Faith schools may allow extremists in, say critics
Concerns about the impact of faith-based schools, especially fundamentalist ones, have been expressed by two major teaching unions in the light of the UK Labour governmentís controversial education reforms.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers is today debating a motion at its conference which says that the government should stop using taxpayers money to fund faith schools by 2020.
The move follows a warning from Britain's biggest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers, that religious fundamentalists are gaining control of state schools by a back door which is becoming a front door as a result of the government's city academy programme.
The NUT is also concerned and some private businesses are gaining undue influence over the curriculum, and is additionally anxious about creationists trying to manipulate science teaching.
Similar concerns about faith-based schools which use religion as a criterion for selection and about the impact of fundamentalism have been raised by groups ranging from the British Humanist Association through to the UK Christian think tank Ekklesia.
Critics of the present reforms argue that unrepresentative sectional groups are able to buy privilege in what is supposed to be a system for all, and that schools rooted in particular faith communities can often end up being socially divisive.
ATL leader Dr Mary Bousted told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning that as many as a third of city academies could be controlled by fundamentalist groups under the new system ñ a claim disputed by Church of England spokesperson Canon John Hall, who nonetheless sought to stress the difference between such groups and the majority Anglican and Catholic schools.
Supporters of mainline faith schools (including Jewish ones) say that up to 80 per cent of some inner city communities are educated in their establishments, which includes many Muslims and Hindus.
But secularists are critical of a bias against humanist or non-believing families, who they say make up the tacit majority. And other faith communities are lobbying for schools of their own, which would further the fragmentation.
Meanwhile progressive Christians say that faith should be a free choice, not one imposed on others through a ëChristendomí style deal between religious and political leaders.
At the heart of the argument is the issue of fairness and equal access. Dr Bousted, whose union has traditionally been seen as moderate or even conservative, today launched a stinging attack on the dangers of ghettoisation at the heart of Labourís reforms ñ which have also split Tony Blairís party.
ìIn the name of choice and diversity the government is determined to press ahead ñ to take schools out of the democratic structure provided by local authorities, to reduce effective parental involvement and to create a market in education,î she declared.
Earlier today Canon John Hall said that the churches had founded school education well before the state stepped in, and that the Church of England is looking to add 100 secondary schools to its current ëportfolioí of around 4,000.
He also defended nondenominational evangelical schools. Two or three schools which are doing ìa very good jobî have come under fire ìfor reasons which are unclearî, he said.
Canon Hallís response to creationism seemed rather more muted than that of its vigorous scientific and theological critics, including Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams.
Canon Hall disavowed the teaching of ìparticular ideas about how the universe came into beingî, mentioning creationism ñ which denies the findings of science and distorts the Bible through the ideology of literalism ñ as an example.
Critics will see this as a muddying the waters by holding up creationism alongside ëother viewsí.
The Church of Englandís education supreme also appeared to attack what he deemed the ìFrench secular systemî of teaching about religion but not teaching religion itself.
But the ëphenomenological approachí, which seeks to get pupils to understand the lives of believing and non-believing life stances without proselytising is well rooted in British educational theory, and widely accepted as a way of informing about religion without pushing for or against it.
Teaching religious faith is a matter for faith communities, not state schools which are there for all irrespective of creed or background, argue opponents of faith-based systems in the state sector.
But Canon Hall argues that faith schools enable ìpeople in faith communities to grow in self-respect and understanding, and therefore to grow in respect for others.î
ìThe Church of England is defending its entrenched interests in a way which may be in danger of legitimating more extreme religious groups, sidestepping arguments about fairness and reducing Anglicanism to a semi-imposed civic religion," commented Ekklesiaís co-director, Simon Barrow.
Last year the Roman Catholic Cardinal for England and Wales and a senior Anglican bishop both admitted to qualms about Christian children going to a Muslim school, undermining the argument that faith schools are neutral.