In a typically New Labour Blunketty, weaselly way, the chief inspector of schools, David Bell, managed to sound both tolerant and intolerant in the space of several minutes, when he attacked the separateness of “faith” schools. He said, “I worry that many young people are being educated in faith-based schools with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society.”
Well, if he was talking about all faith-based schools, this would be an interesting and surprising thing for someone like him to be saying. But, of course, it became very clear that the headlines he was after were an attack on only one category of faith-based school — the Muslim ones.
As newspaper after newspaper reported, what he was doing was “accusing many Islamic schools of undermining the coherence of British society” (Daily Telegraph). Phew! Solid Christian and Jewish readers could sit back and relax—“He wasn’t having a go at us! It’s those Muslims who go about breaking up the fine unity we have in this country.”
So, let’s look at the whole divisive, separatist mess that is religion and education in this country. It all begins many years ago. The rich always educated themselves through a mixture of private tuition and small elite schools. Bit by bit, rich Protestant merchants (like the Merchant Taylors) and then charitably-minded Puritans set up schools where first the middle classes and then the poor could go.
When Roman Catholics achieved some level of equal rights in British society, they too set up their own schools. With the rise of trade unionism, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, came the demand for free, compulsory, secular education for all. It’s worth spelling out that demand: an education which was free for everyone, and children wouldn’t take part in religious services or practices within the school. The compulsion element was suggested as this would, it was thought, prevent people from sending their kids off to work. It would mean everyone on the same starting line.
With a Labour government elected in 1945, many in the education reform movement thought that progress towards this ideal would be made. Sadly, what happened was a messy compromise negotiated at the end of the war and set in stone.
In order to bring the hundreds of church schools into the state system, they created a network of “voluntary controlled” and “voluntary aided” schools. “VC’ means that a school is a publicly owned and run school, but a local religious authority controls the governing of the school. “VA” means that the school is owned by a local religious authority but it gets an income (to pay the teachers and equip the school) from the public purse.
Meanwhile, in all the state schools, a daily Christian assembly had to be held and religious instruction lessons from five up to the then school leaving age of 15 had to be held too.
A “conscience clause” was inserted, largely for the benefit it was thought of Roman Catholics, which would enable them to opt out of these assemblies and lessons. But atheists like me were able to use it both for myself when I was a kid and also for one of my children.
Most of this mish-mash is still in place today, and with Tony Blair backing faith-based schools, the divisions introduced in the 1940s have been reinforced.
It’s now possible for any rich religious egotist to offer a few million to some grovelling local authority and the result will be a privately run, publicly financed “academy” with the “right” to insist that all pupils will attend this or that brand of religious education.
If ever you want to see the consequences of this, take a trip to the Highway, in Tower Hamlets, where two schools sit side by side. One is a publicly owned, publicly run primary school, the other a voluntary aided church of England one.
The public one is almost 100 percent Bangladeshi. The Church of England one is attended by a mix of white non-Catholic kids along with some kids of African and African-Caribbean descent. I don’t hear the chief inspector of schools complaining about the dangers of separatism here. You can travel all over the country and see similar or analogous things going on.
So, an old secondary school with a church foundation may have the status locally of being the “good” school so it ends up being the selective school of the area.
Meanwhile, some religious Muslims (and Jews) have turned round and said, “If you Christians have always had your publicly financed and private separate schools, why can’t we?” For David Bell to attack Muslims while supporting the whole edifice of state-sanctioned division in education, is gross hypocrisy.
Our demand should be for free, compulsory, universal, secular education. Meanwhile, in the short term, any attempt by a representative of government to single out one religion for being more separate than another is nasty, discriminatory rubbish.