Uneasy peace

19th December 2008 at 00:00
Faith schools have been blamed for everything from 911 to social selection. Do they deserve this reputation? Nick Morrison investigates

A teaching assistant claims the right to wear the veil in a Church of England school. An atheist accuses a Roman Catholic school of discrimination. Textbooks in a Muslim school describe Jews and Christians as apes and dogs. Religion is the most polarising issue of our times, and nowhere are these tensions more exposed than in our faith schools.

After spending much of the past 200 years keeping a low profile, faith schools now make regular appearances at employment tribunals. But this is just the symptom of a more fundamental criticism: that faith schools cause divisions and sow the seeds of extremism.

How did this happen? Why did faith schools become such an issue in a country where fewer than one in eight people attend a weekly religious service?

About a third of state schools in England are faith schools, educating about a quarter of all pupils, with the majority Christian schools. But Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, is in no doubt that it is the demand for Muslim schools that is prompting much of the disquiet. After all, few people claim Church of England schools encourage extremism. "Muslim schools in particular tend to put far too much emphasis on religion," he says.

He doesn't absolve Christian schools, arguing that those run by fundamentalist and evangelical groups can be just as divisive, although he recognises that parents often choose Christian faith schools not out of religious affiliation, but a belief that standards of both academic achievement and behaviour are higher.

But he warns that a wave of Muslim schools could help fracture an already fragile cultural balance. "It will open up the way for extremism to flourish. People are never given a moderate view of life, it is always this extreme religious view, and the result is we're going to have a tense country."

It would be easy to blame the terrorist attacks in the US and London and the western invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq for encouraging a wariness of Islam and a desire among Muslims in the UK to assert their cultural identity. But in truth they merely brought existing tensions into sharper focus.

Even before 911 there were objections that the first state Muslim secondary school - Feversham College in Bradford, which acquired voluntary aided status in 2001 - would herald "educational apartheid". In any case, as supporters of faith schools point out, none of the bombers who caused devastation in London in July 2005 had attended a faith school.

The dilemma for policy-makers, however, is that once the existence of long-established faith schools is accepted, then denying other faiths the opportunity to open their own schools could itself cause division through resentment.

"We have dug ourselves a hole," says Lynn Davies, a professor at Birmingham University's School of Education and the author of Educating against Extremism, a book examining the links between schools and fundamentalism.

Professor Davies argues that by isolating religious groups, faith schools have the potential to compromise social cohesion. But there is a more insidious danger than just separation. Faith schools deprive children of the chance to debate with those of other religions, and reinforce feelings of superiority. "It is not just that you go to a different school, it is that you go to a different school because it is better, and by implication your faith is better," Sue says.

This reinforces religious messages of superiority - that atheists or members of other religions will not to go heaven - to create a feeling of elitism.

At its extreme, this can even incubate the sort of feelings that inspire terrorist acts, says David Canter, director of the Centre for Investigative Psychology at Liverpool University. Although his work is more concerned with suicide bombers than the classroom, he suggests that faith schools "feed the narratives of divisions based on religious practices".

Professor Canter says that any attempt to define individuals on the basis of a single characteristic, whether it is religion or football allegiance, fosters the "in-groupout-group" divisions that provide the justification for violent acts.

"The apparently politically correct act of designating schools by their dominant religion . feeds into a simple-minded categorisation on which terrorists draw," he writes.

While nobody would claim that faith schools are doubling as training camps for terrorists, Professor Canter cites American studies that suggest lack of contact with outsiders allows stereotypes to take hold.

This separation also means feelings of alienation can fester among disaffected groups, building to a simmering level of anger until a single flashpoint causes it to bubble over into violence.

The most obvious examples in this country are the Oldham and Bradford race riots in the spring and summer of 2001. Subsequent reports highlighted the largely separate education system, with most schools either predominantly white or predominantly Asian.

