Simon Barrow

Faith schools and community cohesion

By Simon Barrow
November 26, 2009

This is the text of the keynote address to a public meeting and discussion for Inter Faith Week 2009, hosted by Canterbury and District Inter-Faith Action

The question ‘do faith schools divide?’ (the given topic for my contribution) is one that well suits the political and media climate of the moment, where many issues gravitate towards categories which beg a straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Reality, of course, is rarely so tidy, and controversies like this one are fed as much by misunderstanding and mislabelling as they are by contradictory interests and perspectives.

The case I am about to make, therefore – which is that all publicly funded schools should maintain a broad community ethos, and that we specifically need to reform the admissions, employment, RE and assembly policies in schools of a religious character – is unlikely to appeal to those who have decided, in advance of the evidence (or in defiance of those bits of it which do not suit their cause) that everything to do with religion is either a good thing or a bad thing, full stop. But people who think in such dogmatic ways are a small minority in reality. So the positive task is to make the argument more of a conversation, and a wider one at that. That is how we will make progress.

The question behind the question, of course, is: ‘Is faith itself divisive?’ There is no simple response to that one either, but history and honest observation teaches us that – to a greater or lesser extent in particular contexts – there are beneficial and detrimental traits in all belief systems. There is generosity and intolerance, bigotry and acceptance, openness to learning and closed mindedness. Contrary to the popular assumption, there is no such thing as religion or belief in general. It is always specific. Nevertheless, an opinion poll carried out earlier in 2009 by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) indicated that three in five of the general population and two in three of those in ethnic minority groups were worried that religion as a phenomenon is more socially divisive than race in Britain at the moment.

Whether you agree with that view or not, Inter Faith Week (which I welcome, but which I wish could be relabelled to engage the growing number of people whose life-stances and values are humanist or non-religious in character) is surely a good opportunity to face up to these concerns; to seek not just to build bridges across the divides and to nourish the sources of neighbourly affection and pluralism in every tradition, but to look specifically at how policy in areas like education can alleviate or entrench our suspicion or alienation towards each other.

This is important because we now live in a distinctly mixed belief society, where the attachment of a majority to a cultural or civic form of Christianity is matched by comparatively low and declining levels of actual attendance or adherence; the abundance of other faith communities (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist – as well as many outside ‘the big six’); large numbers of people who describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ and a large and growing number for whom specifically religious beliefs are either functionally irrelevant or actively rejected.

I regard this as a challenging and positive situation. It questions the presumption of those who have previously held a position of considerable privilege (specifically the Established church); it enables us to look for the wisdom of dissenting, levelling, progressive traditions within the faiths (that is Ekklesia’s particular concern as far as historic Christianity is concerned); and it invites us all to look for relational, not just institutional, solutions to our problems and disagreements.

One of those undoubtedly concerns schooling and community cohesion. Over the past several decades, the main political parties have increasingly invited faith groups, businesses, charities and higher education institutions to share in the running of our schools – latterly through an evolving academies scheme where statutory controls are fewer, and where there have been a growing number of controversies over the quality of provision.

The Conservatives have said that they want to turn most schools in Britain into ‘free schools’ along the lines of the Swedish model – that is, publicly funded schools run by private bodies, including faith groups, with minimal regulation. This would effectively end the comprehensive approach to education, and has been argued for on grounds of quality and standards. However, a new Swedish government analysis is reportedly about to indicate that the ‘free school’ policy has not been a success as its advocates have claimed – though whether evidence will overcome ideology remains to be seen.

At present, the majority of state schools are community schools (funded and run by the Local Education Authority), but a growing number are voluntary controlled or aided, with anything between 85 and 100 per cent of capital and running costs being met out of general taxation. Of these, the Church of England alone has 4,500 primary (a third of the national total) and 220 secondary schools. The Catholic Church declares 2,216 schools and colleges in England. Forty nine Jewish schools are well established. There are now also ten Muslim schools as well as new Sikh and Hindu ones.

All so-called ‘faith schools’ are designated as having a religious character under the Schools Standards and Frameworks Act 1998 and the Religious Character of Schools (designation Procedure) Regulations of the same year. To give an indication of the scale of their development: between 1998 and 2001, 18 new faith schools were established. Over the next four years that went up to 46. Between 2006 and 2008 another 20 appeared. The Church of England has announced that “many more” (up to 100) are on the way, 40 of which will be academies.

Voluntary aided faith schools are permitted by law to select (to include or exclude) pupils and staff on the grounds of their religious belief. Teaching about religion and belief in faith schools is subject to an inspection regime outside the National Curriculum. Meanwhile, all schools in Britain (not just faith schools) are supposed to abide by the archaic provisions of the 1944 Education Act for a collective act of worship which should be “primarily Christian in character” – though this is increasingly observed in the breach, and there are pupil opt-outs from compulsory worship, but only for over-16s – a matter over which Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights continues to be concerned.

