Lenin is said to have had a name for Western liberals who supported Russian Communism in its early days. He called them “useful idiots”, because they were helpful to him, but harming themselves by, in effect, braiding the rope that would hang their capitalist system. The epithet came to mind when I was wondering what to make of the handful of religious figures who have joined the new anti-faith schools coalition, Accord, this week.
There is a high-minded tone to their pronouncements. After all, as they put it, who could be against Accord’s call for non-discrimination in admissions and employment, a balanced curriculum, a common inspection regime, and assemblies that reflect the whole community in our 7000 faith schools?
Who could be against this? Anyone who thought through the political reality behind these lofty words, in a world where religious practice is under constant siege from the secularist drum-bangers who constitute the backbone of the Accord coalition. Look at its signatories, and you see Philip Pullman, Polly Toynbee, Steve Jones, Claire Rayner, and all the usual suspects of the British Humanist Association. You see a teachers’ union out to secure more jobs. And you see the self-publicists of the think-tank Ekklesia, a couple of rabbis, and a sprinkling of Hindus, who had their first state school announced only this week.
The coalition is not against faith schools, Accord insists: it just wants them to change. The trouble is, as anyone with any direct experience inside a church school knows, the changes it wants will be the first step along the road to a dilution that will erode the very things that make faith schools distinctive.
It will lead us further down the path of the vicar I know who was asked recently by the head of a Church of England school not to wear his clerical collar in school, for fear of giving out a triumphalist message to non-Christian pupils. We will have secularist parents asking for crucifixes to be taken down, as they might be psychologically disturbing. Public prayer will be branded divisive. Humanists will complain about collections for Christian Aid. Religious identity will be whittled away incrementally.
Supporters of Accord trot out all the usual hoary myths. “Faith schools are about indoctrination by priests.” In fact, they teach the national curriculum, are inspected by Ofsted, and have religious syllabuses that are more genuinely respectful of other faiths than the lip-service paid in many state schools. “They exclude non-faith teachers.” In reality, most church schools have staff from varied backgrounds, and insist that only the head and senior teachers are Anglicans or Roman Catholics.
“They force-feed doctrine.” In fact, gospel values are not most distinctively taught, but practised, in children’s care for one another, staff, their families, and the wider community. “They are divisive.” In fact, they inculcate a sense of social responsibility, affirm minority communities, and are often more ethnically diverse than state schools near by.
Why, critics ask, should taxpayers fund religion? Because the parents of the pupils there are taxpayers, too, who happily fund the two-thirds of British schools that are not faith-based. Because taxpayers get a good deal, as Churches pay 15 per cent of capital costs in such schools. Because they are perhaps the most successful sector of the nation’s schools, as Ofsted reports and admissions applications suggest.
Faith schools outperform comparable schools because of the faith that underpins them. Deplete that, and you level down, when what the nation’s schools need is levelling up.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.