Dr Sarah Beresford
Tuesday 10th June saw the publication Ofsted’s much awaited report into 21 Birmingham schools in the so called leaked ‘Trojan horse’ letter which alleged a planned takeover of schools by Islamist extremists. One of the schools investigated was Park View Academy. Ofsted’s report found that the recruitment and promotion of staff at Parkview was unfair and opaque; students were not prepared adequately for life in a multicultural society; and there were few opportunities to learn about non-Muslim beliefs, nor adequate citizenship lessons or Sex and Relationships Education. This blog argues that this recent controversy is representative of a deeper problem than so-called ‘muslim take over plots’ or ‘Faith schools’. The issue is of the place of religion and religiosity in schools and in the curriculum. The issue has caused a public row between two senior coalition ministers with the Home Secretary Theresa May accusing the Education Secretary Michael Gove, of failing to deal with an alleged Islamist plot to take over schools. The issue goes deeper than a discussion on Faith schools (Park View is not a Faith school. If this amount of religious indoctrination can take place in a school which is not a faith school, what amount of indoctrination is taking place at faith schools?).
Religious education is often argued to be a ‘common good’. Although religiosity in education may be ‘common’, it is far from ‘good’. The common good would be best served by a legal system in which the State rejects religiosity in all education and promotes a secularist based curriculum. Whist it may or may not be appropriate to educate children about the cultural beliefs stemming from religion, it is far from appropriate to allow for faith or religiosity as a governing element of the curriculum. If ‘religious studies’ is to be remain on the curriculum, it should include critical perspectives on religion – as would be the case with any other cultural movement. This objective can only be achieved by the abolition of all faith schools howsoever funded and entirely based on a secular curriculum. The recent Ofsted report has highlighted the pressing legal and social need to arrest and reverse the current policy on the expansion of religiosity in schools, given the powerfully symbolic nature of religiosity, and the proselytizing effect that it has upon children, especially female children.
Arguably, the role of the state is to promote social cohesion, or at least, to refrain from doing that which militates against social cohesion. Significant problems are posed by existing and future mono-cultural schools, which can add significantly to the separation of communities. The extent to which the concept of ‘secular’ matches up with so called ‘British values’, whilst an important debate, lies beyond the scope of this blog. There are several arguments in favour of a secular curriculum;
1. Religion is bad for girls/women.
Religion, religiosity and faith should be excluded from all schools and from the curriculum. These concepts are oppressive of a free society; oppressive of the proletariat, but in particular, the three Abrahamic faiths are especially oppressive of girls and women. The Ofsted report found that there had been regular gender segregation of pupils in religious education; personal development lessons and some in the schools testified that they have been treated unfairly because of their gender or religious belief. As Daly stated ‘When God is male then the male is God’. A clear lack of female role models within most, if not all religious communities, especially in the more senior positions. Apart from the obvious and overt exclusion of women from senior religious roles (e.g. denial of ordination); seating arrangements and the taboos surrounding sex; menstruation; pregnancy and childbirth (regarded as ‘unclean’), there are also the exclusions which prevent women from owning or inheriting property; entering into contractual relations as a legal person; punishments for supposed sexual transgressions; having control over their own reproductive selves; denial of abortion and contraception; unequal rights in relation to the giving of testimony; divorce; jobs; finance and marriage. Because religion (especially the Abrahamic faiths), are inherently and irredeemably patriarchal, they impede women’s agency. In this respect, religious and faith schools are little more than religiously endorsed ‘faith apartheid’ that continues to gives credence to female subordination. Despite the fact that women can play a role in religious activities, these are still male based and patriarchal. As suggested by Hampson, religion has proven to be hugely damaging to the equal rights of women. Thus, all religious (and cultural practices based upon religious faith) should be fiercely resisted coming as they do at the cost of women’s rights regardless of the degree of observance.
