JUST as it was after 9/11, the public debate about faith schools is in full
swing. It was predictable that, once the dust had begun to settle after the
July bombings, the various axes would be due for another grinding.
Polly Toynbee was first up, preaching her hatred of religion. "In the name
of God" was the headline: "Blair has appeased and prevaricated. Now, as the
death cult strikes again, he must oust religion from public life" (
The Guardian, 22 July). All religions were prone to delusion, given
the right circumstances, she said; extreme superstition bred extreme action.
Dismissing religious moderates along with the "carefully homogenised"
Thought for the Day preachers, she described all religion as a world
of dreams. "All the state can do is hold on to secular values. It can encourage
the moderate but it must not appease religion. There is still time to stop this
madness and separate the state and its schools from all religion."
A less obvious critic of faith schools was Libby Purves. But she has form.
Her assault in the autumn of 2001 was in The Times; in 2005, it was in
The Tablet: again, a blunderbuss rather than a rapier. She remembered
her own convent education: church schools were for parents well organised and
well behaved enough to go
to church, and who could withstand the interview. (Did she not know that
interviews were banned at the Churches' initiative?)
The benefits of better behaviour and a calmer atmosphere in a former
community school in Hartlepool, St Hild's C of E High School, were mocked. And
she seems to think religion is safe for the better-off: "Let parents determined
to imbue education with their own religion start their own schools, and pay for
But the heart of her argument, poking shyly through the verbiage, seemed to
be much the same as Polly Toynbee's. Religion is too threatening for the public
sphere, and is at its best, as in the US, when it is associated with community,
family, and leisure, producing "immensely strong and simple-hearted
manifestations of Christianity".
Radio and television have played their part in the debate, too. Frank Dobson
and I had five minutes together on BBC TV Breakfast's red settee, but
he is no longer a pure abolitionist. And Keith Porteous Wood, the executive
director of the National Secular Society, the balance for me on the airwaves
more times than I can remember, had a rather ill-disciplined exchange with a
Muslim headteacher and me, courtesy of Sky News.
The opportunistic timing of these intellectual assaults suggests that they
are not attacks so much on church schools and other faith schools as on Islam
and on religion itself. They can have a corrosive effect, and need to be
Happily, not all the arguments have gone one way. Deborah Orr, in an
impressive piece in The Independent, confessed her change of heart,
having been moved by the letters she received after a post-9/11 article
assaulting faith schools. The Prime Minister reasserted his commitment to
increasing the number of Muslim schools benefiting from government funding.
David Cameron, the Conservative shadow education secretary and a potential
leader, was in agreement on Radio 4's Westminster Hour.
THE FACTS need to be stated clearly. There are now 150 or so Muslim schools
in Britain, of which 145 are funded entirely by the parents, some charging as
little as £700 a year, but still aiming to provide a full education for their
pupils. Contrast this with the cost of a pupil in a Government-funded school
(say, £5000 a year) and in a mainstream independent school (say, £10,000).
Her Majesty's Chief Inspector has criticised some of these 145 Muslim
schools for providing inadequate education. We should not be surprised. The
five schools that receive government funding can afford decent salaries for
teachers, and the range of learning assistants and support staff, teaching
materials, and equipment that other maintained schools enjoy. All 150 schools
should be able to enjoy the same benefits. The Government seems to be planning
that they should.
Will this be divisive? The schools already exist. They will be better-funded
and able to offer a better education. In the maintained sector, they will teach
the National Curriculum, including citizenship education.
Will they promote ignorance or hatred? There is nothing to suggest they
will. Quite the reverse. The minority-faith schools that I have visited seem
admirable in their aims and ethos. None of the July bombers went to a Muslim
school in England. Hatred is surely engendered not in such a school, but by the
denial of respect, through the denigration of a community's religion, and
through a loss of identity and self-respect.
All this has a familiar ring to anyone aware of events 100 years ago. Then,
it was Roman Catholic schools that were under attack. A Tory Act in 1902 had
provided rate support for church schools. There was an outcry against "Rome on
the rates". Then the Liberal government, elected on the back of this outcry,
introduced an Education Bill in 1906, to abolish state funding for church
schools. Passed by the Commons, but blocked by the Lords, the Bill failed to
reach the statute book. Church schools survived.
With hindsight, it is clear that Roman Catholic schools gave a largely
immigrant community a sense of place and respect in British society, a means of
recognising twin loyalties, as it must have seemed at first: as British
Canon Hall is the Church of England's chief education officer.