Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Observations on "A Journey" II: school segregation

For those who need a respite from Obama-itis, another in my occasional series of interesting things which have come out of Tony Blair's A Journey (cue rising hackles for some readers). Well, as it happens, I want to tell you something I disagree with him radically about. So, for those of you who think me a slavish Blairite, sorry to disappoint (hate labels anyway).

There is a fascinating, if a little inconsistent, observation where he talks about how his Faith Foundation works to break down barriers between people of different faiths at school age:
We have a programme which uses new technology to join up people of different faiths so that from a young age children can learn about each other's culture and faith based on truth, not on deeply misguided perceptions.
Well, while not sharing his faith, I fully concur with my Right Honourable friend, and wish him well with what seems a very sensible venture. But, in that case, why push segregated faith schools when he is painfully aware of the prevalent danger that kids of different faiths might not connect? Very odd. Do something on the one hand and then do something that works directly against it on the other.

As per my previous post here, the promotion of the faith schools concept, not to mention Michael Gove's misguidedly allowing non-faith teachers to be excluded entirely
seems to confound common sense and raises the strong possibility that we will reap the whirlwind in 10-20 years' time of more homogeneous schools - not really a good thing for starters - and of more, not less, divided communities. 

Further, in the case of Islamic schools, despite protestations to the contrary from various quarters, recruitment by extremist Islamist organisations within schools is already a real threat, as evidenced by the measures taken back in 2008 (the Quilliam Foundation is doing some interesting research in this area, although the government is threatening to cut its funding).

My broader fear is that we are ceding the whole policy area of what Trevor Phillips at Policy Network calls "Immigration, Integration and Islam" slowly but surely to the Tories, as we struggle to find a narrative.

Finally, I found an excellent observation by, of all people, a Tory - Danny Finkelstein. While I don't agree with a lot - or probably much - of what he says, he had this very nice line in a Times (£) piece back in April which connects that broader issue back to the faith school:
Immigration is won or lost in the playground.
He's right. That is where integration succeeds or fails for a generation. And there we make things more difficult at our peril.

13 comments:

  1. Whatever you do, don't tell John Rentoul who believes in St Tone.

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  2. As it happens you're wrong - on faith schools and Michael Gove he actually agrees with me: check this link out. this

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  3. The trouble with this debate is that people who do not have faith or are not part of a faith community fundamentally do not grasp what it is about faith schools that is important to people who want to bring up their children with at least an option of understanding what it is to have faith.
    I am a catholic. I went to a catholic school. I want my daughter to do so - yes despite sharing many of the views of critics of the church about its shortcomings. And despite experiencing at first hand the damage sectarianism (but not necessarily segregation) can still still cause in my home city of Glasgow.
    If you believe in a religion it is not enough to be taught about it as an academic or historical exercise alongside other religions in a context that simply grades them dispassionately. You want to celebrate its festivals - not as a fun bit of kitsch as everything from Eid to Easter are now marked at many schools but with the solemnity and dignity they are accorded by the adherrents of that faith.

    Certainly you want your children to understand the cutural and maybe political context in which their faith operates but you also want them to understand what its followers believe in, why and how strongly those bonds are felt. Quite simply a faith school is a place that allows you to be part of your faith, to learn about it and have your beliefs upheld and respected and not to feel a social oddity. As a parent you want to create the space where a child can experience their religion and grow into it (or out of it) as a normal and accepted part of their every day life.

    When I was at school we had a saint for every day of the week to guide us and show us good examples of one sort or another. Given our age schools tend to select wholesome non-controversial saints (all the more so today than 40 years ago). We prayed before school each day, for help to concentrate in our studies, for compassion and tolerence towards others (and particularly those who did not share our belief) and the knowledge of those less fortunate than ourselves was never far from our consciousness.

    Ah, you will say, any good school can pull out role models and run thoughtful and thought provoking assemblies and that's true but i don't see why a tolerant and cohesive and confident society cannot have more confidence in its citizens without needing to regulate every area of their lives. Faith schools are not a threat to community cohesion. But the fear that society is becoming less tolerent of those who are felt not to conform to rigid secular norms dictated by a middle class secular elite certainly is.

