In the wake of the Trojan Horse investigations in Birmingham, there has been a wider polarization of opinion about so-called faith schools, and the teaching of religion in the state sector, as the Observer reported:
The survey by Opinium shows that 58% of voters now believe faith schools, which can give priority to applications from pupils of their faith and are free to teach only about their own religion, should not be funded by the state or should be abolished.
Of those with concerns, 70% said the taxpayer should not be funding the promotion of religion in schools, 60% said such schools promoted division and segregation, and 41% said they were contrary to the promotion of a multicultural society. Fewer than one in three (30%) said they had no objections to faith schools being funded by the state.
In law, there is no such thing as a “faith school”, there are, however, schools with a religious character. The report by the Christian think tank, Theos, assessing the evidence about the performance of schools with religious character nevertheless regards use of the term ‘faith schools’ as useful: reflecting the language of the public debate, where the term simply refers to a state-maintained school within England which teaches the wider, general curriculum, but which is affiliated to a particular religious denomination or organisation.
Theos’s report reveals that:
Faith schools constitute about a third of all state-maintained or non-fee paying schools in England. Over 99% of these schools are Christian, but some are Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu. State-maintained schools may be community schools, voluntary aided schools, voluntary controlled schools, foundation schools, academies or free schools.
It is of course revealing that the Birmingham schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse controversy are not actually faith schools, which highlights the degree to which discussion of faith schools becomes a proxy argument about the role of religion in the public sphere. It is worth reminding ourselves, that while this may not always be observed, all state-maintained schools are legislatively required to have a daily act of collective worship. Even in schools without a religious character, this collective worship is not neutral, but must (by law) be “wholly, or mainly of a broadly Christian nature”.
Given the scale of involvement of religious institutions in the English education system, the issues are surprisingly poorly understood, not only in the public debates, but central assumptions by protagonists on both sides of the debate have been sparsely researched.
The English education system is diverse and complicated and there is considerable diversity of school funding and governance models. In 2012 about 95% of faith schools were either voluntary aided or controlled; about 4 per cent were academies or free schools; and less than one per cent were foundation schools. 98% of faith schools are Roman Catholic or Anglican, and before 1997 faith schools were almost all either from these mainstream Christian denominations, or Jewish. The Blair government extended the arrangements to other faiths.
36% of faith schools are voluntary controlled (VC) , which means that the primary responsibility for the school’s admissions and staff lies with the local authority. 59% of faith schools are voluntary aided (VA), meaning that the school has greater autonomy in these areas, in particular permitting faith based selection where the school is oversubscribed, and permitting a faith based employment criterion for 20% of teachers.
Both voluntary aided (VA) and voluntary controlled (VC) schools must follow the National Curriculum. However, VA schools may teach Religious Education in accordance with their particular ‘trust deed’, or religious affiliation, unless parents request otherwise. All Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim schools are VA (with the exception of one Catholic foundation school) whilst Church of England and Methodist schools are a mixture of VA and VC.
The role of religious authorities in English schools is historical, as the Church of England was the main provider of public education prior to 1870, when it maintained 17000 schools (In 2012 there were 6,750 schools out of a total of 19,783 state schools in England). The 1870 education reforms introduced a parallel system of state maintained non-religious schools; and the 1944 Education Act codified the dual system that we have today.
There are two important points to grasp here, firstly that the provision of education by the Church of England has always been borne out of the church’s sense of social responsibility and commitment to enriching the life of the community, rather than proselytizing.
According to the Church School of the Future Review (Church of England Archbishops Council Education Division, 2012), education has as its core the dual purpose of ‘witness’ and ‘service’, which finds expression in:
a sense of obligation to share an enduring narrative, a set of values and ways of behaving that stem from and express the Christian foundation of the school, thereby sharing the faith with all members of the school community [and an] engagement with and service to society: the provision of education as a common good, open to all and of benefit to all.
