New impetus for the reform of faith schools

By staff writers
December 5, 2008

The Runnymede Trust, a respected research body and think-tank offering "intelligence for a multi-ethnic Britain" has said that schools backed by religious bodies can play a valuable part in the education mix, but only if they are prepared for radical reform.

Runnymede's latest report, 'Right to Divide?', examines how faith schools have responded to the statutory duty to promote community cohesion. It shows a mixed picture, based on interviews with a thousand parents, pupils, professionals and policy makers, and an investigation of practice on the ground as well as the overall policy environment.

The report challenges those who simply want to "carry on regardless" with the growth of schools which are currently permitted to discriminate in admissions and employment, and which receive other special exemptions. But it also goes in a different direction from those who have called for a straightforward ban on faith community involvement in publicly funded schools.

To promote cohesion, genuine learning across social, cultural and belief divides and an atmosphere of measurable fairness and social justice, all schools financed by the taxpayer should in principle be open to all and non-discriminatory towards all, the report suggests.

So far the 'Right to Divide?' report has received a warm welcome as a constructive new contribution to what has sometimes been a bitter debate - one in which the government has been reluctant to move because it has heard the case for reform as an "anti" statement and is eager to please a large number of parents who are said to favour faith schools.

However, successive opinion polls have shown that a larger number of parents are concerned about the way faith schools presently operate, and their voices have largely been overlooked.

The case for reform set out by Runnymede is broadly consonant with the case put forward by the recently-formed Accord coalition on inclusive schooling, which is backed by a major teaching union, ATL, by the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, by the British Humanist Association and by a range of other individuals and groups of both religious and non-religious persuasion.

The chair of Accord, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, spoke at the launch of 'Right to Divide?' in London on 4 December 2008.

The Rumnymede report's six key recommendations are as follows:

1. End selection on the basis of faith

Faith schools should be for the benefit of all in society rather than just some. If faith schools are convinced of their relevance for society, then that should apply equally for all children. With state funding comes an obligation to be relevant and open to all citizens.

2. Children should have a greater say in how they are educated

Children's rights are as important as parents' rights. While the debate about faith schools is characterized by discussions of parental choice of education, there is little discussion about children's voice.

3. RE should be part of the core national curriculum

Provision for learning about religion is too often poor in schools without a religious character. Provision for learning about religions beyond that of the sponsoring faith in faith schools is also inadequate.

4. Faith schools should also serve the most disadvantaged

Despite histories based on challenging poverty and inequality, and high-level pronouncements that suggest a mission to serve the most disadvantaged in society, faith schools educate a disproportionately small number of young people at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale.

5. Faith schools must value all young people

People cherish facets of their identities beyond their faith, and these also need to be the focus of learning in faith schools - and valued within them. Similarly, religious identities should be more highly valued within schools that don't have a religious character.

6. If these recommendations are acted upon, faith should continue to play an important role in our education system

Faith schools should remain a significant and important part of our education system, offering diversity in the schooling system as a means of improving standards, offering choice to parents and developing effective responses to local, national and global challenges in education.

Rob Berkeley, Deputy Director of Runnymede, the report's chief author, said yesterday: "Faith schools make up a third of our education system. Schools should be central to their communities and neighbourhoods for all who live there not just those who share their religious world view. If we are serious about the importance of equality and cohesion, faith schools too need to play their part by welcoming all in society to the benefits of their approaches. "

Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia said: "Runnymede Trust’s new report, 'Right to Divide? Faith Schools and Community Cohesion' offers a well-researched set of investigations, findings and proposals for those who wish to negotiate a way forward through reform and change, rather than confrontation and exclusion. It signals what ought to be a ‘giant leap forward’ in a vital public conversation and (often) argument."

He added: "Neither those who strongly back faith schools nor those who strongly oppose them can claim that their arguments have been ignored. Rob Berkely and Savita Vij have sought to be fair, open and independently evaluative in consulting a thousand people from different belief backgrounds (religious and non-religious) who are parents, pupils, professionals and policy makers.

"They have sought to demonstrate on an evidential basis both the contribution that faith schools can make to the education system and the community, but also the severe problems, divisions and challenges that the current system of provision and policy will go on perpetuating if it is not changed."

Andrew Copson, Director of Education for the British Humanist Association (BHA), said: "While the BHA and Runnymede differ on the principle of faith schools, we agree on the need for serious reform in the interests of children and society at large. Since last year, schools have had a legal duty to promote community cohesion, but we doubt that can be done while some are allowed to turn away families who have different beliefs, teach an unbalanced curriculum and employ teachers based on religion."

He continued: "We are glad the Runnymede Trust has also commented on some of these contradictions, and their report should focus government’s attention on issues such as the need for a balanced national curriculum subject about beliefs and values, and the rights of children not to be discriminated against at the hands of state-funded faith schools."

Ekklesia's full response here:

Please click here to download the full Runnymede publication (from the Trust's website), or click here for the executive summary.

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.