Faith schools minus the faith?

The conclusions of a new report on faith schools are confused and catastrophic.

By Geoffrey Alderman, December 11, 2008

Amid all the current doom and gloom, do you fancy some light relief? If so, and you have access to a computer, may I recommend that you read the Runnymede Trust’s recent report entitled Right to divide? Faith Schools and Community Cohesion?

On the face of it, this document is no joke. Among its conclusions is the warning that current provision for learning about religion “is too often poor in schools without a religious character”. Well, I’ll say Amen to that.

Whether there needs to be “a common RE National Curriculum” is a moot point. I doubt that experts could agree on the content of such a curriculum, but I am all in favour of something about ethics and “the diversity of faith traditions” being taught in our school systems.

Then we are told by the Runnymede cognoscenti that children attending faith schools “should have a greater say in how they are educated”.

Apparently, this means that “appropriate democratic dialogue” should take place in faith schools, but what this might be is not spelt out. Or rather — and I want to be scrupulously fair here — it is spelt out, but in the form of wild, unsubstantiated assertions characteristic of a university student heading for an outright fail.

“Giving young people appropriate opportunities to influence the shape of their educational experience” (to quote from the report) sounds to me very much like telling them that they can negotiate their own curriculum, a policy that must conflict with the very notion of a National Curriculum.

Then we are told that something must be done to address the alleged “disproportionately small number of young people at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale” who are said to attend faith schools.

The only piece of evidence offered for this contention relates to the proportions of children attending faith schools who are in receipt of free school meals. This has never struck me as an objective measure of deprivation (as a child I was eligible for subsidised school meals but, in cultural terms, my home was anything but disadvantaged). Be that as it may, the evidence presented by the Runnymede experts is without statistical significance. But at least they have had the honesty to admit that, in 2005, “faith schools outperformed non-faith schools in every subject for 11-year-olds in receipt of free school meals”. And I can testify from my own observations that some Jewish faith schools, especially those catering for the needs of the Charedim, recruit almost exclusively from economically disadvantaged families.

Where (I wondered as I ploughed on through the report) is all this leading? Faith schools, whether taxpayer-funded or not, do a good job on the whole. There are, it is true, some seriously underperforming faith schools, including some privately funded Jewish schools, but at the other end of the scale are many more faith schools that are outstanding by any yardstick.

The fact that they are outstanding has everything to do with the religious ethos that underpins them. So why all the fuss? I turned back to the executive summary and found out. Retain faith schools, Runnymede urges, but compel them to “end selection on the basis of faith”.

So what’s really going on here?

Two sets of pressures have been brought to bear upon the Runnymede Trust, forcing it to commission a report that is full of contradictions and confusions. The first — though I realise one mustn’t say this too loudly — stems from a genuine concern with what might be taught in Muslim schools.

The second stems from those who peddle the politics of envy: if everyone can’t go to these excellent faith schools, then no one should go, and if such a ban is unrealistic then the next best thing is, while permitting their survival, to prohibit them from propagating the faiths they profess.

In relation to Jewish schools, the report reflects a further inherent weakness, because, as far as I can tell, the only Jewish denominational body consulted was the Movement for Reform Judaism. The Board of Deputies was asked for its views but of course the Board is not a denominational body, has no experience of running faith schools, and has no authority to speak on behalf of those who do. The failure to consult the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (a failure confirmed to me by the Union) is unforgiveable.

In short — and this is not funny at all — the report is a disgrace to the good name of the Runnymede Trust. It needs to be properly researched and completely rewritten.

Last updated: 11:02am, December 11 2008