The Observer quotes the Rev Jan Ainsworth, the church’s chief education officer, saying:
Church schools continue to be hugely popular with parents, who as taxpayers are part of the public funding for education. The church itself puts a considerable amount of time and money into its schools, maintaining the land and buildings, providing 22,000 governors and a diocesan umbrella structure which with the demise of the local authority is sometimes the only support left to schools. Church schools are not divisive but provide an inclusive education, open to pupils of all faiths and none.
The expansion of Catholic and Jewish schools from 1870 onwards played a complementary but different role, in providing education for immigrant communities settling in what was then a predominantly Anglican society, and where the a high proportion of public education was provided by the Anglican Church. Their role has mediated the experience of migrant populations, allowing them to preserve religious and cultural heritage, and providing a successful model of choice where religious communities have been able to express difference on the basis of equality.
Catholic Schools in particular are more likely to be ethnically and culturally diverse than the surrounding community, and it is worth quoting the Stonewall report, The experiences of gay young people in Britain’s young people in Britain’s schools in 2012 (Stonewall, 2012), that there is no higher incidence of homophobia in faith schools than in non-religious state-maintained schools.
While the evidence is inconclusive, and points to the higher academic performance of faith schools as being largely based upon their admissions policy, there is also a persuasive suggestion that faith schools foster better results based upon a cohesive sense of community, and an ethos where pupils identify strongly with their school, and where parents are more involved. Interestingly, the experience is that special needs children in Church of England primary schools may perform better than in non-religious state maintained schools.
Objections to faith schools are often founded upon opposition to religion playing a role in public life; which involves an implicit assumption that the state has an obligation to provide, or indeed has the capability to provide, a value neutral context where religious ideas are neither promoted nor undermined. Sadly, some of those opposed to Faith Schools seem to have a patronising and dismissive view that religious people are backward. For example the letter in last Sunday’s observer from someone called Phillip Wood:
Judaism, Christianity and Islam arose out of the same pre-Enlightenment, misogynist “values-swamp” from within archaic pastoral cultures. The logic of school secularisation also means replacing RE with cultural anthropology so that children are exposed to a more critical awareness of other cultures and world-views. As a retired social sciences teacher, I have latterly covered many RE classes in academies
It is somewhat scary that someone with so little respect for religious views has taught RE lessons, and this illustrates why many parents may prefer the religious education of their children to be more sympathetic to their own belief systems.
There are a number of problems with assuming that a secular education system can be neutral, not least that there is extreme diversity in views of non-religious people, and neither secularism nor atheism can be assumed themselves to be value neutral. But equally, religion is not, and cannot typically be an affair of individual conscience.
Whether or not we accept that religious precepts are the result of Revelation, whether they only codify social experiences and culturally accepted mores, or whether they are the result of contested interpretations of Revelation in specific cultural and historical contexts; the great religious faiths have arisen in collective social contexts, and therefore created communities of shared experience, which provide expectations of how individuals should interact in society; and religious communities are as entitled as anyone else in a democratic society to promote their own vision of the common good.
The relative success of embracing multi-culturalism in England, which over the last 150 years in particular has seen successive waves of immigration bringing in diverse religious and social heritages, has been founded upon choice and diversity. The historical experience of Catholics and Jews in England is that faith schools have allowed them to create bridges into mainstream society, without forced assimilation.
Indeed, there is a tradition within mainstream British labourism and social democracy of regarding the retreat of religiously inspired collective values as a defeat. For example, RH Tawney was sufficienty central to the Labour Party’s thinking that he drafted the Labour Party’s political programme adopted by conference in 1928: “Labour and Nation”
Tawney’s belief was that society requires a shared common moral framework, which functionally protects the collective interests of society. Tawney was by profession an academic historian, a specialist in the late mediaeval period, and his account of the transition to capitalism stresses the role of the Church in European feudal society, with provided the scholastic doctrine of organicism. This valued different social functions contributing to the mutual benefit of an organic whole. The Church opposed avarice and usury, and stressed collective duties rather then individual rights.
