You might not imagine that calling for non-discrimination in admissions and employment, a balanced curriculum, a common inspection regime, and assemblies that reflect the whole community in our schools would be regarded as particularly controversial in twenty-first century, plural Britain. But sadly, for some, it apparently is.
Commentator Cristina Odone has called such reforms “a compromise too far”. Spokespersons for faith schools immediately dismissed Accord’s appeal for them on Friday 29 August 2008, before they had even been launched. The chief of the Church of England’s Board of Education says current restrictions maintain a church school’s “ethos”. The Catholic Education Service mistakenly construes them as an attack on the sector. And the Independent on Sunday’s Melanie MacDonagh extraordinarily contends that discrimination is “what makes a faith school a faith school.”
Two questions immediately arise. First, in terms of the benefits of inclusivity and hospitality – what on earth are we afraid of? Second, what kind of faith is it that says that we should put our own tribe before others and that our ethos is that it’s OK to exclude and discriminate against those from different backgrounds? (And let’s be clear, this is what is happening if they can’t get in or apply.)
It certainly isn’t the Christian faith that I know and seek to practice, which talks instead of sacrificial love, of giving priority to the poorest not privilege to “our own”, and which believes in the power of God’s indiscriminate love enfleshed for us in Christ, not the kind of love of power which puts “us” in positions of control.
I hope those of other faith and of no faith (“good faith”, we might say) who are part of this public debate will understand why I feel compelled to speak in overtly Christian terms here. For it seems to me that a major part of the church’s inability to imagine a better way forward in the schools debate results from being tempted by a language of temporary convenience, rather a language of abiding principle, as what defines how it should behave institutionally.
This weekend the Church of England has said that many of its schools allow those of all backgrounds in, promoting fairness and inclusion. One has a head teacher who happens to be Muslim, and others on the staff are not necessarily practicing Christians. In which case, why is there any objection to ensuring that such fairness is always the case? The answer is that, regrettably, it isn’t always the case, or there would be no problem or disagreement. The attempt to mask poor practice in some places with good practice elsewhere will not wash.
This week I have had anguished notes from several clergy about people attending church in order to get a note supporting their child’s school admission application – and then disappearing. All have said the same thing to me. “We don’t blame the parents, we blame the system that means people have to lie, and which selects kids on the basis of belief.” Is dishonesty part of a Christian ethos? I think not.
If Accord’s modest proposals were adopted, publicly-funded schools – whether they are supported by bankers, humanists, Christians, Muslims, philanthropists or other civic groups – could all get on with their real business, which is offering the best education for all in a way that respects and involves all.
From a Christian point of view, this would be a very welcome development. Schools should be in the business of building bridges, not barriers. Archbishop William Temple once described the church as a body that exists “primarily for the benefit of those who are not in it”, contrasting this with a self-serving religious club. The Christian message calls on the followers of Christ to speak and live justly (to “say as I do”) not imperiously to demand of others, “do as I say.”
If church schools are overwhelmingly funded by the general taxpayer, as they are, then the public as a whole has a reason to expect that they will be run for all by all. To reject discrimination and a narrow approach, to seek equal opportunities, and to be sensitive to those of other faiths and none, is no threat to a “Christian ethos”; it is its truest exemplification. The task of those of us in Accord who start from a position of faith is to persuade our fellow believers in positions of influence that a change of heart, mind and policy is needed.
In that spirit, I believe that the Accord coalition is a major step forward. The debate about the future of schooling, when it touches on issues of belief, has often been presented as a “pro” or “anti” religion issue or a "pro" or "anti" issue about certain kinds of schools (as the Catholic Education Service has misconstrued Accord). This is nonsense. The real issue is how we can all aspire to believe in children and create open, community-wide schools.
This article is adapted from material prepared for the launch of Accord on 1 September 2008.
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The new book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard.