Is a war about to break out between Government and religious schools? The spectre of ‘Trojan Horse’ paranoia seems to be stalking the corridors at the Department for Education. Ofsted has been required to take on the role of ‘enforcers’ of “British values”. Central to these, according to the Dfe is “an acceptance that people having different faiths or beliefs to oneself (or having none) should be accepted and tolerated, and should not be the cause of prejudicial or discriminatory behaviour”. It noted that the requirement for schools to promote “British values” is already set out in the 2002 Education Act. Now, it seems, schools will be required to be much more active in the promotion of these “values”.
Recently, Ofsted downgraded a state primary school in rural Lincolnshire from “outstanding” to “good” on the basis, to a large extent, that it was not providing enough direct, first hand experience of the cultural, religious and racial diversity of modern Britain. The school concerned is 97 per cent white with 100 per cent of pupils speaking English as a first language. Its geographical location makes exposure to, and interaction with, minority groups in our society a considerable problem in terms of practicalities. The school’s relegated status in terms of Ofsted illustrates well the law of unintended consequences. Many parents of the school, appropriately alienated by what seems to be a heavy-handed, ‘Big Brother’ approach, consider that Ofsted has either taken leave of its senses or is a malevolent authority – suspect and alien.
The Birmingham schools at the heart of the original Trojan Horse enquiry, like the primary school in Lincolnshire, were all secular institutions, but it is faith schools that have come to feel most targeted by the new “British values” policy. The Church of England has accused Government of, effectively, turning Ofsted into a form of secret police. Its chief education officer claimed that inspectors are now operating as a “schoolroom security service”.
How different all of this is to the discussions surrounding the original introduction of compulsory secular education back in the 19th century. Until the 1870 Education Act, almost every school in Britain was a faith school. State secular schools were introduced to plug the gaps, albeit very large gaps, left by religious institutions. Prime Minister William Gladstone, whose government brought in the 1870 Act, had earlier commented that he was “desirous of placing the education of the people under the efficient control of the clergy”. Practicalities made this impossible and, so, state secular schools were born.
We have moved on a long way since Gladstone, but there remain many of the values that he once saw as being best protected by religion. Not since the time of Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation have values in part of Britain been associated with this new initiative of policing ‘thought’. It is a policy characteristic of totalitarian regimes, not of Britain. Of course, we wish our children to understand that, if there is a clash, secular law takes precedence over religious law. However, since so much secular law has grown out of religious belief, clashes between the two are the exception rather than the rule. Existing laws already protect us from sporadic attempts to undermine “British values”.
We do not need ‘witch hunters’ here, nor do we need Stasi-style enforcement of conformity to misplaced notions of politically correctness. Those who would like to see all faith schools ‘dissolved’ should take a close look at how the alternative has worked in societies where God has been, more or less, abolished in favour of the state and of secularism.
Most faith schools in Britain already teach, practice and promote the very tolerance and respect for others which the Government now seems to think it has to ‘ investigate’ and ‘enforce’. Faith schools do so, not least, because respect for others is fundamental to their beliefs. This is the common thread that runs through religion. Christians, Muslims and Jews, for example, are all ‘children’ of Abraham. What binds the faith of different religions together is stronger than what divides them. What binds them together is, also, the best guarantee against intolerance and injustice.