Seventy individuals and representatives of various organisations, including Dr Rowan Williams, Andrew Copson of Humanists UK, Rabia Mirza of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the president of Accord Coalition Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Labour Baroness (Joan) Bakewell, Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston and Professor Richard Dawkins, have signed a letter calling on the Government not to remove the admissions cap at religious schools. Introduced in 2010, the cap requires them to reserve at least half their places for non-religious applicants. A policy change, announced in 2016 but not implemented, has been followed by Education Secretary Damian Hinds’s announcement last month that the 2017 manifesto commitment to removing the cap would be honoured; the Government has yet to respond to its own consultation on this matter.
The Catholic Church announced that it would not open any ‘free’ schools until the cap is removed, fearing that they will come to be dominated by children whose families are not committed to the religious ethos of the school. Since much of the schools’ funding comes from the collection plate, if many do not attend Mass there will be less money to spare for education.
Nonetheless, the signatories to the letter in yesterday’s Telegraph claim opinion polls show that the proposal to remove the cap is opposed by 80 per cent of the public, including 71 per cent of Christians overall and 67 per cent of Catholics – an astonishing result, but if the religious respondents practised their religion and are actually acquainted with the reality of faith schools, it may well demonstrate the fact that people are more likely to show opposition to expanding faith schools if the questions are couched in such a way as to link them with intolerance, ‘segregation’ – a loaded term redolent of racism – and extremism.
Already some Catholic schools have large proportions of Muslim pupils, and both Catholic and Church of England schools are more culturally diverse than state schools serving their own locale; many Catholic and C of E schools are sited in inner cities, but despite serving some of the poorest children, they typically outperform the local state schools.
The letter writers should be familiar with these well-known facts, especially since they seem a very diverse group, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury, a rabbi, a Muslim, a Humanist and an avowed atheist. But in fact they are all singing from the same hymn sheet, albeit an anti-religious one. While championing the ideal of diversity – ‘our state schools, of whatever character, should be open, inclusive, diverse and integrated’ – they oppose diversity of belief, linking it to ‘the prejudices that so often divide society’, and maintaining that ‘the duty of the education system . . . should not be to highlight and entrench such differences in the eyes and minds of young people, but to emphasis instead the common values that we all share.’
Presumably, if ‘we all share’ these ‘common values’ there should be no problem, especially if the writers are alluding to disapproval of terrorism. However, they can point to no evidence that bona fide religious schools have played a part in encouraging terrorism, and if they are alluding to same-sex marriage and teaching children ‘trans’ ideology, then they will struggle to find an opinion poll that shows a majority in favour, among the religious or non-religious.
Despite this, they apparently see faith schools as the most dangerous aspect of modern life; regarding ‘religious selection at faith-based free schools’, they maintain: ‘It is difficult to bring to mind a more divisive policy, or one more deleterious to social cohesion and respect, than one that allows schools to label children at the start of their lives with certain beliefs and then divide them up on that basis.’ Clearly they see religion as the driver of intolerance, despite the fact that in the twentieth century 150million died under atheistic Communism, and over a century before that, the avowedly atheistic French Revolution was drenched in the blood of the innocent. Add to that the atheist denial of the right to life for the unborn and the millions of abortions carried out under their regimes, and this throws a different light on the campaign to ‘protect’ children from religious freedom in education.
Contrary to their claims, schools do not ‘label children at the start of their lives with certain beliefs’ – their parents choose to bring them up in their own religion. Significantly, the writers do not mention parental choice, giving the impression that they would like all children to be brought into a state system that will ‘label them’ as devout adherents of the religion of ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ that in fact is neither.
As it is, bona fide religious schools do more to inculcate self-respect and respect for others than do state schools – that is why so many non-religious parents wish to send their children there, leading to heavy over-subscribing. Deprived of choice in a one-size-fits-no one state school, it is more likely that they will grow up to resemble Professor Dawkins, well known for his tolerance and his temperate statements – and they cannot blame religion for that.