Overall, public reactions to schools of a religious character are very mixed. On the one hand, evidence suggests that middle class parents in particular have been attracted in large numbers by church schools because of their educational (rather than their religious) profile, and the corresponding demographic shift has meant that achievement levels in these schools have been boosted – to the advantage of those who can get in (sometimes by fibbing to the local vicar) and the disadvantage of those who cannot. Members of minority faith groups also see investment in schooling as a way of maintaining identity and community within their own ranks, especially in a broader culture which they experience as indifferent or hostile. (This is an important consideration, to which we will return)

On the other hand, in an opinion survey carried out earlier this year by YouGov, one of the leading British polling organisations, 57 per cent of the general public agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “state funded schools that select students by their religion undermine community cohesion.” Only 19 per cent disagreed. Meanwhile, 72 per cent said they thought it was wrong for schools to operate recruitment and employment policies which discriminate on grounds of religion or belief, and 75 per cent wanted all schools to teach a balanced syllabus about a wide range of religious and non-religious beliefs.

It is important to stress (contrary to propaganda on all sides of the argument) that the concern many people have about the current framework for faith schools is not a matter of being religious or non-religious themselves. The Accord Coalition, which remains pragmatically agnostic on the matter of publicly funded faith schools per se, brings together people with Christian, humanist, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Quaker and other outlooks to put the case that every school – irrespective of the character of its governing or trust body – should be open to and for all. Current government policies on admissions, employment and curriculum for religious schools, and on compulsory collective worship, do not allow this. That is why change is needed.

The problem with faith schools as currently constituted, is that they institutionalise favouritism towards particular groups and individuals within what is supposed to be a public education system. They also tend inherently to segregate pupils on religious grounds (learning about others is no substitute for living and learning alongside them; they have fewer economically disadvantaged pupils eligible for free school meals (11.5 per cent compared to the 15.1 per cent for other schools as at January 2008); they seem to have less effective approaches overall to access for people with disabilities and in a number of instances, they are reluctant or unable to tackle homophobia (as the 2007 Stonewall report showed).

In terms of direct issues of community relations, the four most significant recent reports have been the 2008 Runnymede Trust report ‘Right to Divide?’ (which examined religious schools in their full historical, cultural, political and educational context, interviewing 1,000 stakeholders, including, parents, pupils, governors and teachers); the Oldham Independent Review report in the aftermath of the 2001 riots there (the Richie Report); the 2009 Cantle report on community cohesion in Blackburn and Darwen and the 2001 Cantle Report, following similar disturbances in Bradford and Burnley.

All four pieces of research directly connect religiously restrictive admissions policies with the isolation of particular communities in the major urban conurbations and resulting tensions. Richie identified educational as well as residential mixing as very important for breaking down barriers, and recommended that three Christian secondary schools in Oldham that had no Muslim pupils should be required to take at least 20 per cent non-Christians. Professor Ted Cantle went further, suggesting a 25 per cent reserve in 2001, and in 2009 saying that the level of segregation and its negative impact in Blackburn and Darwen was “high, growing [and] extensive”. But local faith schools have so far refused the report’s call for a change in admissions policies. Cantle said that many of their attempts to promote inclusion were “imaginative” and “committed”, but no substitute for a genuinely mixed intake. Religiously selective policies were, he said, “automatically a source of division” in the town.

The Runnymede Trust, meanwhile, argued that schools backed by faith communities could play a valuable role in the overall educational mix. But in order to do so, its report argued, it was necessary that they end selection on the basis of belief, give children a greater say in the way they are educated, integrate their RE into the national curriculum, seek to serve the most disadvantage in particular (a point also stressed by Ekklesia) and nurture young people’s sense of identity in a way that goes beyond religion.

Recently Simon Hughes, the MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey, who represents a culturally, racially and religiously diverse community in London, expressed concern in the House of Commons that faith schools are effectively their own admissions authorities, and that in areas where, for example, there are many church schools, non-church members are automatically disadvantaged. It is worth noting that Mr Hughes speaks as an active Christian, not a “disgruntled secularist” of the kind that faith schools providers tend to see behind every question about their current policies.

Equally, the 2007 IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) report ‘Fair Choice for Parents’ concluded that religious schools which act as their own admissions authority were ten times more likely to be unrepresentative of the area in which they were situated than LEA schools. Other non-religious schools controlling admissions were six times as likely to be unrepresentative.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that 45 per cent of school head teachers surveyed by ICM in 2006 thought that the restrictiveness of faith schools contributed to lack of tolerance and understanding.

Further material for careful consideration will be provided by the upcoming Church of England commissioned report (November 2009) on church schools and cohesion using Ofsted criteria. Because of the limitations of the comparators, particularly with regard to admissions and the teaching of RE, this is likely to raise further questions as well as suggesting some examples of good practice. ( For example, it is not good enough to credit faith schools with the extra work they have to do on cohesion as a result of restrictive admissions policies without including these in the assessment criteria.

