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.

The cost of failing to address the place of religion in our schools

At last Ofsted and the Education Funding Agency have published their investigations into the ethos and curriculum of a number of Birmingham community schools. For the last few years many organisations, including the British Humanist Association (BHA), have been receiving reports from staff and parents at one or other of these schools outlining their concerns. These allegations have included gender discrimination, homophobia, creationism, discrimination in employment and disciplinary practices, bullying, and an unbalanced and closed curriculum, many of which have now been validated.

When we received them at the BHA and had permission, we passed them on to the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted, but it is questionable whether these legitimate concerns would ever have been taken seriously had it not been for the appearance of the ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ letter in March. This letter, now widely considered to be a hoax, gave rise both to investigations of a conspiracy to advance Islamic extremism and to a vicious public debate.

I think focusing on conspiracy and on violent or political extremism are distractions. What many of those who first blew the whistle in the various schools were reacting to was not these claims but to the teaching and ethos of community state schools being gradually changed to reflect a distinctive and narrow religious position, with a closing down of alternative ways of looking at the world, in a way that made the school an extension of the most religious home and denied the pupils alternative views. The most important issue within the situation in Birmingham remains that children in state schools were given an education that may have prepared them well for exams and formal academic achievement but did not open their horizons, develop their freedom of belief, and equip them as informed and critical citizens of modern society to the extent that we should expect.

The specific findings of unbalanced religious teaching and worship and narrow curricula in a number of disciplines in these cases are deeply shocking, but they are a symptom of underlying problems in a school system based on a general religious bias which is increasingly in tension with our more secular and plural society and where the antique provisions embedding religion in the nature even of our non-religious schools are giving rise to a range of perverse outcomes. The situation in Birmingham is symptomatic of our failure to face up to the consequences of these issues still being governed by a basic framework that is now seventy years old and this is a failure of successive governments, none of which have had an overarching strategy or a principled vision of how the state education system should deal with religion or belief.

The last serious attempt to look at all the issues holistically was in 2002 when the BHA published A Better Way Forward. It was the product of policy work and consultation with a range of religious groups as well as educationists and although its proposals may now look dated in a heavily reformed school system, the issues it engaged with are the same. The message was, and still is, simple: all state schools should be equally inclusive of all pupils and staff, with no one group being given special privileges. Schools should not proselytise or discriminate against anyone on the basis of their religion or belief, in admissions, employment, curriculum, ethos, or assemblies.

There are a number of ways in which our law and practice falls short of this: it allows religious discrimination in admissions and employment; it mandates daily acts of religious worship in all schools; it allows unbalanced confessional RE in many schools and makes minimal national prescription in relation to RE in most others, leaving decisions up to schools; beyond bare bones equality law, it fails to lay out any clear template for how schools can or should be made inclusive of children from different religious or belief backgrounds. When you look at them as a package, these facts are astonishing. Not only do they put our school system’s relation to religion way outside of clear international standards and the norms of other liberal democracies, they fail to respect the human rights of children to a horizon-widening education and they fail to recognise the necessity of inclusive civic institutions in a plural society. When combined with the increasingly consumerist approach to public services and our assumption that in schools it is the parent who is the consumer and not the developing child, the fact that the place of religion is so prominent in our school system can lead to people implementing outrageous policies while thinking them entirely acceptable and in keeping with our national provision.

If so many state schools continue to be allowed by law to select the children of Christians, of course Muslim parents and groups will make demands for theirs too. Few people are such policy nerds that they really understand different legal school types, so of course this desire will inevitably translate into influence over schools with no religious character but where most pupils are from Muslim backgrounds. Why shouldn’t a state school with a majority of Muslim parents have compulsory Muslim worship every day?  The law of the land encourages and allows it. And why should alternative activities be provided for children whose parents opt them out? They aren’t in the many schools where the worship is Christian and the potential opters-out are Muslim (or Hindu, or Jewish, or humanist…)

Why shouldn’t a school with children whose parents are mostly Muslim have imams coming in to talk regularly? Schools where most of the parents are Christians (and many where they aren’t) have vicars visiting frequently. Why shouldn’t RE lessons in schools with mostly Muslim parents be mostly about Islam and exclude non-religious beliefs? There’s nothing in the law to rule it out and in many other schools the lessons are mostly about Christianity, even confessionally so, and don’t include teaching about non-religious beliefs at all.

To me the answer is clear – it is because children have the right to a broad and open education tailored to their development as a whole person. No school should be prioritising religious identities over the need for inclusion in our civic institutions. If you agree with me, then surely you would extend the same principle to all state schools. And if so, surely the fact that these principles don’t currently extend in all these ways is the real issue underlying the present problems?

If this is the issue, that what is it that governments have been doing that has allowed this situation to continue? Haven’t they done anything to try to address it?

The Labour governments of 1997-2010 were culpable of engineering the biggest expansion of religious state schools in British history and in legislating to remove employment rights from many staff in these schools. But successive secretaries of state did work to address some of the issues of religion in the system in a more helpful direction – though always stopping short of complete reform. Charles Clarke introduced a national framework for a more balanced subject of RE in all schools – but he failed to make it compulsory. Alan Johnson introduced a duty to promote community cohesion on all schools, including in relation to religion – but failed to change the law allowing religious discrimination in admissions to many schools. Ed Balls introduced new guidance on RE and new resources for school assemblies that effectively replaced compulsory worship in many schools – but he didn’t change the underlying law on RE, he didn’t seek to remove the right of many schools to teach single religious instruction, and he left the law requiring worship on the statute books where it remained in force.

The current coalition government also has a mixed report card, and has similarly failed to treat issues of religion in our education system holistically. It has introduced a quota of pupils from different belief backgrounds in most new religious selective state schools – but it still allows such selection in other schools and has abolished the inspection of community cohesion. It has made provisions for no new school to be able to have pseudoscientific teaching, but has attenuated the regime of accountability to the extent that this is hard to enforce. It has given support to an inclusive new framework for RE but failed to make it compulsory. It has removed many inclusive provisions from subjects such as History, Citizenship, and others, and diluted the applicability of the national curriculum in any case. In its ‘freeing up’ of academies and free schools it has singularly failed to free them of the requirement to hold daily religious worship, which remains in force for all of them.

To seek to address the issue of religion and belief in our schools holistically is not to attempt to hijack the current debate – it is to debate what the real underlying issue is. In the Commons debate on Monday, Michael Gove did not see it this way. He preferred to focus on Britishness and inspection regime reforms – but the shadow education secretary did open up the issue. Perhaps like Labour secretaries of state before him, he might engage more seriously with it. Perhaps he might go further and address it in a genuinely holistic way. Surely he, or our current minister, or some future minister, must do so. We need a serious and inclusive national conversation at a policy level about this issue in the round, and the need is urgent.


Andrew Copson is the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association. This article was first published on politics.co.uk.