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Why I have faith in faith schools


THE award-winning Times journalist Rachel Sylvester does not like faith schools. They upset her. They seem to make her quite angry. In particular she would like us to know how thoroughly brassed-off she is about a new wave of voluntary-aided faith schools that are in the pipeline thanks to Theresa May. Currently faith school are, in most cases, allowed to select only half of their intake on religious grounds, but the new ones would select all of their pupils on faith criteria.

Sylvester would also like us to know that Mrs May once stated a desire to ‘confidently promote’ religious institutions. She is keen to remind us, furthermore, that the former Prime Minister was a vicar’s daughter. To what perfidy has this led us, I wonder? The promotion of religious institutions and a vicar’s daughter! Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more. It will be the Spanish Inquisition turning up in our schools next!

It also happens, as she admits, that faith schools are very popular with parents and that, on the whole, they get better exam results than non-faith schools, while explaining this away with a bit of educational sophistry based on a claim that faith schools do not take a sufficient number of the poorest children. Much the same argument is used against grammar schools. They are condemned for taking too many middle-class children. Rarely is it pointed out that grammar schools mostly survive only in middle-class areas. 

She also cites a handful of rogue schools to support her condemnation of faith schools: A ‘tenth of Britain’s convicted Islamist terrorists came from just five heavily Muslim council wards in Birmingham’. 

The only trouble with this is that none of the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ schools was a faith school. 

Which brings us to Sylvester’s apparent lack of awareness of the most obvious cause of radicalisation– a ‘value-relativist’ doctrine that saturates non-faith schools, above all. This is an ideologythat had statutory status under the requirement to promote ‘British Values’. This means that children must be taught to respect the point of view of those with whom they may disagree. The ‘world view’ of ISIS, for example, is different from the ‘world view’ of the Western democracies – different, but equally worthy of respect. 

Following the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, the TES teachers’ journal published a model classroom lesson. It asked pupils to ‘give three good reasons for joining Islamic State’ and told children to imagine the world ‘from the point of view of a soldier of the faith’. ‘Isn’t it rather a challenge,’ it added, ‘rather a good way of getting to be important? Rather fun being awarded some female slaves? And you are one of the good guys too!’ Pupils were provided with ISIS propaganda and directed to the ISIS online magazine to assist them in complying with what is at the heart of British values. 

Faith schools cannot escape this requirement to promote value relativism but they can and do provide an alternative philosophical structure which is rather different. The ‘golden rule’ which underpins most major religions (in their best renditions)is treat others as you wish to be treated. This surely has merit as a foundation stone in life and no doubt was learned by Mrs May at a young age. ‘Tainting’ the former Prime Minister with the charge that she was the daughter of a vicar is, whatever her other flaws, unbecoming and intolerant. It’s a pity Rachel’s own private school and privileged Oxford education didn’t teach her to know better. 

In a society that purports to be free, if parents wish to send their child to a faith school, it is for government to facilitate parental choice, not to circumvent it. Of course faith schools must comply with the law as much as any non-faith school. The simple fact is that we need more (popular) faith schools to meet parental demand, not fewer. 

Though within the UK, in Northern Ireland, we have seen religious division existing alongside political division, it is misleading to conflate the two. Religious leaders and school leaders there have roundly condemned religious sectarianism and have united against it. 

I would hope, too, that the Times’s journalists would be au fait with Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which enshrines the right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their wishes: ‘Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.’

For the avoidance of any ambiguity or doubt, in 1966 the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which states: ‘The widest possible protection and assistance should be accorded to the family, which is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, particularly for its establishment and while it is responsible for the care and education of dependent children.’

Most countries around the globe have signed up to both the Declaration and the Covenant. Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act in this country reaffirms it. Anyone doubting its inherent value might take a trip to North Korea to look at how a non-faith school system can operate in practice. In fact they don’t have to travel that far.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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