Ideas that go beyond belief

25th February 2005 at 00:00
In Good Faith: schools, religion and public funding. By Marie Parker-Jenkins, Dimitra Hartas and Barrie Irving. Ashgate pound;15.99 (pbk)

Should faith-based schools be publicly funded? Harry Brighouse welcomes a book that elevates facts above prejudice.

David Bell's recent critical remarks about Muslim schools were probably meant to illuminate, but in fact have shed more fog than light. It should have been predictable that openly critical comments from the chief inspector would be met with cries of racism.

Such accusations distort the debate. Mr Bell's comments were well tuned to the facts: according to Ofsted, a small group of evangelical Christian and Muslim schools do give cause for concern. Yet his critics had reason to be worried about the effects of his comments. Criticism of Muslim schools in particular is bound to be seized upon by two groups of people - well-willed secularists who oppose religious schooling in general, and closet racists who specifically oppose Muslim schools - as a reason to deny or even withdraw state funding for Muslim schools.

In fact, Bell's problem schools are all independents. In Good Faith explains indirectly why this is not an accident. The book presents the findings from research into state-funded faith schools. The early part traces the history of state funding for faith schools, and provides an excellent guide to the labyrinthine institutional arrangements.

More importantly, the authors have researched a large number of Muslim, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Sikh, Church of England and Roman Catholic schools, and their findings make a vital contribution to the debate about faith schooling. They highlight the rise, since 1998, of non-Christian state-funded faith schools, and lay out the controversies, as well as providing a good deal of pertinent data. The authors rightly place Muslim schools at the centre of the debate about faith schooling. Islam is the largest non-Christian faith in Britain, and has the worst press. It is the only religion about which it is permissible to publicly express uninformed hostile opinions. The sagacious Lord Hattersley is quoted as pointing out that "fundamentalism is less acceptable when it is not white". Islam has been a focal point for the new racism, and remains on the edge of mainstream British life.

Bell's comments might have fuelled scepticism toward state funding, because they signalled an acknowledgement of the possibility that faith schools were socially divisive and neglected the secular interests of their pupils.

But In Good Faith suggests a different lesson. The authors are clear that, for faith schools, state funding is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it relieves them of financial pressures, enables them to teach a more representative socio-economic mix of children, and gives them recognition and status. On the other, it limits their control over curricular issues, and makes them accountable to public culture. Here is one charming vignette from the book: "Are (state-funded faith schools) accountable to parents, pupils, LEAs, DfES, andor society in general? When we asked this question of senior management in our research study, the unanimous answer was 'everyone'."

If this is the right story, refusing funding to Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu schools simply improves the market conditions for those private schools that do not want to take the deal with the state because they do not feel accountable to a wide range of stakeholders, but only to the religious convictions of the parents. These are the schools least likely to promote personal autonomy in their pupils and social integration, because they are least likely to care about those values. The least bad solution is to ensure that parents who seek an education with a particular religious dimension for their children can find it within a state sector that is committed also to vital public ends such as social integration, and to use the leverage that the funding arrangements provide to that end.

So it is worth asking of funded Muslim schools whether they expose children to a wide range of cultural influences (a proxy for facilitating personal autonomy), and whether they are religiously inclusive (a proxy for being integrationist). The authors do not ask these questions directly, but they provide information that helps answer them. A large proportion of teachers in all funded Muslim schools are non-Muslim, because of a shortage of qualified Muslims; and the non-Muslim teachers tend to be committed to the idea of faith schooling and to be members of other religions. Pupils at least have contact, then, with authoritative adults who hold different religious views; something that is not always the case in Roman Catholic or Church of England schools. Furthermore, funded Muslim schools are obliged, unlike private schools, to follow the national curriculum, which includes citizenship education, biology and history.

The authors also find that pupils in funded Muslim schools are almost exclusively Muslim. Many RC schools and a good number of CE schools are religiously exclusive. And they, unlike the Muslim schools, are exclusive by design, deliberately discriminating on grounds of faith. Non-Muslims have not yet started applying to Muslim schools, but my guess is that white middle-class parents seeking educational excellence will take it where they can find it, and when word gets round that particular Muslim schools offer academic advantages, they will enjoy more diverse applicant pools. If they can systematically resist the temptation to discriminate on religious grounds at that point they will not only seize the moral high ground, but will also help to make Islam what it should be: an integrated and respected feature of British cultural life.

We should resist at all costs the arguments against funded Muslim schools that are tinged with racism. But the well-willed secularist argument against Muslim schools is stronger: there would be nothing unfair about eliminating all funding for faith schools (though I, from a secular perspective, personally think it would be unwise). However, as the authors point out, de-funding all faith schools is politically unfeasible. In that context, refusing funding to Muslim schools that are academically good enough, and willing to be at least as inclusive as their RC and CE peers, would be unconscionable.

In Good Faith doesn't answer all the questions - the authors are inhibited by their status as social scientists from taking firm stands on some of the controversies, such as whether funding is, all things considered, desirable, even though it is easy to guess their views - but the book is essential reading for those who want to base their opinions on good information, rather than prejudice.

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy and affiliate professor of education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the United States

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