Although the chief concern was not faith schools as such but segregated schooling as a result of parental choice, the Ritchie report into the Oldham disturbances found the admissions policies of the town's Church of England and Roman Catholic secondary schools, with one exception, were "not making a significant contribution to integration between Asian and white communities and . are contributing institutionally to division with the town."

But if the conclusions from the riots in northern England seem mixed, Jan Ainsworth, chief education officer for the Church of England, points out that there is no hard evidence that going to faith schools makes children more likely to become extremists.

On the contrary, she says it is when families are denied access to a faith school of their own choosing that children are most vulnerable to extremist thinking. "If you suggest that the one thing that is most important to them - their religion - is nothing, then that is going to have an impact."

Jan says the issues of community cohesion facing faith schools are no different to those facing schools in monocultural areas, whether they are in largely white market towns or Asian-dominated districts in post- industrial towns. "They have all got to work out how they can help their children to encounter, and form good relationships with, children from a variety of cultures."

At Feversham College this comes through regular activities with other schools, including sports fixtures, debates and class exchanges, according to Clare Skelding, acting headteacher.

Clare acknowledges faith schools have the potential to be divisive, but believes careful management makes it a positive experience for Feversham's all-girl intake. "They're proud of being Muslim and what Islam means, but they're also very aware of other people's faiths. Learning about their faith enriches them. I don't think it segregates them."

All Feversham's 640 pupils are Muslim, largely because demand from Muslim families already outstrips the number of places by four to one, says Ali Jan Haider, vice-chair of governors. He says the demand for Muslim schools comes from parents who want their children to learn in a safe environment with an Islamic ethos.

Certainly, Islam has a central role at Feversham, even though most of the all-female staff are non-Muslim. Prayers are said before and after lessons, the girls spend 50 minutes a week on Koran recitation and the headscarf is part of the school uniform.

"Parents see it as a school where children can develop their Islamic identity, where they won't feel stigmatised for being Muslim and they can feel confident about their faith," says Ali Jan. He says far from being the cause of unrest, faith schools are working to try to create a bridge between communities.

"All faith schools espouse a common message, similar to the concept of love thy neighbour. They try to promote humanity," he says. Nor should all faith schools be blamed for the excesses of a handful. "Our school is not a madrassa. It is a voluntary aided school that follows the national curriculum and we have no desire to indoctrinate anybody."

Feversham's exam results are well above average, with 76 per cent of pupils achieving five GCSEs at A*-C this summer, compared with 64.6 per cent nationally and 55.4 per cent across the Bradford education authority.

Similarly, Osama Saeed, chief executive of the Scottish Islamic Foundation, which is campaigning for a Muslim primary school in Glasgow, says that although parents want their children to be educated in an Islamic environment, they are comfortable with the idea of links with schools of other faiths, and of none. "The point is not to segregate children," he says.

The demand for Muslim schools is not just a question of equality, but springs from a belief among many ethnic minority parents that the education system does not adequately address their cultural needs, argues Gary Craig, professor of social justice at Hull University. Failing to meet this need could result in fuelling resentment among a group who already feel excluded.

"If there's an issue about pupils being indoctrinated, maybe there's also an issue about the education they're getting that leads them to look for alternatives," Professor Craig says.

Concerns over food and dress and the treatment of Empire in the curriculum are compounded by the relatively low achievement of children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. Setting up Muslim schools is a defensive response, he says.

Professor Craig recognises that separate Muslim schools do not help social cohesion, although he suggests they have less of an effect than the segregation that results from the sorts of distortions in the housing market which see the creation of largely white and largely Asian communities. "Faith schools are both the creator and creation of division," he says.

One difficulty in assessing the impact of Muslim faith schools is that they are a relatively recent phenomenon. But in Scotland the existence of Roman Catholic schools has been held as one of the factors perpetuating long-standing sectarian divisions, no doubt one of the reasons why a 2002 survey showed 81 per cent of Scots, and 59 per cent of Scottish Catholics, believed separate Catholic schooling should end.

