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Giles Fraser: One size of school can’t fit all values

Giles Fraser

THERE WAS more half-baked non­sense this week on the subject of faith schools, this time from the Runny­mede Trust. Its line is that faith schools are fine, so long as they do not make faith any part of the selection criteria.

What a load of disingenuous old tosh. C of E schools make sense only because they exist for the local church community, as well as for others. Schools with a Christian ethos work because Christians go to them. To subtract the faith dimen­sion of selection is the equivalent of abolishing them. To this extent, the National Secular Society is quite right: one either has faith schools or not. A halfway house makes no sense to anyone.

There are few subjects where the chattering classes get their knickers so much in a twist as over church schools. The oft-repeated mantra of the secular liberals — and their religious stooges — is that all our children should be educated the same, accor­ding to the same values. It is some­how assumed that this secular hege­mony would be fair to all, reflecting the values of the whole community. But it cannot work like this. One size can never fit all, and, in the realm of values, there is no such thing as neutrality.

The myth behind the attempt to get all our children educated in the same way is that all values can be subsumed under one common and overarching philosophy. It is a myth that has inspired Western philosophy since Plato, but myth it is — and dangerous. Behind all totalitaria­n­isms is the idea that there is only one way of ordering things.

The person to read on all of this is that great progressive hero Isaiah Berlin. Berlin’s big idea was that there is a genuine diversity and incom­mensurability in human goods: that, for example, there are situations where freedom and social justice — both intrinsically good things — are not possible at the same time. No one moral system can set itself up as offering comprehensive adjudication. Values are not relative, but they are plural. Being plural, they are often simply impossible to combine in one big system.

Isaiah Berlin argued that the way those with utopian aspirations often become demagogues is through the belief that one moral system is the answer to all ills. Sure, we must guard against church schools’ becoming places of intolerance. Sure, commu­nities must mix. But I want to bring up my children to share the values that I preach in church. I make no apology for that.

The idea that the secular state is better placed than I am to determine my children’s moral values is some­thing that I will fight against till my last breath.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.

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