Is the bell tolling for faith schools?

After the furore over Islamist activity in Birmingham, is it time to recognise that secular is better when it comes to teaching our children?

June 19, 2014
Jewish schools achieve top marks for exam passes but critics say they breed ignorance of society

Jewish schools achieve top marks for exam passes but critics say they breed ignorance of society

YES says Jonathan Romain

The Birmingham schools so severely criticised by Ofsted were not faith schools, but the exposure of their failings has caused major questions marks to be raised about how faith schools operate.

Why? Because if the Birmingham schools had been designated faith schools, then many of the practices condemned - such as limiting the curriculum to exclude lessons about sex education and avoid the notion of evolution - would have been permitted.

How can what we find offensive in what are designated "community schools" suddenly be acceptable if they are labelled "faith schools"? Blinkering the horizons of children must be wrong wherever they learn.

It is a wake-up call for those who, until now, regarded benignly the ability of faiths to promote their traditions via the state educational system without realising that it meant allowing them to indoctrinate the children under their care.

Of course, the better faith schools do not do this and instead seek to enrich their pupils with a wide vista; but a system that allows both types of approach and which subjects the outlook of the children to the whim of headteachers and governors is far too lax.

But if there are serious questions about what is learnt and what is hidden from view, equally damaging is the social context of faith schools and their ability to control admissions on grounds of faith.

It is a legal form of discrimination that would not be tolerated in any other state-funded arena: it would be unthinkable to have hospitals with access limited to Jews, swimming pools only for Muslims, libraries just for Catholics. We would rightly object.

Moreover, it is taking place in the very institutions that we like to think are preparing children for a better, fairer, more inclusive society. What sort of message are we giving young minds about an us-and-them society when we separate them at the school gate?

Dividing the children also means dividing the parents, who no longer meet at collection time or at parents evenings and sports days. Thus faith schools cut huge swathes through society. Their object may be well-intentioned, but the effect is to create ghettos.

Even if the better faith schools teach about different religions from books, that is no substitute for children of different traditions actually seeing each other on a daily basis, mixing in class, playing together during breaks, and frequenting each other's homes.

That is what makes a society cohesive and at ease with itself. Those that grow up apart from each other will lack knowledge and be prone to the suspicion and fear that ignorance breeds.

Religious education should be taken seriously, with the history and culture of different faiths being part of the curriculum. Religious instruction should be taught at home, or after school or at weekend classes as the parents see fit.

This may not be convenient for some religious groups, but the more Britain becomes a multi-faith society, the more critical it is that children are brought together rather than segregated.

It means putting community cohesion above sectarian concerns - although that is also in the interests of religious minorities, for if there is social unrest, it is they who suffer first.

In this respect, it is fascinating to see what is happening in Northern Ireland. The troubles there did not erupt because of faith schools, but there is equally no doubt that separate Catholic and Protestant schools helped perpetuate the divide between the two communities and reinforced the prejudices they had about each other.

Now, though, there is a surge in parents opting for integrated schools, which children from both faiths attend and where they appreciate what they have in common.

We should learn from the Northern Ireland's solutions, not emulate its mistakes.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and chair of the Accord Coalition for inclusive education

NO says Clive Lawton

Words matter. And one of the most misleading to have crept into our language is "faith schools". I suspect it was coined by opponents of such schools to make them sound "wrong".

After all, isn't education about thinking things through, but faith about the precise opposite - taking things on trust?

But more to the point for us, Jewish schools are rarely faith schools as such. Most of our maintained Jewish schools - whether the good, old voluntary-aided sort, or newer free schools and academies – do not ask much about faith, which is the usual Jewish way of it in any case. A few want to know about practice but even that is the exception rather than the rule.

A more accurate description of Jewish schools is "community schools", but that term has been reserved for schools which take everyone who lives in an area - standard maintained schools - and they are often characterised by no sense of community at all.

So are Jewish schools a good thing? Though I was head of one for several years, and over the last 20 years have worked with many Jewish schools around the world, I do not think they are the be-all-and-end–all. There are good Jewish schools and bad. Some families will benefit tremendously from joining one while others will get not much good and even some harm.

The recent huge growth in Jewish schools has had its downsides, stripping youth movements of much of their dynamic and sometimes displacing shul from the centre of Jewish family institutional life.

Furthermore, we have failed to provide enough inspirational Jewish studies teachers to keep pace with that expansion, and we are certainly in trouble when it comes to developing our own high-quality school leaders.

But for many parents and children, the schools provide a neat way of melding Jewish and general education. They allow children to feel at ease among people who will understand them and do not expect five-year-olds to explain what is going on in the Middle East.

The recent furore about some schools in Birmingham muddies these waters. Quite what was wrong and why it was wrong is not entirely clear. Clearly, giving top jobs to cousins is not the best way to run a school. Failing to give an education in basic fields of current knowledge like science - evolution and reproduction, for example - is to fail the children appallingly. To edit out all reference to Western romance from literature or art is to disable pupils.

But as we all know, there are Jewish schools that seek to do that too. A critical difference, of course, is that those schools are private. The schools of the charedim make no pretence of offering the national curriculum and in return do not take the government's money. That's the deal. If a Muslim group wants to develop a school which does not meet the normal expectations of a decent British education, then it should pay for it themselves.

But, on the other hand, separating girls and boys is not fundamentally against British principles. We have whole schools - and some of them extremely prestigious - that do that.

Avoiding gambling or alcohol, or trying to stop girls and boys canoodling more than is necessary do not seem to me to be deep offences to the British way of life. Or, if they are, perhaps it is time we started learning from Muslim values.

The government stripped local authorities of the capacity to supervise their schools. A fair number of educational institutions have been able to opt out of the local community altogether and be funded directly by central government. That being the case, it is a bit rich to complain that no one has got a grip locally.

But the good old integrationist system of voluntary–aided schools, sponsored by communities with their own flavour and commitments but required to teach the national curriculum, with teachers who were qualified to national standards and with local councillors or their nominees as governors is a pretty decent system.

It is good for the Jews and good for the nation, allowing a measure of diversity within a framework of commonality. The alternative - jamming children together willy-nilly, insisting that a school's ethos cannot be tweaked to suit local priorities and nuances - is simply intolerant.

And, as everyone seems to agree, one of the great British values that we are being asked to promote is tolerance.

Clive Lawton, former head of King David High School Liverpool and ex-deputy director of Liverpool Local Education Authority, is now a freelance educational consultant

Last updated: 5:45pm, June 19 2014