How Accord is seeking to change the faith schools debate

How Accord is seeking to change the faith schools debate

By Rabbi Jonathan Romain
27 Apr 2009

Accord, the campaign for inclusive schooling ("believing in children, learning together"), was born on 1 September 2008.

Personally, I had been concerned about faith schools for several years, but I always felt I was a lone voice - certainly within the religious world. While I was able to raise the issue every now and then, there was no structure through which to link up with others or to urge a change of policy.

It was that sense of frustration that led to Accord (http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/), which aims to unite all those with issues about faith schools - be it their very existence or the way they operate - around a reform agenda.

Accord can therefore claim to be doubly unique:

First, it goes beyond the stale arguments by those ideologically pre-disposed for or against faith schools. Instead, it is much more nuanced. It asks: what is in the best interest of the children and society at large? It believes the answer is schools that are inclusive, tolerant and transparent.

Second, it is a broad coalition of both those who are religious and those who are secular: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, humanists, atheists; all of whom desire an educational system based on social cohesion - and not just as a slogan, but in reality.

The actual birth of Accord was traumatic. Before the day was out, representatives of the religious groups which have faith schools had jointly produced a three-page press release which not only condemned us, but deliberately tried to stereotype us as yet another 'secular conspiracy' frothing at the mouth and trying to destroy all that was good in education.

Ironically, the National Secular Society also went on to object (http://tinyurl.com/c4cyht) to Accord. Then there was an avalanche of criticism in various religious papers, which served to give us a lot of prominence but which was also painful for Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus who value their faith without wanting exclusive faith schools.

Still, we did not back down, and have been forthright since then in putting our view forward, through radio and television interviews, as well as articles in various papers and on websites. And as well as criticism we received strong support from sources as diverse as the Economist and a Church of England Newspaper editorial.

We also kept in the headlines a fortnight later when Accord’s views were widely sought by the media on the opening of the first Hindu school in Britain.

Our response was simple: by dividing Hindu children from those of other faiths, there was now an enormous responsibility upon the school to work very hard to overcome the social barriers this could cause.

This in turn begs specific questions which apply to all faith schools and form the four key concerns of Accord (which will be particularly relevant to the forthcoming Equalities Bill):

1. Admissions: should state-funded schools operate admissions policies that take account of pupil’s religious belief and which discriminate against those who come from what is deemed “the wrong faith” or no faith at all? This is the litmus test as to whether those schools are serving the local community or serving themselves.

2. Employment: should state-funded schools operate recruitment and employment policies that discriminate on grounds of religion? I can at least understand the argument that an RE teacher should be of a particular faith, but what about the maths teacher, French assistant, kitchen staff or caretaker?

3. Syllabus : as there is no National Curriculum for Religious Education (why not?) and as faith schools can opt out of the locally agreed Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE) syllabus (how come?), how may we ensure they follow an objective, fair and balanced syllabus for education about religious and non-religious beliefs?

4. Accountability: is it wise to have a system of inspection for Religious Education whereby special arrangements are made for faith schools which other schools do not have and which permits exemptions from the normal OFSTED regulation on the denominational content of the subject? Why should this be the case and why are faith schools not monitored in this area like every other state-maintained school?

Once the initial glare of publicity was over, the hard work of campaigning for these reforms began, targeting those most able to deliver. So Accord has met with government via the Department for Children, Schools and Families; with the Liberal Shadow Minister for Education and the Conservative Shadow Minister too, as well as with other MPs and members of the Lords.

We have tried to expand the coalition with like-minded groups, both those in the educational world (from teachers union to educational think-tanks) and those from the religious communities (such as Christian clergy, the chair of the Muslim Forum and the Hindu Academy).

We have also sought advice from, and made connections with, bodies that work in other spheres but which sometimes cross over into the area of faith schools policy - such as the Runnymede Trust, who produced their own independent report last year (see below).

It is hard work, but we have found that there are many who profoundly agree with our position and are glad that such a forum exists.

There is definitely a new mood in the air: the rapid expansion of faith schools in the last two decades (without nearly enough public attention) is now being challenged by people who are uncomfortable at what has happened; people who feel that it is important that children from different backgrounds do not grow up as strangers, or even hostile to each other, but as fellow citizens

What is more, further independent evidence has recently emerged that admissions procedures are being abused and some state-funded faith schools are acting unethically: either by covertly charging parents or by selection procedures which discriminate against children from less academic backgrounds.

Moreover, the case for examining faith schools has recently received a boost from a report entitled ‘Right to Divide’, published by the highly-respected Runnymede Trust. It endorses faith schools, but suggests ways of improving them, many of which answer the key questions of Accord listed above.

There have also been two major pieces of research by academics at the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education, both part of the University of London, showing that religious admissions cause social segregation and do not improve results overall.

And most recently, we have seen the fruits of our hard work with the announcement of a new Liberal Democrat policy on faith schools. At the party’s Spring Conference in Harrogate on 7 March, they announced that they will oppose the creation of new faith schools which discriminate in admissions and would require existing faith schools to prove that they are inclusive or loose state funding.

The policy also commits them to fighting for RE lessons which teach “about beliefs, not what to believe”, for the ability of children to withdraw themselves from collective worship on grounds of conscience and for the right of teaching and support staff to be appointed and promoted without regard to their personal beliefs.

It is another step towards our ultimate goal of changing legislation. Relying on the goodwill of governors or the common-sense of head-teachers is not enough. It is only by initiating legislation about admissions, employment and accountability that the goal of inclusive schools will be achieved.

So, to sum up the position so far: Accord is just over six months old, but we feel that we have started to make our mark, and that we have created a vehicle for discussion and action which not only gives a voice to concerns about faith schools but is in a position to press for change.

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Access Ekklesia's coverage of the faith schools debate and the work of Accord here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/accord Ekklesia is a founding member of the Accord Coalition http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/

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(c) Jonathan Romain is a writer, broadcaster, and minister of Maidenhead Synagogue. His many books include The Jews of England and Reform Judaism and Modernity. For several years he was a judge for both The Times Preacher of the Year competition and the BBC’s Frank Gillard Awards. He received the MBE for his pioneering work in helping mixed-faith couples nationally, and also the Sternberg Interfaith Award. He is passionate about Jewish identity and Jewish education, yet determined that public schooling must be open to all and should enable pupils and staff from different backgrounds to learn from one another face-to-face. This is something 'single faith' schools cannot achieve.

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