Faith schools may be Blair's most damaging legacy
By POLLY TOYNBEE, GUARDIAN
Added: Mon, 01 Sep 2008 23:00:00 UTC
Labour's new rules mean that anyone who works in these institutions may have to get down on their knees to keep their jobs
Children start their new schools this week for the 12th year under Labour. Who could have predicted that more pupils than ever will be going to religious schools this term, as the churches boasted gleefully? Pews empty but faith schools multiply.
There are about 14,000 non-religious schools, and nearly 7,000 faith schools. This year the figure has risen again as new academies open: a third are faith-run - and religions have taken over some community schools. Next year 13 more new faith schools open, mostly Christian with three Muslim. This risks being among the most indelibly damaging of Tony Blair's social legacies, his permanent bequest to his own beliefs.
Yesterday a new campaign was launched to oppose segregating children by faith. The Accord coalition brings together surprisingly disparate interests, with some teaching unions, the British Humanist Association (of which I am president) and Ekklesia, the Christian theological thinktank. No sooner was the new group made public than its chair, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, minister of Maidenhead synagogue, paid for his outspoken bravery with a savage personal assault from the Jewish Chronicle. Ekklesia can expect similar fury from Christian denominations. Meanwhile secularists are suffering a backlash from the faiths, as if books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and AC Grayling were any match for the mysterious bully power that religions hold over government.
Accord wants faith schools to abide by the same admissions criteria as other state schools, with no selection by belief. Teachers should be employed for their skills, not for their faith. It opposes Labour's new rules for faith schools, which came into law yesterday, allowing them to keep all jobs for the faithful. Teaching assistants, dinner ladies and caretakers may need to get on their knees to keep their jobs from now on.
Official policy says it's up to local communities to decide the kind of schools they want. In practice, the academy programme encourages widespread faith takeovers, though in future they must offer half their places to outsiders. Years of Labour handwringing over community cohesion hardly squares with dividing children by religion. Ask why and here's the doublethink answer: religious academies now have a "duty to promote community cohesion".
Look no further than evidence from Northern Ireland to see how much worse divisions grow when 95% of children meet no one from outside their sectarian schools. There, a majority tell pollsters they would prefer mixed schools, but politicians ignore it. A Guardian/ICM poll showed 64% across Britain oppose religious schools - which is also ignored. Odd that Christian and Muslim schools are on the increase just as we are warned that faith wars are now so much more threatening than either the cold war or IRA bombs that habeas corpus must be suspended for 42 days.
David Blunkett once said he wanted to "bottle the magic" of Christian schools, but their mystery is often their social class. Anxious parents who get on their knees to get a church school place are not to blame. If prayer is what the government demands to win a place in its more selective state schools, that's what parents must do. These schools would be near empty if they admitted only genuine believers.
Research from the London School of Economics tells the story. In the capital, where admissions are most fraught, faith school pupils are "significantly more affluent" than average for their area. Only 17% of faith pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 25% in non-religious schools. Faith schools take fewer than a fifth of lowest ability children, compared with a third across London - and they take many more high achievers. Only 1% of Pakistani or Bangladeshi children are in faith schools, though they often need most help. In Muslim schools, the numbers go into equally damaging social reverse: 34% are on free school meals.
Yesterday the schools adjudicator, Philip Hunter, handed in his report on admissions: soon we shall see if faith schools breach the admissions code. A furore followed Ed Balls' revelation that in three sample areas, faith schools illegally interviewed parents, demanded extra fees and asked questions about social background. Just a little screening can make a big difference to a school's "ethos" if it deposits difficult families in next-door schools. This matters because the OECD finds the countries with schools that segregate least according to class and ability do best overall: Britain lags behind partly because of its many forms of segregation.
Brighton this year has shown what can be done. Appeals by parents over admissions rose this year nationally but the proportion fell in Brighton, due to its first year of a lottery for oversubscribed schools. It was devised by the previous Labour council and supported by the present Conservatives. Eight secondaries were grouped together and where there was oversubscription names were picked from a hat. The result was that free-school-meals children are becoming more evenly spread. Knowing that abilities and social classes are a bit more fairly mixed than before has benefited everyone. Sadly however, the one Catholic school could not be included.
Class, ethnic and faith segregation are the most damaging reasons why the Accord coalition needs to prevail. But consider too the craziness of creationism now taught in many more schools than before. Homophobic bullying is worse in faith schools - hardly surprising since most sects preach that gay sex is sin, in Islam one punishable by death. Stonewall found 23% fewer gay pupils able to tell anyone about their sexuality, and least sex education in faith schools. All religions were founded on women's inferiority. In Islam what women wear is a battle-flag of identity, in Catholicism governing women's fertility is the die-in-the-ditch issue. The state can't protect children from pernicious views and doctrines at home - but it has a duty to protect them in state schools.
More religious schools open this week, more still next year, all covertly. Labour MPs were never told a third of academies would be faith-run. Yet again, we who were deceived by those who said Gordon Brown would do things differently, were wrong. He may not have Blair's God in his ear, but on every issue his impulse is to pay any price to avoid a fight with any powerful interest group. Result? Loss of respect from just about everyone.
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