents have the chance to meet and share as communities of conviction. At school and in the community they should have the genuine chance to cross boundaries and meet ‘the others’, not just in theory but in person. Schools policy should be enabling not blocking that encounter, and providing people of all backgrounds with the opportunity and challenge of meeting and influencing one another beneficially, as well as finding ways of handling conflict. This is not just right. It is vital.

Please click here to download the full Runnymede publication (from the Trust's website), or click here for the executive summary.