Church school 'magic' is simply snobbery

Peter Wilby

It may seem a paradox that the United States, the most devoutly religious nation in the developed world - where more than 60 per cent still claim to be active Christians, where some people still reject Darwinism, and where the Christian moral right is a significant political force - should be firmly wedded to secularism in its schools.

But the founders of the US understood that religion, through most of history, had been a force for division, not unity. It is because the Americans take religion so seriously that they prefer to keep it out of schools. They know that it is a toxic force that can arouse terrible passions.

The English, by contrast, take religion casually and lightly. If they go to church at all, they do so in the same spirit as they go to a theatre, an historic house or a nature trail: it is a perfectly pleasant way to occupy an hour or two but nothing to get excited about, and certainly not a subject for missionary zeal. Our popular image of a Christian is not of a hellfire preacher or proselytiser but of a rather mousy individual who finds it difficult to make friends.

Our church schools tend to echo this relaxed view. I think I may have gone to a Church of England primary school. I am really not sure. I do not remember being indoctrinated with the Thirty-Nine Articles, or anything else, only occasional visits to the neighbouring church for harvest festivals and such like. I suspect most church schools are like that.

Perhaps it would be better if they terrified children with threats of eternal damnation, employed teachers who spoke in tongues, and held long sessions of ecstatic gospel singing. Then politicians like David Blunkett, Estelle Morris and Tony Blair, who want to increase the number of "faith schools", would be more alert to the dangers and middle-class parents less inclined to send their children to them.

Church schools have become, unwittingly, instruments of social and racial segregation. Politicians and many parents believe that they get better results. If they do, somebody should identify, with precision, the magic ingredients.

Does the presence of a couple of bishops on the governing body increase pass rates at GCSE? If so, every governing body should have a bishop. There is a profound contradiction at the heart of all the propaganda that C of E schools in particular put out. On the one hand, they tell us that they are open to everybody; that children and teachers of any religion and none are welcome; and that they are as conscious of multi-culturalism as anybody else. On the other, they want us to believe that there is something special about them.

If pressed, the schools will claim an "ethos". This is too vague for me; frankly, I would be more impressed if they claimed supernatural powers.

I remain convinced that church schools do better because they attract (or select) the more affluent andor the more supportive parents. And I think the idea of encouraging more "faith schools" is madness. More C of E schools is code for more schools that offer exclusivity to the white middle classes.

More Muslim schools would risk taking racial and cultural divisions to a new and dangerous level. The indigenous English may not take religion seriously, but many people of Asian background do; the mutual incomprehension was well illustrated during the Salman Rushdie affair.

Am I accusing Muslims of being fanatics? I do not wish to use such words; fanaticism is often just a pejorative term for sincerity. Nor do I wish to accuse Anglicans of being racist snobs. I propose only that we treat religion as a private matter and keep it out of the public realm, which should unify, and not divide.

America has many things wrong. This is one thing that it has got right.

Peter Wilby is editor of the 'New Statesman'

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