Few political parties are prepared to grasp this nettle, however. One that did stick its head above the parapet was the Green Party, whose manifesto for last year's Scottish Parliament elections included a commitment to phase out education on religious lines, saying: "It literally divides communities and divides young people, isolating young Catholics from non- Catholics, and vice versa." The subsequent furore saw Catholic schools urging parents not to vote Green in the election.

In Northern Ireland, 95 per cent of pupils go to either a Catholic or Protestant school. This separation may be more a reflection than a cause of sectarianism, but critics suggest it has helped perpetuate divisions between the two communities.

Schools have occasionally been flashpoints, most notably in the bitter dispute over access to Holy Cross Primary in Belfast in 2001. In 1987, the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education was created to promote integrated schools, which make up 59 of the province's 1,250 schools.

Douglas Murray, director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, a think-tank, says that one option is to retain existing faith schools, but deny state funding for any more. That this will principally affect Muslims is only to recognise the real nature of the debate.

"It is no good talking about a faith school problem: it is a problem of a few Muslim faith schools," Douglas says. "Creating more Muslim schools would increase the likelihood of further polarising the Muslim and non- Muslim people in this country."

Opponents of faith schools might point to the examples of the United States and France as having successfully separated religion from the state, but the reality is not that these countries don't have faith schools, but that they are outside the state system.

Withholding state funding for Muslim schools without meeting the need that prompts parents to demand them, won't necessarily stop them from opening, it will just mean they are in the private sector, says James Arthur, professor of education at Canterbury Christ Church University and director of the National Institute for Christian Educational Research.

While Professor Arthur suggests that the decision to fund Muslim schools may have been premature, he believes that denying them access to state support now would convey the message that their religion is being refused a place in the public square.

"If you take away the religious presence in the public domain people will feel secularism is the enemy and they will see the state is anti- religious, and that is always a bad idea," he says.

Professor Arthur argues that the advantages of taking them into the state umbrella - either as new schools or existing ones, such as the Muslim primary in Brixton, south London, which joined the state sector last month - are those of scrutiny and transparency, in the form of the national curriculum and Ofsted.

The Government's position is to support new faith schools where there is parental demand. But politicians are extremely wary of the faith school lobby. Two years ago the Government was forced by the resulting furore to drop proposals to require faith schools to select up to 25 per cent of their pupils from another faith, or from none.

Despite this, campaigners hope change is still possible. The beginning of this term saw the launch of Accord, a coalition of organisations, including the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, campaigning for specific legislative reforms.

Among their aims are that admissions policies should take no account of pupils' beliefs, faith schools should not be exempt from human rights legislation, such as refusing to employ teachers of other faiths, and a requirement to follow a balanced syllabus for RE.

As a Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of Accord, is perhaps an unlikely critic of faith schools. But while he says the reality is that faith schools are here to stay, there's a lot of work to do if we are to avoid the system of educational apartheid forecast in Bradford at the turn of the millennium.

"I worry that in 30 years' time we're going to end up with a fragmented society, and we will look back at this point as a period when the problem started, just as we look back at high rise flats of the Sixties," he says. "We will wonder how this generation allowed such fault lines to develop."

There is perhaps an irony that, in a country typically seen as irredeemably secular, faith schools should be the cause of so much anxiety. But with all the signs suggesting religion's importance is only likely to increase over the next few years, more people are likely to question if a tradition of fair play can cope with the demands of an increasingly diverse and fundamentalist society.


6,729 - Number of maintained faith schools in England

of which:

- 4,642 are Church of England

- 2,038 are Roman Catholic

- 37 are Jewish

- 9 are Muslim

- 2 are Sikh

- 1 is Hindu

395 - Number of maintained faith schools in Scotland

of which:

- 391 are Roman Catholic

- 3 are Episcopalian

- 1 is Jewish

259 - Number of maintained faith schools in Wales

of which:

- 170 are Church of Wales

- 89 are Roman Catholic

988 - Number of maintained faith schools in Northern Ireland

of which:

- 507 are Roman Catholic

- 481 are controlled schools (Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist).

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