Damn it, faith schools are not to be feared

12th June 2009 at 01:00
Denominational education is unfairly blamed for undermining social cohesion

A few years ago, the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama devised a mathematical algorithm that estimated how many people in a given neighbourhood were likely to go to hell. The church could then concentrate its ministry where it knew sinners were abundant. Think detergent and stains. In Alabama, 46.1 per cent of citizens were calculated to be on the path to perdition.

It's a fair assumption that the damned are far more numerous in secular Britain. They probably include a large proportion of the 57 per cent of people who told pollsters this week that in their opinion faith schools are divisive. Whitehall's limp response was that faith schools are more ethnically diverse than their secular counterparts. That misses the point - denominational schools remain widely distrusted by many liberals, partly because they are suspected of nurturing the type of bogus learning displayed by the Baptists of Alabama, but mainly because they are held responsible for undermining social cohesion - from legal but unjust employment discrimination to the sectarian hatreds of Belfast or Burnley.

The record of faith schools, from that angle, can appear damning. Tony Blair may see no contradiction between his work promoting separate faith education when he was Prime Minister and his current scheme to unite teenagers of different religions - but others will (page 7). Yet all this is from a particular perspective: one where intemperate imams and criminal Christian Brothers figure far more prominently than the excellent teaching and support most faith schools offer local communities. To blame them for the actions of sectarian fanatics, as some critics do, is unfair and glib. Are those outrages the result of over-exposure to church fetes and nativity plays or do they have their roots in something more fundamental - poverty, say?

Shouldn't liberals be fairer still - is it possible to make a secular case for faith schools? A fatalistic defence is that they are too big to tackle - they educate so many pupils and are so embedded in the country's educational DNA that it would take a revolution of Gallic or American proportions to make them a purely private affair. That isn't going to happen, so why not live with what we can't change?

A better argument is that secular, multi-cultural liberals are inconsistent. One cannot celebrate diversity by restricting choice. Most people would accept that parents have a right to educate their children in an ethos of their choosing, however wrong it may seem to others, as long as the law is observed. That is the nature of a tolerant, democratic society.

Ultimately, secularists should accept faith schools because they have no reason to fear them. Rationalists and assorted atheists cannot warn of the consequences of too much religion and also argue that it's a busted flush. How potent do they think religious education is? A glance at the numbers who go to faith schools compared with those who regularly attend a place of worship clearly suggests that it is not the force they fear. The Jesuits were patently wrong - a child immersed in doctrine does not remain faithful for life. Humanists ought to have some faith in their non-belief.

Gerard Kelly, Editor. E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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