New education minister walks into row on faith schools
Alan Johnson, the new education secretary appointed to succeed Ruth Kelly in Prime Minister Tony Blairís latest cabinet reshuffle, is already under pressure on the contested question of faith schools and privately-funded city academies.
Interviewed this week on Channel 4 News, Mr Johnson, a telegenic performer who has been given the task of steering the Labour governmentís unpopular education bill through parliament, was questioned about the possible disproportionate influence of extreme religious groups buying into the academy system.
Mr Johnson denied that this would be a problem, and made a point of stressing that creationism  (a fundamentalist ideology which seeks to impose a literal meaning on Genesis and opposes evolutionary theory) was not taught in any UK state schools ñ a claim which he will be pushed to justify .
Both religious and secular organisations have raised substantial concerns about the governmentís faith schools agenda. In an article published on the website of UK Christian news service and think-tank Ekklesia ('Why education should not divide on faith '), Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association sets out a comprehensive case against exclusive religiously-based schooling in the public sector.
Mr Copson, who is the Education and Public Affairs Officer at the BHA, stresses that the British Humanist Associationís intention is not to attack particular life stances, but to raise questions about overall fairness, access and equality in the education system.
He writes: ìWe want every state school to be open to children of every background, no matter what their parentsí or their own beliefs ñ political, religious, or philosophical. We want children to mix in schools, parents to mix at the school gate, and the classroom to be as diverse a place as the local area from which it draws its pupils.î
Explains Copson: ìWe want this because we believe that only through proximity, and communal life can mutual understanding grow, and because we view mutual understanding as the key to the future happiness of society.î
These concerns are also backed by voices from faith communities themselves. Leading Jewish rabbi Jonathan Romain has recently gone so far as to say that single faith schools are ìa recipe for social disasterî.
Even those religious schools that try to reach out to the wider community and teach good citizenship still segregate Jewish, Muslim or Catholic children from each other, he argues.
Writing in the Times newspaper, Rabbi Romain declares: ìLack of contact leads to ignorance of each other, which can breed suspicion and produce fear and hostility. The best way of finding out about members of other religions is not by reading books, but by mixing with them.î
He continues: ìSchools should ensure that they handle all faiths in a comfortable way, while religious identity should come from the home and after-school activities.î
Among the rabbiís supporters in the current debate is the former suffragan Bishop of Repton, Derbyshire, in the Church of England, and several school chaplains.
About a third of state schools in the UK are faith schools, 600 secondary and 6,400 primary. The vast majority are Christian (mostly Anglican and Catholic), with 36 Jewish, seven Muslim and two Sikh schools.
The government has recently approved the opening of four more faith schools and a further Muslim school has conditional approval. Many academies have Christian sponsors and the government is actively encouraging private faith schools to enter the state sector.
The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has already given the Association of Muslim Schools £100,000 to make the transition smoother for more of the 114 independent Islamic schools.
The Church of England argues that its schools promote inclusion, but critics say that the very process of selection on the basis of religion is discriminatory ñ and that the Churchís language around the topic has become more ëevangelicalí of late.
ìTo use a position of power or money to seek to inculcate faith by the back door is a distortion of the Gospel as well as an affront to social equality,î argues Ekklesiaís Simon Barrow. ìMeanwhile the churches continue to under-resource Christian formation and theological education within their own communities ñ which is where their future lies.î
Meanwhile, equality campaigners are angry that the UK government has not published any gender-specific statistics on faith schools and is not aware of any research in this area, reports The Guardian.
This includes questions about whether girls and boys in faith schools are taught a different curriculum, as was found to be the case in a now closed independent Muslim school in Scotland; and about whether girls and boys in faith schools are achieving different grades or leaving school at different ages compared with each other and with their peers in non-faith schools.
A spokesperson for the governmentís Department for Education and Skills says undertaking such research would be a "massively disproportionate" use of taxpayer's money. But under the gender equality duty that comes into force in April 2007, there will be a legal requirement for all state schools to actively promote gender equality.
The British Humanist Association have opened a campaign page on faith schools . Andrew Copson comments: "We hope that the phrasing of the petition and letter is such that many religious people as well as humanists will feel able to send the email and sign it."
[Also on Ekklesia: Why education should not divide on faith  (Andrew Copson); Humanists and Christians argue against faith schools ; Government plans reopen debate on faith schools ; UK debate about faith schools hots up ; Statement on religious education opens church schools up to charges of double-standards ; Faith schools ñ pluralism or privilege? ; Leading Scottish Christian voices opposition to faith schools ; Senior clergy may reignite controversy over faith schools ; Church schools should end discrimination says Government adviser ]