Faith in schools, fairness in the system

By staff writers
1 Sep 2008

One of the significant features of the new coalition Accord, which Ekklesia has helped to establish, is that it is bringing together people from different religious backgrounds who have concerns about current policies on admissions and employment in relation to faith schools.

Accord wants to see all schools, whoever their sponsors are, as open as possible. It is calling for non-discrimination in admissions and employment, a balanced curriculum, a common inspection regime, and assemblies that reflect the whole community.

The media construction of the discussion about faith schools that depicts it as a confrontation between ‘the religious’ and ‘secularists’ has always been dangerously simplistic. There are, of course, some lobbyists who want to keep it this way. We do not.

Accord (http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/) provides an opportunity to show a different picture, and, we trust, to take the conversation away from ideological bickering and towards concrete practices and policies.

The Faith Schools’ Providers Group (FSPG) and the Catholic Education Service (CES) dismissed Accord’s concerns before it was even launched. Ekklesia does not think their characterisation of the issues reflects what is actually being raised – but conversation takes time, especially when passions run high. We are hopeful of some constructive engagements in the coming months.

Here we highlight some of the Christian voices for change involved in the debate:

“Churches should be championing social justice and equality for all in education, not privileging their own.” – Christopher Rowland, Dean Ireland Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford.

“The Church of England seems to me to delude itself, and to suffer from a dissonance between its words and its actions on church schools. We speak of serving the whole community, but actually serve our own interests. From within that church, I long for a more Christ-like engagement with education, in the service of all, and without a hidden agenda.” – the Rev Jeremy Chadd, Vicar of St Chad’s Church, Sunderland, in the Diocese of Durham. Regional Tutor for Practical Theology in the North-East Oecumenical Course.

“Christians have nothing to fear from equality and justice in schooling, because those practices are at the heart of the Gospel message. My experience in Northern Ireland during the troubles convinced me just how vital integrated education is, if potentially destructive barriers between people and communities are going to be overcome.” – Sarah Hill, Global relief and development worker. Founder member of Accepting Evangelicals.

“In addition to the discrimination that is inevitably involved, the current system also encourages hypocrisy. There are those who attend church in order that their children qualify for admission to a particular school and never set foot in the church again after the children have been accepted.” – the Rev Iain McDonald, Minister of Southernhay United Reformed Church, Exeter, Devon.

“Some in minority communities have not always been well served by ‘inclusive’ state schools. The answer however is to increase the quality of education for all in state-funded education, not an approach that ultimately further marginalises such communities.” – Savitri Hensman, equalities adviser in the care sector. Writer on Christian social ethics and theology.

“I believe that all children should have equal access to the best quality education. Schools that select on the basis of belief and background in effect put up barriers to that.” – Rev Chris Howson, Anglican priest, Bradford.

“The Church of England’s current educational policy is undermining its old claim to be the church of the entire community. It has to drop all selection on the basis of church attendance. Otherwise it remains a force for division not unity in the local community.” – Theo Hobson, theologian, commentator and author.

“Faith schools have become a tarnished brand as within the majority of them stalks the unacceptable side of faith - unchecked homophobia. No public money should be used to condone covert discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.” – the Rev Richard Kirker, Christian campaigner for equal rights.

"I am convinced that the perceived privilege afforded to church goers together with the hypocrisy encouraged by those who make the required number of attendances at the Parish Church until admission is achieved, is damaging to community relationships and casts doubt on the integrity of religious faith." – the Rev Marie Dove, Methodist minister in West Yorkshire and former Religious Studies teacher.

Comments from and to Ekklesia

“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.” – Simon Barrow, co-director.

“The Good News that many church schools seem to proclaim is "do as I say" rather than "say as I do". One cannot preach the gospel by using means that are clearly at odds with the gospel one proclaims. If one does, it is a false gospel. A truly Christian school will surely seek a level playing field in admissions and in its employment practices, and will follow Jesus Christ's example of servant leadership?” – Jonathan Bartley, co-director.

“Segregation in education cannot aid social cohesion at any stage of life. Equally, children who are not of that faith group cannot be prepared adequately to live alongside children (and later as adults) with those whom they cannot understand in terms of culture of religion, and whose knowledge is based upon media and mistrust rather than upon years of working together in a welcoming and open school environment… Education in a predominantly secular society should not be publicly funded to isolate and to restrict children to any particular faith group. The purpose of State funded education cannot be about making children into members of a faith group first and then citizens of the nation second. State funded education should be about encouraging social cohesion and giving children and young people the tools first, to prepare them to contribute positively to meet the future social and economic needs of [society] and the local community; second, to enable them to decide for themselves about matters of faith.” – the Rev John Churcher, Hertfordshire.

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