Pluralism, not isolation

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
The debate on faith schools is explored in a new collection of papers that Robert Jackson believes will set the agenda for future research

Faith Schools: consensus or conflict? Edited by Roy Gardner, Jo Cairns and Denis Lawton RoutledgeFalmer pound;24.99

England and Wales have had state funding for some schools with a Christian foundation since 1870. The 1944 Education Act additionally provided state funding to some Jewish schools. Since 1997, Blair's Government has extended the range of state-funded faith schools to include Muslim and Sikh schools, for example, and to support the Church of England's plan to develop its role in secondary education. The policy is controversial, not least in relation to the debate about schooling and social cohesion, and it is vital that the issues should be discussed by educators at a high level.

Fortunately, Faith Schools: consensus or conflict? offers some good scholarly discussions and a few enlightening research reports. My one quibble is with the unexplained use of the terms "faith school" and "faith-based school", discussed neither in the introduction nor in Roy Gardner's otherwise engaging opening chapter. Neither term is used in legislation, and the editors fail to distinguish between types of what the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act calls "schools with a religious character". This is an important point, for there are those who would support the voluntary controlled model - a religious ethos, but with a fairly open admissions policy and RE requiring understanding of the different religions present in British society - while opposing the voluntary aided structure, which allows denominational teaching and tighter admissions arrangements.

The editors have organised into five sections disparate material, originally presented as 21 conference papers (of which it is only possible to mention a selection here). In the first section, which provides a context for the debate, Marie Parker-Jenkins reviews codes of children's and parents' rights. She sees a case for providing the option of a faith-based education in order to meet the parental right to educate children in accordance with their religious convictions. She also notes a tension between the rights of parents and children, observing that when there is conflict between the child's right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and parental rights, the latter usually take precedence.

Part two deals with arguments for and against public funding of faith schools. Richard Pring is not impressed with most standard arguments for such schools: better standards, parental choicerights and school ethos.

However, he maintains that, although certain religious doctrines might foster divisiveness, this is not an argument against faith schools in principle. While opposing indoctrination, and supporting the goal of autonomy, Pring sees a place for education within a religious framework, so long as it exposes students to criticism of faith education from outside sources and encourages them to scrutinise the beliefs and values of the school's tradition.

Seen in this way, faith-based education could provide both continuity with, and critical development of, tradition. There is some credence in Pring's view. It is very different from current Government policy that makes no clear distinction between different types and philosophies of faith-based education, leaving local school organisation committees with the responsibility of deciding whether to establish new schools with a religious character.

Marilyn Mason's lively contribution gives welcome attention to fully state-funded community schools. She argues that these need to be supported in meeting the religious and spiritual needs of diverse school populations.

Rather than being religion-free zones, she says, community schools should be "inclusive pluralist schools", giving the option of faith-based teaching in addition to a study of different religions, providing opportunities for prayer or meditation as well as inclusive assemblies. The implementation of this policy, she maintains, would remove any need for separate faith-based schools.

Part three includes discussions of "faith schools in practice". Rachel Barker and John Anderson's research-based discussion of whether Bradford's Church of England schools are fundamentally cohesive or segregationist is compelling. It is not so much the schools that turn out to be the problem, but a demographic pattern that, in terms of housing and schooling, leads to increasing ethnic and religious segregation against a background of economic deprivation. The authors rightly point out that schools - faith-based or otherwise - can only do so much under such conditions.

Politicians and policy-makers need to address underlying economic and demographic issues.

Part four is devoted to international experience. James Arthur's chapter on measuring Roman Catholic school performance gives a concise international picture, while other contributions relate to Northern Ireland, the US and France. Part five discusses policy issues in relation to citizenship, continuing personal and professional development and the impact of faith schools on pupil performance. A research report by Ian and Sandie Schagen shows how, on present evidence, it is not possible to establish that pupil performance is better in faith schools than in community schools. Denis Lawton and Jo Cairns' concluding chapter airs some political issues, and provides a useful agenda for research.

Robert Jackson is director of the religions and education research unit at the University of Warwick

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