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Britain cannot put its faith in religiously divided schools

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Reposted from:

ALTHOUGH a third of England's state schools are already under religious control, the Government has decided to create even more of them.

In a private deal with a number of religious leaders, Ministers have committed themselves to remove "unnecessary barriers to the creation of new faith schools", to give such schools additional funding from central government and to encourage fee-paying religious schools to join the state sector.

In exchange, the religious leaders have signed up to some pious platitudes about building understanding and tolerance of other faiths.

Many people believe it is incumbent on every citizen, never mind every school, to build understanding and tolerance of others, and that people should not get public money for doing their basic civic duty. The Government has got itself a very poor bargain.

Children's Minister Ed Balls, who will be cross-examined by MPs today, has suggested that faith groups share the Government's goal of promoting a more cohesive society and that faith schools promote integration and community cohesion.

This suggestion flies in the face of common sense and the experience of Northern Ireland and many other countries, where faith schools have entrenched social, cultural and economic divisions and perpetuated them through succeeding generations.

Faith schools exist as an emanation of religious faith. Their central and universal premise is that children are better people if they adhere to one particular faith. All other children are in some way inferior or diminished, perhaps even pitiable. They may need to be converted, saved or redeemed: at best, they can be tolerated but never regarded as equal.

That is what a faith school entails. It is bad enough that the state should fund such an outlook at taxpayers' expense, but to do so in the name of social integration is preposterous.

Even if faith schools were not divisive, they raise other important issues of principle which the Government has consistently refused to acknowledge or debate.

All religious faiths, without exception, are self-selecting minorities. They represent groups of people who have chosen certain beliefs.

Why should any minority group enjoy special funding, influence or control in an essential public service just because of their beliefs? What makes religion so superior to other convictions?

If we are to have publicly funded faith schools, should we also fund anti-faith schools (for the parents who believe that all religions are harmful)? Or, indeed, political schools for parents who believe passionately in a political party — or ornithological schools for
the many more parents who believe passionately in protecting birds?

Ministers claim that faith schools enlarge parental choice. But the Government does not attempt to meet the choice of every single parent for a child's education. Some parents passionately want their child to play cricket for Yorkshire and England and would like their school to prepare him accordingly.

The state does not meet their wishes.

More seriously, some parents are racist, homophobic or treat women as inferior, sometimes on the basis of religious belief. The state does not meet their wishes in education.

These represent extreme cases, but they illustrate how faith schools force government to make invidious decisions.

Some parental beliefs are encouraged and publicly funded: others are not. They turn the state into a licensing agency for views and beliefs.

Faith schools also raise the vital question of children's rights. Should children be compelled to receive religious instruction at their parents' behest? Should this be funded by the state?

In support of its proposal, the Government referred to "Muslim children" along with Hindu and Sikh children as being under-provided with state schools. It would have been more accurate to say "children of Muslim/Hindu/Sikh parents". Children should not be identified by their parents' religion: they will make that choice for themselves when
they are mature enough and it is no role of the state to promote it.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, faith schools will entrench religious politics in our country. They turn every faith into clients of government, and vice versa.

They make every faith group a lobbyist: whatever public money and power is given to one faith group is automatically demanded by another. Within every faith group they encourage factions to compete for the control of public funding, and, even more important, for the power within the community that accompanies control over a school.

To paraphrase Ernest Bevin, faith schools open up a Pandora's box of Trojan horses for our country.

Has the Government seriously considered their consequences for children and their rights, for society and for the future of British politics?

Or has it surrendered, tamely, to well-organised lobbying?

Richard Heller is an author, journalist and political adviser to Denis Healey, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Last Updated: 09 January 2008 8:34 AM



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