2. Faith schools do not get ‘better’ results
5.9 per cent of children in top-performing faith schools claim free school meals; the national average is 11 per cent. Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, states that faith schools tend to obtain better results because ‘of their unique ability to operate religiously selective admissions policies, which are known to work against children from less affluent backgrounds. Were that privilege to be taken away, the preference for faith schools would soon evaporate.’ Selection on the grounds of religion constitutes a de-facto form of socio-economic selection as faith schools take fewer pupils requiring free school meals than other schools.
3. Parents do not have a right to have their child educated in their faith.
The trouble with using a rights based discourse is that it is, by its very nature, very hierarchical. Someone’s rights will always triumph over another. Even if I were convinced by the efficacy of using a rights based discourse, I have yet to be convinced that there is such a right in the first place. The European Convention on Human Rights does not require the government to provide or subsidise any specific type of education. Instead, it requires States to ‘respect’ the right of parents’ religious and philosophical convictions in respect of education and teaching. If we assume for the sake of argument that there is, then it cannot be right that a parents rights to send their child to a school because of its religious nature trumps the child’s right to an education free from religion?
So much for the ‘rights’ of parents, but what about the rights of the child? Many authors have written in support of the view that children should have the right not to be indoctrinated into any faith, whether that it a State religion or that of their parents, such as Humphrey and Dawkins.
4. Religion in schools is divisive
Schools which promote religion perpetuate social inequalities. Ofsted’s report found that a number of the schools were not encouraging their pupils to develop tolerant attitudes towards all faiths and all cultures. Faith schools that control their own admissions criteria are 10 times more likely to be unrepresentative of their surrounding area. At least two-thirds of schools that control their own admissions, most of which are faith schools, are failing to follow the new School Admissions Code which provides Statutory guidance that schools must follow when carrying out duties relating to school admissions. Indeed, a Home Office report into the Bradford riots of 2001 heavily criticised faith schools for institutionalizing segregation. The Chair of the Commons education select committee, Barry Sheerman, warned in 2005 that the growth of faith schools posed a threat to the cohesion of multicultural communities.
Schools which promote religion also promote bias and bigotry due to their religious nature. Examples are not difficult to come by. It was reported in several national newspapers and news organisations in mid-April 2012, that the Catholic Education Service wrote to every state-funded Catholic secondary school in England and Wales asking them to encourage pupils to sign a petition against same-sex marriage
It should not be the job of the State to legislate for the religious indoctrination of children in schools. There should be a clear separation between religion and education. All schools, howsoever funded should be independent of religion. If religiosity in schools were to be abolished alongside faith schools, what would fill this vacuum? A banning of all faith and religiously dominated schools is the only was to prevent religious indoctrination of children and the continued enforced second class categorisation of women. The admissions criteria and the curriculum should all be placed on a secular base. The Runnymede Trust has also said that faith schools should end selection on the basis of faith. An obvious alternative to state funded religious schools would be state funded secular schools. Without further reform however, parents who could afford it, might eschew secular schools and choose instead to send their children to privately funded faith schools. In order to pursue the objective of secular education for all children, privately funded schools would have to be brought under the same legislative umbrella as publically funded schools. It would also mean that parents would lose the statutory right to ‘home school’ (Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act). The years children spend at school are arguably the greatest opportunity for children can learn about other faiths, other cultures and other styles of living. The only way to ensure this is to end home schooling and bring all schools, howsoever funded, under a secular umbrella.
There is no legitimate role for faith schools or religious schools in the twenty-first century. Instead, the UK should adopt a system of schooling that is entirely secular in manifestation and philosophical outlook. This would entail, inter alia, abolishing the legal requirement in all state schools for pupils to take part in a daily act of worship of a ‘broadly Christian nature’. If there must be a manifestation of religion, it should be confined entirely to private life. This is not shockingly new; there are many countries in the world that are secular, such as France; America; Turkey; Singapore; Japan and South Korea; Australia; New Zealand; India; Nepal.
Sarah Beresford is a lecturer in Law at Lancaster University. Her main research and teaching interests are in family, gender, sexualities and the law.
You can find out more about Sarah’s research at http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/law/profiles/sarah-beresford