Blair project on education about beliefs raises big questions, says Accord

By staff writers
June 10, 2009

Inclusive schools coalition Accord has welcomed the launch of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation's new education project but questions whether schools which discriminate in their admissions policies can ever live up to its principles.

The project aims to support Religious Education (RE) in order to “create understanding, overcome prejudice and open the gates of dialogue”. However, whilst he was Prime Minister, Tony Blair supported the expansion of schools which are able to discriminate in their admissions and employment rules on the basis of faith and are permitted to teach one-sided RE lessons.

Supporters of inclusive education hope that the new project might mark a change of direction and say they are pleased that the school chosen to lead the scheme in the UK is one with open admissions procedures and which follows the locally agreed syllabus for RE.

There is at present no national curriculum for RE, though Accord and others are working for one. Community and voluntary controlled schools follow an RE syllabus which is decided locally by religious leaders and local councillors. Voluntary aided religious schools are free to teach RE in accordance with their denomination and do not have to teach about other religious and non-religious and humanistic beliefs.

Westhoughton High School is the UK “lead school” for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of the Accord Coalition commented: “There is a great deal about this new initiative that we welcome. We, too, are convinced that religious education has an important role to play in helping young people to think about, discuss and respect the diversity of views and identities that exist in the world. Any project that seeks to build dialogue and knowledge about different beliefs among young people should be encouraged.”

He continued: “We are, however, concerned that the Foundation has ignored some issues closer to home, such as the damage done to community cohesion by allowing schools to discriminate in their admissions on the grounds of religion”

Dr Romain added: “We hope that Tony Blair’s recent work in this area has led him to think afresh about how inclusive admissions and a broad RE curriculum can benefit children and communities, whatever their beliefs.”

The launch of the new education project comes just after the release of a YouGov poll (8 June 2009) by the Accord Coalition, which found that 57 per cent of people ‘agreed or strongly agreed’ that "state funded schools that select students by their religion undermine community cohesion", while only 19 per cent ‘disagreed or strongly disagreed’.

The poll also found that: 72 per cent ‘agreed or strongly agreed’ that "all state funded schools should operate recruitment and employment policies that do not discriminate on grounds of religion or belief", with only 9 per cent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing.

A further 75 per cent ‘agreed or strongly agreed’ that "all state funded schools should teach an objective and balanced syllabus for education about a wide range of religious and non-religious beliefs", with 8 per cent disagreeing or strongly disagreeing.

The Accord Coalition was launched in September 2008 to bring together religious and non-religious organisations campaigning for inclusive education and for an end to religious discrimination in school staffing and admissions. The coalition also campaigns for a fair and balanced RE curriculum and for the replacement of compulsory collective worship with inspiring assemblies open to all.

The Accord Coalition’s members include the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the British Humanist Association, the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia and the Hindu Academy. It has individual members from a large cross-section of religious and non-religious opinion.

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.