In a godless land, faith schools are the betrayal

11th July 2008 at 01:00
Eagle-eyed readers of the latest Centre for Policy Studies report may note that I am thanked in the preface for my help in exposing what it calls "the betrayal of faith schools"
Eagle-eyed readers of the latest Centre for Policy Studies report may note that I am thanked in the preface for my help in exposing what it calls "the betrayal of faith schools". This is the first - and, I should think, last - time I shall earn the gratitude of a right-wing think tank. The report was written by Cristina Odone, my former deputy at the New Statesman. Since she helped me to produce a socialist magazine, I thought it only fair to give her modest help in producing a Tory pamphlet.

That help was confined to explaining my objections to faith schools and directing her to research sources. She will not be surprised to learn that I think her conclusions, though argued in her characteristically robust and lucid fashion, are complete nonsense. "A Government obsessed with phoney egalitarianism and control freakery," she warns, "is aligning itself with the strident secularist lobby to threaten the future of faith schools." Ed Balls, the mild-mannered Schools Secretary, "has generated a climate of fear". Would that it were so. The Government is encouraging more faith schools - the Church of England is set to become the biggest sponsor by far of academies - and Mr Balls is merely trying to eliminate social bias from entry.

He also supports more Muslim state schools. At present, there are just seven, with three more in the pipeline. The Government has offered financial help to expand the 115 fee-paying Muslim schools so they can offer a full curriculum and provide the facilities that maintained status requires. Ms Odone, a practising Catholic, explains the arguments for doing so.

First, we cannot justify continued state finance for thousands of Anglican and Catholic schools, as well as 37 Jewish schools, while denying it to Muslim schools, particularly since the extent of religious commitment and observance in the Muslim community is far greater than among the nominally Christian majority. The disparity feeds the widespread perception among Muslims that they are second-class citizens.

Second, if we don't expand Muslim state schools, more parents may send their children to private faith schools (some financed, overtly or covertly, from Saudi Arabia) or educate them at home. In either case, religious fundamentalism would be given greater opportunity to flourish. Even if they don't opt out of the state sector, many parents, concerned about the lack of Islamic studies, will choose after-school madrassas, already attended by an estimated 100,000 children. Some parents, worried about exposure to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, may send teenage girls to Pakistan or Bangladesh to complete their education.

Third, many Asian parents, who may not be specially devout Muslims, prefer to have their children educated in a Muslim environment to protect them from racism and religious hatred.

These are powerful arguments. But as a practising atheist (as I like to call myself), I cannot accept them. I fear community pressures will force parents to use all-Muslim schools, when they would prefer not to do so; that Muslims who go to non-faith schools will be left more isolated; that the mosque's hold on Muslim areas will be strengthened; and that government support will legitimise what would amount to ethnic segregation.

It's all very well for politicians to talk about Britishness, but what is most distinctive about modern Britain is its secularism. We are the most godless people in the world. Muslims fall back on their religion because they feel rejected. Bringing that religion into state schools solves nothing at all. The only solution is to abolish - or at least phase out - all faith schools. This, we are told, is not politically acceptable. It is up to politicians to make it so. We need the leadership that created full public support for comprehensive schools and the NHS. If that arrives, Ms Odone will have cause to complain about betrayal.

Peter Wilby, former editor of the 'New Statesman' and 'The Independent on Sunday'.

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