Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Faith schools: a bad idea just got worse

God knows (if you’ll forgive the expression) what goes on in Michael Gove’s head. In politics, quotas are rarely a good idea at the best of times, but his removal of the 20% cap on teacher recruitment on grounds of religion has got to be a terrible idea, even for him. In short, he is saying that a school may recruit 100% of its staff according to where they worship or, indeed, if they worship at all.

Making decisions at world leader level is a lot harder than people often give credit for. Ataturk largely saved the modern Turkish nation by his wise decision to keep religion separate from state. And, say what you like about him, but Tony Blair usually had a pretty good nose for decision-making. However, there were undoubtedly the odd times as prime minister when he had clearly had an off-day, a row with Cherie or one too many gin and tonics the night before. Announcing his departure in 2005 but not saying when; the London mayoral elections; and faith schools. Anything involving religion seemed to have the potential to cloud Blair’s judgement, and occasionally cause him to ignore the timeless advice of one A. Campbell: not to “do God”.

So a scheme was cooked up to bolster faith schools, as a way to lock in the perceived positive effect of “specialist” status on academic achievement. Now, I can see the attraction for the Tories – they think they can get good academic performance “for free” – but isn’t there a flip-side to be considered? Why are faith schools such a bad idea?

Well, first and fundamentally they impose a religion on a child which they might not want. As Richard Dawkins brilliantly points out, there is no such thing as a Christian child, merely a child of Christian parents. Children should have the right to choose whether to belong to a religion or not. And parents should not coerce them either way against their will – in fact, this is article 14 of the UN convention on the rights of the child.

Second, faith schools are supposed to give preference to one religious way of life while still maintaining that others are equally valid. But this is a non-sequitur. You cannot tell a child that this way of life is the best one and expect them not to think that another one is inferior. It is human nature, and it is particularly true in children, to make comparisons. In the end, it will not affectall children – some will make up their own minds anyway – but this teaching cannot help but encourage some to see people from a different faith in a negative light, or simply not to relate to them.

Thirty years ago, there was some level of religious segregation at primary schools, but one of the great boons of state education was that it tended to iron out those differences by lumping everyone in together at secondary level and making them learn to get along. Now this is changing. Secondary schools run along religious lines do not create cultural ghettos: but they help to do that. They mean that all the role models tend to come from the same culture: and that is surely unhelpful.

Third, there is a more worrying issue for Muslim schools in particular, which is that we have only modest control over what happens inside them. We have already seen how educational establishments can be not exactly effective at stamping out extremism. Look also at the worrying goings-on around the East London Mosque. There is only one way of creating a jihadist – people are not born that way –  and that is by educating them as such. Pulitzer prize-winner Thomas Friedman’s excellent book, Longitudes And Attitudesshows how the 9/11 terrorists were educated in Saudi schools, where the subjects were not maths and chemistry but Islamic studies and, er, more Islamic studies.

Before someone goes off on one, yes, it’s obvious that Britain is not Saudi Arabia. There will be other subjects on the curriculum and probably 99% of Muslim faith schools will be pillars of the establishment, with decent teachers doing a great, if sectarian, job of educating kids. Agreed. But the point is that the forming of young minds is the only way that terrorists get created, and that’s why you need to be so careful about protecting them from extremists. Worryingly, there are already examples of this in faith schools. And you don’t need a whole school system to be messed up for there to be problems. We do not need 1% or even 0.1% of Moslem students to be exposed to an extremist mentor – as, let’s not forget, they may easily beoutside of school – for there to be a problem. And the various Muslim organisations and community leaders have a habit of being defensive and slow to condemn when community-related problems are found – remember Jack Straw’s remarks about the alleged “grooming” of young white girls in the Pakistani community.

Sounds terribly Daily Mail, doesn’t it? But perhaps it is not. Put simply, there are too many risk factors in the equation: faith schools plus even a tiny minority of radicalised educators plus politically correct educational establishment plus ostrich-like communities come to together to mean trouble. And, even if the risks were overstated, the first two factors alone are enough to make faith schools a bad idea.

And that’s even before you get into sex education or homophobic bullying, both of which are problems for many faith schools. Or the legal quagmire which surrounds the recruitment of up to 100% of faith school teachers on religious grounds, which is openly discriminatory (imagine if you said you could only employ men, or non-Jews, or non-gays in a school!).  Oh, and it’s probably illegal under EU law, not consistently enforceable (how do you prove you’re a Catholic?) and objectionable under basic employment rights.

Oh dear, Michael.  What a mess.

This article first published at Labour Uncut on 21 Feb and a reply article by Stephen Smith was posted there on 23 Feb.  Also featured in The Week Uncut, the most popular pieces of the previous 7 days.


  1. Faith schools first and when I attended an RC Boys Secondary in the 1970s it was about 90% RC staff (I will not dignify many of them by saying teachers). Labour's abolition of grammars was one of their worst ever mistakes. Now to Turkey - nationalism is the new religion. Finally Islam in modern London, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. Blair's slavish adherence to Washington did much harm to the Umma here.