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  4. Antigone, firstly while I appreciate your defence, I object a little to your ad hominems: "people who do not have faith or are not part of a faith community fundamentally do not grasp..." you are making something of an assumption. I grasp the need, but I am not sure it is good for society in some forms. I worry that religious people take any measure to regulate or change as an attack on their faith, when it is not. It is surely irrelevant what my beliefs or non-beliefs are, or yours, so long as we respect each others'.

    As I just tweeted to blairsupporter, I actually took out a para which said I think the issue is much less for Christian faith schools than for non-Christian, for the simple reason that it is less likely that they might cause a cultural, as well as a religious separation. With an Islamic, Hindu, Sikh or Orthodox Jewish school, for example, I'd say it's a little more likely. However, the problem is that you can't really differentiate in legislation, that would be wrong as well as politically divisive.

    This is not about regulation, by the way, it's about ensuring that integration between races and cultures, more than religions per se, happens in the playground. As, indeed, it did perfectly well in many faith and non-faith schools in my day and yours. I think the changes made over recent years are a change away from that, and Gove's are the icing on the cake. It cannot be good that a Muslim child, for example, can spend his entire school day, and quite easily his home life as well, without coming across a teacher nor a peer who is non-Muslim. That, yes, is a threat to community cohesion.

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  5. I'm not certain I met many non-catholics before I was 16 but it didn;t prevent me spending my adult life happily integrated and, i hope,tolerant of the very great majority around me who do not remotely share my views.

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  6. @Antigone, as I say, I think it's much less of an issue with Catholic schools because there are much lower cultural barriers to break down (although, let's face it, there are still even parts of the UK with significant Protestant/Catholic segregation). So a religious difference does not, on the whole, need to become a cultural disconnect.

    I am sure you have lived an entirely integrated life, as most British Catholics do, I'd say.

    And there may well be many Muslims who, despite being brought up in an overwhelmingly Muslim community and attending a faith school, manage to integrate well by other means. But why do we have to make it increasingly, rather than decreasingly, difficult for them to do so?

    For me one of the joys and great strengths of the British state system has always been the way everyone of different faiths and cultures is lumped in together, and are forced to confront their apprehensiveness of one another and work out their differences.

    I believe, simply, that we're moving away from that, which is a great shame.

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  7. I love "immigration is won or lost in the playground". Very powerful sentence.

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  8. Blairsupporter? "You cannot be serious" (copyright John McEnroe).

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  9. @Conor: It is indeed. For a Tory ;)

    @Ciaran: I'm afraid so. In fact, he reaffirmed it last night as well.

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  10. Experience as a teacher has made me very sceptical of the idea that schools are good at integrating different cultures. Schools are not microcosms ripe for convenient social-engineering which can then spread out into a wider society. Children are actually worse than adults for resenting those who are different, not some kind of vanguard for tolerance.

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  11. @Andrew:

    I wouldn't necessarily say schools are the perfect vehicle for integration (after all, they are primarily about teaching kids, this is a by-product). But I do think they help, especially in the inner cities.

    What I would ask you is, if kids don't get the chance to integrate in their schooldays, when will they?

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  12. "What I would ask you is, if kids don't get the chance to integrate in their schooldays, when will they?"

    Throughout their lives. Most workplaces are (by law) more tolerant and integrated than most schools. Proximity is not integration nor acceptance, and nowhere is this more obvious than among schoolchildren.

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  13. That's an interesting thought. Andrew, I absolutely defer to your superior knowledge of schools.

    However, what it leaves me with is this, if you'll forgive me: school can at best do part of the job of integration. So let's make it worse, not better, by making sure kids never even *meet* other kids outside their faith/culture until they're adults.

    That doesn't make sense to me: because you can't do the whole job, don't try and do any of it. And even if schools are not great integration incubators, surely the seeds of tolerance and acceptance are sown at that age (like just about every other seed)?

    Or not?

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