Schools need to keep faith in liberal education

In all the fuss over faith schools, we have stopped thinking about the purpose of education


By David Conway, April 1, 2010
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Faith schools are seldom out of the news. Parents whose children have been denied entry to them take legal action to force changes to their admissions policies. Others object to the state funding or even tolerating them.

To select pupils by faith is said to reinforce segregation at a time when schools should promote community cohesion, not difference. Some claim faith schools segregate children by class, through allowing savvy middle-class parents to dominate admissions to these establishments that achieve much higher than average academic results (which, rather than a surge in religious belief, explains their current popularity).

Others claim that, since all religion is bunkum, it should not be taught in school, let alone subsidised.

Seldom is the purpose of education considered, perhaps, because, since 1988, the matter has been decided by central government in the form of a national curriculum. Its stated purpose is provision of a broad and balanced education, long spoken of as "a liberal education".

Liberal education was once the exclusive preserve of elites, designed to prepare them not for work but to make fruitful use of their leisure, by acquainting them with "the best that had been thought and written" in science, literature and the arts. Study of the Bible was included because of the worthwhile moral lessons it was thought to contain.

Today, it is little appreciated how much the national curriculum is the handiwork of Victorian social and literary critic and poet Matthew Arnold, son of Thomas, famed headmaster of Rugby. For most of his working life, Arnold Junior was an elementary schools inspector, routinely consulted by parliamentary commissions on education.

Drawing on his experience and observation of foreign educational systems, Arnold proposed a curriculum practically identical to that introduced in 1988.

Even less well known today is how much of the curriculum Arnold proposed had already been anticipated and instituted at the Jews' Free School by Moses Angel, head throughout Arnold's career, and, incidentally, an early editor of the Jewish Chronicle. On several occasions, Arnold inspected the JFS, always coming away immensely impressed.

The JFS curriculum Angel instated was far ahead of its time, closely resembling Arnold's later proposed curriculum as well as the current national curriculum. As early as 1858, while only an elementary school, the JFS taught English, mathematics, natural science, history, geography and Hebrew; plus Mishnah, music and art in the highest grades. And Angel's aim at the JFS, far from being divisive, was the Anglicisation of young Jews.

Like Arnold, Angel believed education served a higher purpose than mere preparation for employment. His idea of the nature of that higher purpose was evident in his view that a curriculum should contain "religious instruction enough to produce those practical virtues… such as charity… tolerance, sympathy, [and] belief… in the beauty of all God-worship". For similar reasons, he advocated inclusion of art and music, considering them "to cultivate the taste and… refine character".

The curriculum Arnold encountered at the JFS is likely to have influenced his own thinking on what an ideal curriculum should contain. If so, Moses Angel ranks among the country's most influential educationists on current thinking.

Were the elevated conception of the purpose of education he shared with Arnold better understood today, children's lives would not be so hamstrung by the schools' fervent pursuit of examination grades and league-table positions. And the focus upon faith schools would be far less intense, the criticism far less fierce.

David Conway is author of 'Liberal Education and the National Curriculum' published by Civitas

    Last updated: 4:35pm, June 3 2010

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