For Tawney the low level tolerance of usury by the Church when it was a peripheral economic activity meant they were unprepared to ideologically adapt to the later development of Capital as a driving economic force; and the Protestant rebellions against the materialism and self-interest of the Roman church, themselves opened the door to individualism, and the retreat of the church from the political sphere into the private realm. For Tawney this removed the main mechanism in mediaeval society for maintaining a philosophy of shared social purpose, and defining the duties that individuals owed to society.
Tawney rejected the teleological implications of both Marxism and Whig liberalism which see the triumph of the capitalist class as unambiguous progress: the removal of the legal inequalities of feudalism allowed advance towards greater political freedom, but at the expense of allowing the rich to use their economic power to impose their will upon society; and the ideological triumph of individualism and a philosophy of rights undermined concepts of duties towards the common good.
Around a hundred years ago, the two Austrian socialists, Karl Renner and Otto Bauer, also challenged liberal theories of the relationship between state and citizen. Renner argued a powerful critique of contemporary theories of sovereignty based upon individual rights. He drew on the experience of the religious wars in early Modern Europe, where following the treaty of Augsburg German states dictated the religious affiliation of their subjects, leading to countless wars. According to Renner, the problem was solved when coexistence of competing religions, and their collective obligations, became accepted within states.
Bauer elaborated on this, arguing that there was a weakness of constitutional systems arising from the Enlightenment both through its autocratic and democratic manifestations, because increased centralization of the state disconnected individual citizens from the autonomous collective institutions that had existed in the pre-modern period, this created what Bauer described as “centralist-atomist” model, where isolated individuals were confronted by centralized totalistic states, and where liberal concepts of the relationship between citizens and the state represented a continuity not a rupture from the centralizing tendency of the absolutist Bourbon, or Hapsburg states.
As Heinz Fisher, the current President of the Austria (Social Democrat), has argued:
“In the liberal nation-state the cultural practice of the dominant nation (the official ethnicity of the state) is disguised by a procedural practice that claims neutrality but is derived from the cultural experiences of the dominant national community. Furthermore, a liberal view of culture is by definition grounded in liberal theory and cannot avoid seeing every culture from a liberal angle. This creates in most cases serious distortions. That is why in liberal democracies multiculturalism is always limited by the hegemony of the dominant nation, and why liberal theories find it very difficult to construct a multiethnic and multicultural state out of the practice of liberal democracy. As Parekh perceptively argued in another context, the liberal response to the cultural pluralism of nation-states does little more than carve out a precarious area of diversity on the margin of a predominantly assimilationist structure. Atomist states, however much consideration they might show for individual democratic rights and however much consideration they might show for individual democratic rights are by definition adverse to recognizing intermediate and constitutionally enshrined entities.
As I have argued myself in another context:
Could it be that the … pragmatic but inconsistent anomalies of the British constitution, while admittedly reflecting their pre-modern, and indeed pre-enlightenment origins, are also potentially post-modern? The English, or is it the British, like to imagine ourselves both unique and particular, but also exemplary. In fact the complex constitutional and social mix of Britain has many features that are not unique. Other states are also multi-national, other states also balance conflicting identities and loyalties; and we don’t need to be exemplary, we only need to find a solution that works for us.
While the homogenous French state, with its modernist constitution, struggles with shared loyalties and identities, Britain – with or without Scotland – has been more at ease with the compromises necessary for multi-culturalism. The British tradition of constitutionalism and pragmatism is well suited to the modern democratic world, even to the extent that Britain combines both what is effectively republican government and concepts of citizenship with a show-biz monarchy, a balancing act that only works as long as you don’t think about it.
… The contested, multi-polar nature of English and British identity, its many flavours and incongruities, are well suited to the contemporary world, the post-imperial world of immigration, religious and cultural differences, and complex interactions.
Faith schools are a distinctively English arrangement that allow communities and individuals to express difference in a context of equality of dignity and regard. They have been a broadly successful social experiment that has both allowed expression of identities, and through the offering of choice have also contextualized that difference in a tolerant and pragmatically accommodating tendency towards the liberal social norms of broader society.
It would be a tragic paradox if a moral panic about a perceived threat to tolerant British values caused us to undermine such a successful expression of British pragmatism.