Boundless faith but no sermons

20th July 2001 at 01:00
Tony Blair is pressing ahead with plans for more religious schools despite secular opposition. But Church leaders claim their motivation is about helping in the community rather than recruiting converts. Barry Hugill reports

The Reverend Richard Bentley is pastor of the Bodmin Road Evangelical Church in Bransholme, Hull. He ministers to 26,000 people on Britain's largest council estate and, to listen to him, you might think he was a headteacher rather than a man of the cloth.

"We run a breakfast club for kids before school and an after-school club for primary pupils. Then there is our homework club and our work with parents whose children truant. We provide volunteers to take assemblies and RE lessons, and we are working with Nottingham University on literacy programmes."

He has a file of letters from local schools. "The homework club has been a particular success," wrote the deputy head of the local (secular) primary school.

The head of the Winifred Holtby technology college was fulsome: "I would like to say a big thank you for your involvement in our school last week. I know the Office for Standards in Education would have liked it."

Mr Bentley has no formal responsibility for any aspect of the education of schoolchildren in Hull where exam results are among the poorest in the country, and where the education director recently resigned. Yet he has fingers in several schools and is much appreciated by those who do have the responsibility. Actually, "appreciated" is too weak a word. "Inspired" is the term used by Ian Turnbull, project director of the local education action zone. He wrote to Bentley after the pastor had spoken at an EAZ conference.

"You brought honesty, commitment, passion and a message that people were ready to take. You inspired me," he wrote.

In June's Queen's Speech the Government outlined plans to make it easier and cheaper for church and faith groups to open state-funded schools.

Education Secretary Estelle Morris has made it clear that after a century of Old Labour hostility towards non-secular schools, New Labour would be delighted to see more Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish schools.

Earlier this year, Lord Dearing prepared a report for the Church of England on future educational opportunities: "Don't mess about; build more schools," he advised. He added that this was "the greatest opportunity for church schools since the 19th century".

There was a hostile response from the humanists, Labour traditionalists and a coterie of distinguished academics, most notably Richard Dawkins. Professor Dawkins argued that church schools were "lethally divisive", while Labour local government leaders raised concerns that the creation of faith schools could damage the "delicate cultural balance" in the inner cities.

The arguments are valid but somewhat sterile given that the Government has not the slightest intention of changing its mind. Indeed, what the critics have overlooked in concentrating on the creation of new schools is the Government's intention - also spelt out in the Queen's Speech - that it wants external sponsors, such as businesses and voluntary groups, to take over failing or underperforming schools and even some successful ones.

Gordon Brown has allocated pound;450 million for the Sure Start programme due to open in 250 areas in England by 2002. Sure Start will provide new facilities including drop-in centres, childcare and mobile health clinics for children under four. Some of the services will come from existing local authority and NHS providers, but others will involve voluntary groups.

And this is where the Reverend Bentley and numerous other members of religious groups come into the picture. Currently a meagre 9 per cent of the UK population does any form of voluntary work. Yet 30 per cent of church attendees work as volunteers.

The figures are not available for non-Christian faith groups, but it is a reasonable assumption that most of the community involvement in areas with high ethnic populations is associated with the mosque or temple.

Put another way, without faith groups, voluntary work in many parts of Britain would be seriously undermined.

Anyone in any doubt that the Prime Minister is serious in his intent to expand the educational role of churches should consider the text of a speech made by Blair at a Christian Socialist conference in April. "Faith communities have an important part to play in enriching and re-energising society," he said. He went on to address the complaint of the churches that many local authorities discriminate against them in the allocation of funds for voluntary work, promising an investigation into the relationship between faith groups and the various funding agencies.

The previous day Gordon Brown had hosted a Downing Street seminar with Professor Robert Putnam, the Harvard University guru of "bottom-up" community regeneration, that is, turning round failing schools and neighbourhoods by devolving responsibility to the voluntary sector.

The churches, sensing they are knocking at an open door, are intensifying their lobbying efforts. The recently launched Faithworks Campaign is calling on the Government to ensure church groups are actively supported in their education and community work, rather than treated with "suspicion or even outright discrimination".

Faithworks, backed by Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, and Britain's highest-ranking Catholic, Archbishop Cormac O'Conor, are demanding the creation of a Whitehall monitoring unit to ensure that local authorities make a "fair" allocation of funds to religious groups.

The Local Government Association denies discrimination, but a spokeswoman pointed out that faith groups might sometimes miss out on grants because some schemes only give money to groups that don't exclude people on any basis.

The accusation that they are exclusive, providing only for believers, makes the churches very angry indeed. They are currently running 131,000 community projects and insist that not a single one would turn anyone away because they were not Christians. Indeed, they say, the opposite is the case with many, perhaps most users, having no connection at all with the church.

Steve Chalke, the Baptist minister who fronts Faithworks, claims that without the Church there would be little or no community activity in many inner-city and rural areas. "There isn't a church in the country that wouldn't be prepared to get involved in schools if they thought they would be backed by the local authority. And I promise that once a church is involved, the schools will be transformed."

There are three major objections to non-secular involvement in education. The first is philosophical and best represented by Richard Dawkins.

The second is part-ideological, part-pragmatic - the belief that the state has a responsibility to provide for all, and that allowing non-secular involvement is a forerunner of even greater privatisation. The third, which clearly relates to the first, is the fear that faith groups will proselytise.

The Reverend Paul Hackwood runs the Thornbury Centre in Bradford. His church provides a nursery, basic literacy classes, English as a second language courses and, his pride and joy, classes for women who have left school with few or no qualifications. More than 30 women have now gone on to university.

Mr Hackwood points out that most of his "clients" are Muslims. "We are not trying to make converts. We are doing what we do because it is our community.

"What we do is make people believe in themselves. The most evangelical group in Bradford is the Labour party but no one objects to its involvement in education."

Back in Hull, Richard Bentley insists he isn't into bible-bashing: "Hull has the worst church attendance in the UK so I can assure you that the services we provide to the community are used almost exclusively by people who do not come to our church.

"We live on the estate, the teachers don't. We live here so we know the problems. Jesus didn't heal the sick in order to convert them and we don't run our homework class so we can get the kids to our church."

The Faithworks Campaign has surveyed more than 2,000 churches and found that one in five felt they had been unfairly denied funding.

And nine out of 10 said they would like to be more involved and would do so if they felt they had full Government backing.

That's a finding of great interest to Downing Street. In April, both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister contacted the Reverend Chalke for a "briefing".

And just two weeks after Labour's landslide second-term victory he, and Richard Chartres, were back at No 10 for further discussions. The future has rarely been clearer.

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