So there is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that it is the current policies around faith-backed schools, not people working in the schools themselves, which are divisive. Likewise, the eagerness of faith schools providers (including the Catholic Education Service and the Church of England’s Board of Education) to push aside genuine concerns, to ignore inconvenient evidence, to attack those who raise questions, to characterise all reformers as antagonistic and sometimes to duck meaningful dialogue, suggests that the self-interest of religious institutions can also be divisive – and need challenging.

One of the points that Ekklesia wants to stress is that Christianity, which has a levelling and liberating core to it, should not be straightforwardly identified with the Christendom-style institutions which have grown up around it and sometimes claim a monopoly over it.

‘Christian ethos’ in schooling, for example, should be about setting people free, acting out of hospitality and welcome, challenging injustice, focusing on those in greatest need and developing practices like peacemaking – Gospel virtues which can be shared and developed with others in the community and in the education system. This approach is the opposite of ‘privileging our own’, excluding people not of the same background or belief as us, and building walls around our identity and our resources.

At present, the tragedy is that the discriminatory policy framework for schools of a religious character is undermining the good things they can and should offer. There are many committed teachers doing great work in faith schools; many people associated with them working hard to promote good community relations and many examples of good practice others could follow. Early in 2010, Accord will be announcing the result of its award scheme for those who go beyond legal requirements on equality and inclusion to celebrate and affirm diversity and cooperation. Schools of a religious character are among those who are likely to be commended for aspects of their approach.

Similarly, the priority involvement of Church of England schools in environmental awareness and in Inter Faith Week is highly commendable. But examples of good practice and good intention should not be used as a ‘get out clause’ from facing up to the negative impact of religious selection and privileging. This is what is currently happening. Both faith leaders and the government seem averse to examining the deeply problematic elements of the current settlement regarding religious foundation schools. They seem to think that these concerns are marginal – while poll after poll suggests that they are part of a very widely held public concern, and many well-researched reports have set out why the present approach is heading in the wrong direction.

There are a number of reasons for this logjam. Government faces a crisis in funding, legitimacy and performance in education and other public services that it wants to fill by voluntary means. Churches and others see education as a way of securing their future (though the actual research on this suggests that faith schools may be more effective at inoculating than recruiting, and in any case this should not be the purpose of publicly funded education.

MPs, meanwhile, are more likely to be sensitive to the votes of parents who benefit from religious selection than those who are marginalised by it, because they tend to be more vocal and better placed. Likewise, the media tends to pick up on concern about faith schools policies and practices as a confrontation between the religious and the non-religious. Politicians and policy advisers see some of those who are most vocal about faith schools from a critical angle as negative and unrepresentative.

In fact, the reform approach of the Accord Coalition has been attacked not just by the faith schools providers, but also by the National Secular Society, which does not believe that any religious group can be trusted to operate fairly and without undue favour in matters of public provision. That ought to be a positive challenge to faith leaders to embrace precisely the kind of changes Accord, Runnymede and many others – from academics and community groups right through to teachers and parents – are advocating. At the moment, by refusing reform, religious leaders are merely confirming the prognostications of their most trenchant critics. What they could and should be doing, is defining an ethos for their schools based on inclusion rather than exclusion, demonstrative value rather than discrimination, cooperation rather than competition. Those are what many of us would call ‘Christian values’ – and are also values that others can share and develop in an educational context.

The purpose of Britain's taxpayer funded schools is not to push one particular religion or ideology, it is to enable all children to gain the education, wisdom, insight, critical awareness and humanity necessary both to deepen their own commitments and to engage openly with others - neighbours they know not just in books or in theory, but down their street and in their classroom. The church, the synagogue, the mosque, and the temple are the places specifically intended to nurture faith through learning, worship and service of others. The two functions are not the same, but can complement one another just as they are respected in their difference. Space can also be made within schools for the particular needs of communities. And voluntary bodies (whether faith-based or secular) can play a vital role in supporting growth in understanding, knowledge and awareness in all areas of the community. This is what we should be aspiring to - and for that we need fairness and equality within the schooling system, as well as a willingness by all concerned to build bridges not barriers.

In the meantime, the ‘faith schools debate’ remains stuck between two contradictory forces, one of which has all the weight and momentum in the absence of alternatives with real traction. That is why a reform agenda, rather than ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ faith schools rhetoric, is so vital. A new kind of conversation and policy discussion is needed about how to move forward; how to build on examples of good practice; how to encourage all schools to be community schools; which policies need changing and why. The involvement in such a movement for change of ‘people of faith’ alongside humanists and those coming from non-religious perspectives (‘people of good faith’, if not faith, as Peter Challen puts it) is active testimony to our common concerns about community cooperation and synergy – ‘cohesion’ is such a horridly functionalist, bureaucratic word! It models what it seeks and dares to imagine a better way forward. That is what inter-faith and inter-belief conversation and cooperation ought to be about.


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia and a member of the steering group for the Accord Coalition. This talk from Canterbury has been slightly adapted to take into account issues and ideas exchanged in the subsequent discussion.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.