Keeping the Faith with Children

Once lauded as a tolerant, multicultural and multiracial society, since the suicide bomb attacks of July 7, 2005, Britain has become anxious that its religious minorities are not as integrated as had been thought. One approach to the problem is to try to ensure that children of all religions are educated together.
Britain is particularly mindful of 'The Troubles' sectarian violence in Northern Ireland between the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities. Many have argued this was perpetuated by separate Roman Catholic and Protestant schools, which could mean that children from Catholic or Protestant communities did not meet or understand children from a faith different from their own and came to view them as enemies.

But Britain's Labor government, as well as Opposition politicians, have found that forcing faith schools to open up to all faiths can be easier said than done.
Faced with staunch opposition from church leaders, Education Secretary Alan Johnson in October abandoned legislation that would have required new faith schools to select up to 25 per cent of their pupils from those of other faiths or with no religious beliefs. Instead, he settled for a voluntary agreement with leaders of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

He also put forward a measure to require Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education), the schools watchdog, to monitor schools' success in promoting 'community cohesion' - or how much contact they build with different groups or schools in their wider communities.

Undeterred, former Conservative education secretary Lord (Kenneth) Baker put a similar proposal to Johnson's abandoned plan before the House of Lords, Britain's upper chamber of Parliament. He believed faith schools were separating children at the ages of five and 11, rather than helping them to integrate with each other in a diverse society. "We've only got the example in Northern Ireland to see where that leads," he said.

Baker failed, however, to secure House of Lords backing for a quota system. Instead, peers supported the government plan that Ofsted should monitor promotion of community cohesion.

Johnson, meanwhile, defended his U-turn. Apart from securing agreement from the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, he said there had been a "consensus amongst all faith groups" that "every school, whether faith or non-faith, should have a duty to promote community cohesion. We've made enough progress through the voluntary route that we don't need the blunt instrument of legislation."

Johnson's battle over faith schools is only the latest controversy involving religious education and the Labor government.

When Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Catholic wife, Cherie, sent two of their children to the Catholic London Oratory School, critics condemned the perceived elitism of the school's selection procedures. Besides, the school is religious - which is at odds with more radical left-wing beliefs and, some would argue, with most of the population.

British pressure group, the National Secular Society (NSS), says many surveys have revealed that most of the population disapproves of faith schools. "It depends how you ask the question, but if you ask 'do you think it's a good idea to separate children at school based on their religion?', you get something like 90 per cent saying it is not," says the NSS.

"School provides the best, and sometimes only, opportunity to teach tolerance, but only if children of all beliefs and cultures are educated together. The problems in Belfast (at the centre of the Northern Ireland Troubles), Bradford (where race riots broke out in 2001) and elsewhere remind us how imperative this need is," he stresses.

The NSS has been highly dismissive of Johnson's plans. "These proposals don't get anywhere near providing a solution to the problem of faith schools and their divisiveness. All they do is acknowledge that faith schools present a severe problem, but that the government is afraid to tackle it in the radical fashion that is necessary," said Terry Sanderson, Vice-President, NSS.

Another British NGO, the British Humanist Association, has also spoken out vociferously against faith schools which, it said on its website, are "divisive, discriminatory and unnecessary". As an alternative, it proposes "the inclusive, accommodating, community school".

But under Britain's Labor government, the number of state-funded faith schools is increasing. According to 2006 figures from the Department for Education and Skills, around 7,000 - more than 30 per cent - of a total of nearly 21,000 state schools in England have a religious character.

All but 48 of the faith schools are associated with the major Christian denominations. The other 48 comprise 36 Jewish schools, eight Muslim schools, two Sikh schools, one Greek Orthodox and one Seventh Day Adventist school. Further schools that have been approved to open are two Jewish, three Muslim and two Sikh schools.

Religion aside, faith schools generally have a reputation for academic excellence. Many ambitious, middle-class parents - regardless of their own religion or lack of it - have been queuing up to get their children into Catholic or Church of England schools, even if Muslim schools, for instance, tend to attract only those of Muslim faith. If necessary, parents with no religious belief have been going to church and baptizing children to meet school entry criteria.

British satirical magazine 'Private Eye' was prompted to quip that opening up 25 per cent of places to children of different denominations would at least bring in "children of parents who actually believe in God". "Formerly, of course," it joked, "100 per cent of places at our schools went to the children of parents who attend church grudgingly every Sunday so as to avoid having to send their children to local rubbish state schools."

But, humor aside, the current situation means that the most sought-after church schools are dominated by white, middle-class children whose parents know how to play the system. So much for Britain's integrated, multicultural society.   


More by :  Barbara Lewis

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