Reporting fairly on faith schools reform

Reporting fairly on faith schools reform

The simplistic mentality that presumes you can only be ‘for’ or ‘against’ things in their undifferentiated totality makes developing a rather more credible reform agenda on faith schools a tough proposition – but all the more necessary.

Recently, there was a helpful correction on the subject from Religious Intelligence (http://www.religiousintelligence.co.uk/), which had described the pro-community schools Accord coalition (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/6953) of which we are founding members, as an “anti-faith schools alliance.” No doubt that’s what the C of E Board of education (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9683) and the Church Times education correspondent, who seems ferociously partisan on the issue, would want you to believe. It just happens not to be true.

In reality, the coalition joins together people who may hold differing or agnostic final views on the in-principle desirability, or otherwise, of religious foundation schools. They are nonetheless strongly united in wanting all publicly funded schools to eliminate discrimination on grounds of religion or belief in admissions, employment, inspection and practice – much to the chagrin of the National Secular Society, whose generically anti-religious disposition leads them to complain, extraordinarily, that this amounts to letting faith groups and government ‘off the hook’!

(Equally oddly, NSS antagonism to public funding for spiritual and pastoral support within the health service has resulted in them calling for chaplains to be paid for by churches only. This seems a rather curious move for secularists, and it is one we as a religion and society think-tank oppose – because it is an inappropriate narrowing, rather than a proper broadening, of this important dimension of health care for all people (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/4038), religious and non-religious alike.)

Meanwhile, spokespersons for the faith school providers say that the same Accord reforms the NSS castigates as a sell-out to them amount, in fact, to abolition of their schools. This is because these schools cannot, they claim (contrary to some clear examples), survive without discriminating. This is a view just as short on logic and long on alarmism as that which it contends.

In this way, both the fierce ‘antis’ and the fierce ‘pros’ manage to reinforce one another in missing the point about real reform, while simultaneously assisting their diametric opponents and illustrating how easily bipartisan reason can be swallowed up by ideological emotion.

That is precisely why we need a new and much more positive, practical debate on faith schools policy (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/99), and on contracted education generally.

Meanwhile, good on Religious Intelligence, owned by the Church of England Newspaper, for setting the record straight on this occasion. It would be encouraging if other Christian publications could follow suit, rather than letting the axe-grinders get in the way of journalistic integrity.

Earlier last month the Independent on Sunday newspaper (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/mediacentre/pressarchive/090621) also made the same mistake about Accord, but then published the following corrective letter on 28 June 2009:

Your article on faith schools ("Inside Britain's first Hindu state-funded school", 21 June) mistakenly labelled the Accord Coalition as being "a body opposed to faith schools", whereas we recognise that they are part of the current educational system and are much more concerned with the way they operate.

We do not want a multi-faith society to end up as a multi-fractious one, and so we oppose anything that creates educational ghettos and fragments the next generation, such as discrimination in pupil selection or staff employment.

We also call on the Government to make religious education part of the National Curriculum – the current national guidelines are optional and often not followed – because knowing about different faiths and their cultures would not only be valuable general knowledge but a vital ingredient in producing tolerant citizens.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain
Chair, Accord Coalition, London WC1 – http://www.accordcoalition.org.uk/

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