Responding to the government's announcement that it intends to pave the way for the expansion of faith-based schools in the state sector, the Christian think tank Ekklesia has said that equal access for all should remain a clear priority in education.
“We need a less heated debate which focuses on research and gives priority to inclusion and anti-discrimination”, commented Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow. “Turning the whole argument [about faith schools] into an exchange of insults between religious and anti-religious vested interests misses the point and lets both government and the schools themselves off the hook.”
He continued: “At present the government seems to think that those questioning the propriety of schools that select and configure on the basis of faith are merely a minority motivated by resentment. A larger coalition of concern – drawing together people from a variety of backgrounds and life-stances – is needed to demonstrate that the way forward in the public sector is community schools for all.”
Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, says faith schools offer “not a programme of indoctrination, but the possibility of developing a greater level of community cohesion through the understanding of how faith shapes common life.”
Ekklesia and others argue that cohesion and learning to understand the role of both faith and non-faith perspectives does not necessitate a requirement for specifically denominational schools but should be part of a broader civic education.
Ekklesia agrees that accusations of indoctrination are often exaggerated or inappropriate, but says there are significant problems in areas like access, employment, equalities and common standards.
It says that the public debate about schools sponsored by faith and other bodies (including businesses and non-religious charities) should move towards clear common policies and frameworks of practice to ensure openness, fairness and non-discrimination at all levels.
“Education should be about broadening contact, horizons and understanding. That means encouraging a real mix of pupils from different backgrounds. It means providing a level playing field. The idea of selection on the basis of religion is, we believe, wrong in principle,” says Barrow
Ekklesia says it is fair and reasonable that all publicly funded schools should be able to demonstrate that they not to discriminate on religious or other grounds in admissions, do not to impose confessional acts of worship, do not to proselytise, do not to recruit staff on the basis of religious restrictions, and actively support tolerance, diversity and respect.
The think tank has suggested that in taking their core values seriously, Christians should have a particular concern to redress disadvantage and discrimination in education, not to grant special privileges to church members or attenders.