Concerns raised about school segregation by race and faith
A further debate about Tony Blair's flagship education reforms has been sparked by the warning this week from the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) that new privately backed state schools could increase segregation, destabilise communities, and breed political and religious extremism.
ìThe evidence to date suggests that given the choice, many parents would band together along racial linesî, CRE policy chief Nick Johnson told MPs on the cross party Education and Skills committee on Wednesday (9 June 2006).
The governmentís Department for Education and Skills was quick to claim that ìour reforms will reduce segregation - there is nothing in our Education Bill that will increase it.î
But critics, who are to be found in both faith communities and among the non-religious, say that the attempt to smooth over the issue amounts to a band-aid on a growing sore.
The CRE says the answer to segregation fears is to require schools to be more diverse in their admissions.
Mr Johnson claimed that the key problem was the government's promotion of trust schools ñ but not so much its backing for faith schools, which often recruited from diverse socio-economic and ethnic groups.
The latter message is strongly endorsed by the Church of England, which has been seeking to expand its role in education, and by other faith groups who are looking to expand their share of 'the market'.
But those opposed to faith-based schooling in the state sector point out that selection on the basis of religion can still be a policy, that some more extreme groups are gaining a foothold through academies, and that the Church of Englandís own policy (the Dearing Report of 2001) includes ìchallengingî those of no faith.
Ibrahim Lawson, head teacher of Nottingham Islamia school, has also talked of the need to ìinculcate profound religious belief in the childrenî.
This should not be the role of state schools, say parents in localities where, contrary to the rhetoric of choice, they find they have little. And it seriously undermines diversity claims.
The contentious issue is not about teaching children about the variety of beliefs and convictions by which people order their lives in a plural society, but about whether publicly-funded schools should favour one life-stance over another.
Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association told Ekklesia today: ìAlthough the government's rhetoric is that of parental choice, their reforms really result in more schools being able to choose their pupils.î
He continued: ìThe best way to fight future segregation is to educate our children together in schools where they can learn about and from each other. There is no room in this solution for schools that can discriminate by religion.î
The BHA has worked in a non-sectarian way with religious groups that share their concerns, and he has offered a ten-point analysis of why education should not divide on faith for the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which along with Rabbi Jonathan Romain and others has raised similar concerns.
Faith schools, critics argue, frequently discriminate against those not of their particular shade of religion ñ in their employment and admissions policies, in their religious assumptions and ethos, and in their practices.
Meanwhile, equality campaigners are annoyed that the government has not published any gender-specific statistics on faith schools and is not aware of any research in this area. It says that rectifying this would be too expensive, but will be required legally to address the issue by 2007.
The ëlevel playing fieldí concern includes questions about whether girls and boys in faith schools are taught a different curriculum, in spite of assurances to the contrary. Claims that ëcreationismí is being taught in science lessons have still not been refuted, for example.
On the Commission for Racial Equalityís concerns, the government points out that selection on the basis of race is illegal. But others say that filters (such as religion) can have a discriminatory effect in the race area ñ and that the issue is also about parents discriminating under the provisions they are given.
[Also on Ekklesia: New education minister walks into row on faith schools; Call for non-religious chaplains in education and beyond; Why education should not divide on faith (Andrew Copson); Humanists and Christians argue against faith schools; Government plans reopen debate on faith schools; UK debate about faith schools hots up; Statement on religious education opens church schools up to charges of double-standards; Faith schools ñ pluralism or privilege?; Leading Scottish Christian voices opposition to faith schools; Senior clergy may reignite controversy over faith schools; Church schools should end discrimination says Government adviser; Exam Board rules out creationism in UK classrooms; Faith schools ñ pluralism or privilege?; Schools minister says creationism has no place in classroom science]