  2. Firstly welcome to the Centre Left, Joe.

    I agree on abolition of grammars - I went to one for sixth form which was outstanding. On faith schools, I actually think there are a lot of RC schools which do a good job, and the potential problem of isolationism is certainly lesser there than for, say, Muslim or Orthodox Jewish schools. But I think it's always dangerous to allow young minds to think that, for example, being gay will send you to Hell. Given that it's almost inevitable some sort of faith school setup will perpetuate, I believe it's about doing it in a sensible way.

    Not sure I agree with you about Blair damaging Muslim relations here in the UK - we can agree or not with his actions, but we shouldn't say "we deserve it" because a terrorist tries to kill us.

    PS I have just checked out your After Watt blog - which Watt is that?

  3. Faith schools are pernicious in Northern Ireland where they perpetuate ghetto mentality. As for After Watt it sprang from a comment my ex-fiancee made "What came after Watt?" I spent a day looking up philosophy and that night she said it had just been a joke. You must have brought me luck, today is the 33rd anniversary of my leaving school. It was a sink school near the East End. On Facebook I accidentally came across one of the "staff". Still a far right f**kwit. Adios!

  4. Agree totally. The thing is, not all situations are the same. A faith school in Belfast or Leicester is not the same as an RC school in the English countryside. But you can't discriminate easily between these cases with legislation - therein lies the danger.

    Re Watt, I thought you might have meant the Labour Party after my esteemed former colleague Peter, who was actually rather a good general secretary. Anyway, I bet you were delighted to find out it was all a joke!

  5. I also wanted to take the time to comment on Stephen Smith's thoughtful piece at Uncut, which was posted today.


    I think that we actually agree on quite a lot, although I respect your points against. My points were threefold: that I am concerned about faith schools because they may not respect children's rights; that they may encourage segregation; and that they may, in a tiny number of cases, provide fertile ground for extremists because of our lack of historic success in confronting this problem inside (particularly Moslem) communities.

    To be clear, I do not for a moment suggest that we should go out and shut down all faith schools, even though I personally am not keen on them. Neither am I suggesting stopping religious education, which I think should be mandatory. So, I am not looking for a "wholly secular education system" as you suggest I am. I simply insist that we respect the rights of children to choose their own religion within that. So while compulsory multi-faith religious education is to be welcomed, mono-faith education should not be compulsory if the child chooses to reject it. In a faith school, the latter becomes difficult. That is the extent of my radical thinking (i.e. not very).

    On the second point, from your final para I think we agree pretty much, if I understand you correctly. On the third we clearly disagree, and let me explain where I take issue with your argument.

    I think your example Catholic schools is interesting, but wrong. I can understand entirely why there would be no greater propensity towards terrorist indoctrination in Catholic schools, for a few reasons: because firstly Northern Ireland has history of terrorism both inside AND outside the Catholic community

    Secondly, the comparison is awkward because there is less history of terrorists deliberately trying to infiltrate communities clandestinely in cells, to "convert" young people to fanaticism, as is happening in various Moslem communities. It is (or rather was) much more out in the open, it runs in families and the police know where to find people if they need to. Here they don't. In other words, Islamist terrorists and Roman Catholic ones are very different in this sense.

    I really wish I could say I shared your confidence that the Northern Irish Catholic model would be replicated in the Moslem communities of the mainland. But I can't, in all honesty. As an aside, I think it would be interesting to take a sample view of a few police chiefs on the subject.

    Finally, I think you are quite right that we have to respect the views of those who want faith schools. But they also must share in their responsibilities to make sure it is done right. And - careful! - things which are "popular with quite a large number of people" should not necessarily form a basis for policy. With that logic we should bring back corporal and capital punishment, and various other things which I think we are all better off without.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful piece, I enjoyed reading it.

  6. Northern Ireland. Terrorists = Freedom fighters. PIRA/INLA/UVF/UFF delete as appropriate.

  7. Not sure I agree with you about Blair damaging Muslim relations here in the UK - we can agree or not with his actions, but we shouldn't say "we deserve it" because a terrorist tries to kill us.

    Then of course you let them out of jail and offer them seats as MP's.

  8. Whilst I totally disagree with the premise of this article it hasn't raised my hackles in the way that someone else writing it would.Also would you agree that whilst it is someone's right to disagree with religious teachings is one thing it's another thing entirely to make disparing remarks as Mary Honeyball did during the HFE bill in 2008 when she accused the Catholic church of having a vice like grip on parts of Europe andsaying that devout Catholics shouldn't really serve on the frontbench if they listen to the Pope's word!Would you also agree it would be wise that we treat these issues as a matter of conscience rather than politics as we had to learn to our cost especially in the late 80's/early 90's when certain elements of the party tried to make it obligatory to vote against amending the Abortion Act and even going as far to propose the publication of a blacklist of doctors and nurses who refused to take take part in abortions!Sorry if I am off message but I felt it was relevant to the issue of faith in general and the direction of the party!


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