Lessons from the Birmingham affair

Several lessons can be drawn from the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, including

  1. that religious extremism is completely different from terrorism and that politicians who used the Birmingham schools story for political ends have a lot to answer for
  2. that we need to watch for hijacking of schools by religious (or any other) extremists for their own religious ends, and
  3. that the activities condemned in these non-faith schools are exactly what are praised in faith schools

…which must raise questions about faith schools: what is so different about a narrow Jewish or Catholic ethos and curriculum from what devout Muslim governors were trying (admittedly unlawfully) to impose on their Birmingham schools?Politicians like Liam Byrne use this last point to argue that maybe these schools should be converted to faith schools so as to legitimise what they are doing: one moment what Park View school does is deplorable, the next it is spot on.  But this reminds us that the whole debate about faith schools is marked with dishonesty by their defenders.

The research is clear - 'faith' schools do in fact operate harmful admissions biases. Pictured: the Fair Admissions Campaign website.

The research is clear – ‘faith’ schools are more socio-economically compared to the local average. Pictured: the Fair Admissions Campaign website.

When the Fair Admissions Campaign shows indisputably that religious schools discriminate in their admissions against poorer families (as measured by eligibility for free school meals), the Catholic Education Service uses phony stats to fend off the criticism.  When the BHA tweets that if people are worried about the intense religiosity of the Birmingham schools, they should pay attention also to faith schools, the Church of England’s PR man the Rev Arun Arora treats this one tweet as the sum of BHA policy and writes a column ridiculing us, whereupon friendly columnists echo him in their own names.

The Church of England in public defends its schools with a pretence of selfless service to the general interest while in private  pursuing an aggressively expansionist policy as its last hope for survival, using the bait of places in its schools to induce parents into church.

But these sponsors of religious schools paid for from the public purse and the politicians who defend them are guilty also on another count: their refusal to engage with the arguments of principle in favour of reform.

In this they differ from many proponents of Jewish or Islamic schools – before learning to be more circumspect, Ibrahim Lawson said on Radio 4 that the purpose of his Nottingham school was indoctrination. The churches do not admit that their real aim is to recruit a new generation to join their congregations. That they enjoy limited success, that some Anglican schools are largely full of pupils from Muslim families, that they often provide a good education, that their version of indoctrination is subtle and muted – these are mitigations but not answers to the principled objection to faith schools that they do not respect the autonomy of children and their own rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Defenders quote against this the European Convention on Human Rights that ‘the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religions and philosophical convictions” —  and this is indeed a necessary defence against an over-mighty state imposing a totalitarian education on everyone.  But the Convention does not help them: it protects the private or joint endeavours of parents but it does not require the general public to finance churches in their self-promotion.

Nor do the churches face up to the implications of public finance for denominational schools in an age of human rights and non-discrimination.  If Catholic schools, why not Muslim and Hindu?  If Anglican, why not Buddhist and Sikh?  or Seventh Day Adventist? or schools to propagate the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi?  Or indeed Steiner schools based on their founder’s racist and anti-science writings?  All these now feature in the publicly funded school system.  Supporters of Church of England schools now have to defend also these more dubious enterprises.

But our arguments of principle go beyond objecting to indoctrination of children. These schools are inevitably divisive, and they increasingly balkanise the population.  They are a relic of the sort of divisive multiculturalism that was such a mistake of the Blair government.  Time and again it has been shown that it is necessary only to divide people into groups for them to form loyalties and hostilities, and when the divisions are based on rival religious claims they are all the more dangerous.  It is no answer that these divisive schools have occasional visits to each other – children need to be educated alongside each other every day, to learn about and from each other, not to be thrown into occasional artificial encounters.

But do not expect the churches to provide a defence on principle of religious schools any time soon.

Why the situation in Birmingham means we must address faith in schools

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On Monday, when the documents related to the Ofsted and Education Funding Agency investigations in Birmingham were published and Michael Gove made a statement in the House of Commons about it, we tweeted approvingly when Crispin Blunt MP raised the issue of ‘faith’ schools more generally:

Arun Arora, Director of Communications for the Church of England, took this single comment and spun it into a baseless article alleging that the British Humanist Association had tried to turn the whole situation in Birmingham into a debate about ‘faith’ schools and attacking the notion that it lends itself to wider comments of this nature. He pointed out that none of the schools involved in Birmingham are legally designated as religious, and that Church of England schools do not face similar issues.

This response completely misrepresents the reason why ‘faith’ schools are relevant to this debate. We never said any of the schools in Birmingham are religious and in fact we have continually drawn attention to the fact that they are not.

The reason why all ‘faith’ schools are relevant to this debate is not because Church of England schools foster extremism – they clearly don’t, and for Arun to base a whole article on the idea that we think they do is bizarre. There have been articles across from publications across the political spectrum discussing the place of ‘faith’ schools in response to the situation in Birmingham. Even the Secretary of State himself, in his response to Crispin Blunt, said that ‘In the light of what has been revealed, it is important to have a debate about the proper place of faith in education’. The Shadow Secretary of State has made similar comments; it is clear that such a discussion has relevance and that to endorse that claim is not to imply in anyway that any of the schools in Birmingham recently investigated were religious ones.

What the existence of Church of England schools plainly does is support the mentality that some state schools are for Anglicans, some are for Catholics, some are for Jews… and of course, given this mentality, we are going to arrive at a situation where some Muslims start seeing certain schools as ‘Muslim schools’, whether those schools are legally designated as Islamic or not. We can only prevent the type of problem we saw in Birmingham from occurring and spreading – and stop segregation between different schools – if we work to get away from the whole notion that different state-funded schools belong to different religious communities.

If we do not do this then we will continue down the path we are on of further segregation between schools along both socio-economic and ethnic grounds. Ted Cantle wrote the main reports into the 2001 race riots, and identified segregated schools as a cause of those riots. The fact that he believes this country’s schools are far more segregated now than they were when the 2001 race riots occurred is shocking.

We welcome any public debate around the place of religion in education that has been happening since Monday. It is right that the public asks questions about the fact that most of the one third of state-funded schools that are religious – including many Church of England schools – are allowed to turn children away who live across the road but whose parents are of the wrong religion or no religion; are allowed to pick the staff they hire on the basis not of their teaching ability but of their faith; and are allowed to teach a curriculum that proselytises a certain religion and dismisses all other worldviews. Surveys show that all of these practices are hugely unpopular with the public at large.

That official representatives of the Church of England wish to stifle that debate seems self-interested at the very least.

Cameron’s Christian country and Church history

In what sense is Britain a 'Christian country', asks Emma Williams? Photo: echiner1.

Emma Williams takes a look into the past, at when Britain was perhaps more of a ‘Christian country’. Photo: echiner1.

The statement was inappropriately personal, the thinking disordered. In a formal address at Downing Street, the Prime Minister aligned himself with Eric Pickles – a move tantamount to career suicide in my opinion – as he re-stated and elaborated upon the notion that Britain is ‘a Christian country.’

Since Cameron’s remarks and the letter of objection issued by the BHA there has been endless discussion in the media. Most Christian writers seem astonished and bewildered by the BHA’s response, and cite our country’s history over the last two millennia as definitive proof of the Cameron-Pickles vision. Cameron stated confidently that we should be ‘proud’ of our Christian heritage, and cited his own faith as a driving force in his life and his work. As our PM warmed to his theme, Conservative values and the work of the Church seemed to merge into one; he even credited the son of God with a prototype version of his own ‘Big Society’ – praise indeed for the Messiah.

Since Church history seems to be so important to our leader, since he feels it’s something to be proud of, I thought we should take a look at it. Leaving aside the game of selectively quoting some less-than-pleasant extracts from the Bible (too easy) and the ignoble squabbling that dominates the very early history of the Church (we haven’t got time), let’s focus on the Church in England, which ultimately became the Church of England, and which Cameron praised in the Church Times this April for its ‘openness, beauty, social action and pastoral care.’

Let’s look back a few centuries to the good old days when the Church’s power was at its height and when society might perhaps be described as ‘Christian.’ Those will be the days when the poor worked for free on Church land and paid 10% of what little they produced on their own smallholdings in tithes; if they didn’t do this, they were told, they would go to hell. In the good old days, the Church advocated not only the death penalty but ritual torture; robbing a church or petty vandalism could lead to an unexpected encounter with your own entrails, and Church fathers from St. Thomas Aquinas to the 20th century Bishops in the House of Lords have argued the case for capital punishment. To quote George Holyoake, who coined the term ‘secularism':

‘In a Christian country, such as England was, a death penalty devoid of religious sanction could not have survived. It was an issue over which the church could have exercised a moral hegemony and failed to do so.’

In the good old days of the 16th and 17th century, teenage girls and unmarried eccentrics were tried for witchcraft and dealing with the devil. Tortured for days until they confessed to whatever they were accused of, these wretched souls were then triumphantly executed before a hysterical crowd. Fast forward to the 19th century and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts is profiting from slave plantations and branding its serfs for the love of Christ, something for which it has recently apologised.

Is this what we should be proud of? In times when the Church wielded greater power in England, I see no moral utopia. The liberal and tolerant society that Cameron seems to claim is at one with Christian principles has in fact been shaped by secular reasoning, by a philosophical process unhindered by dogma and guided only by a belief in human decency. If, as Cameron wrote in the Church Times in April, ‘Christian values … are shared by people of every faith and none,’ then how are they Christian values?

As I write, the Church is the only organisation still exempt from equality laws in this country. Thanks to this unique immunity, it is still debating the radical notion of allowing women into its senior leadership roles, and it still refuses to facilitate equal marriage.

Perhaps when you’re running the country, the good old days of Church control seem attractive. To quote a verse generally omitted these days from everyone’s favourite hymn, ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate: God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.’ No inconvenient questions about expenses, no crass jokes about boarding schools and privilege; the country must have been an easier place to run, especially if you’re on the fiddle or an ex-Etonian.

Yet I credit Cameron with considerably more liberalism than he appears to credit himself. The man seems confused, and is no doubt suffering from the strange condition of double-think that is common to many liberal Christians. The inescapable truth is that our country, with its strange and diverse and inglorious history, can no longer be described as Christian. Based on the history of the Church, it seems that is something to be grateful for.