THIS is a time of flux and insecurity for schools. The uncertainties about funding, the apparent shortage of school places, and the future of the academies programme are just a few examples.
And then, last September, the Prime Minister made her first domestic-policy intervention, on the subject of grammar schools. Her approach was driven by political rather than educational imperatives, and has little support among teachers or governors.
But she also included proposals about faith schools which should cast some well-deserved light on this important part of the education system. The Government is rightly clear about the positive contribution made by faith schools, and seeks to help them to flourish in a way that promotes a religiously literate, tolerant, and inclusive society.
They state that free schools with a religious designation should: “Promote inclusivity; enhance understanding of other faiths and those with no faith; promote community cohesion; and properly prepare children and young people for life in modern Britain”. Also, that they should be required to “act inclusively by enabling pupils of all faiths and none to play a full part in the life of the school, and not disadvantage pupils or parents of any faith (or none); and actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”
These values of inclusiveness should be at the centre of debate about the part played by faith schools. We should recognise, however, (as the Government’s consultation paper does not) that levels of inclusivity vary, and that there are different types of “faith school”, which have different approaches to admissions, governance, employment policy, ethos, and educational practice.
For example, the majority of Church of England schools seek to serve the whole community, whereas Roman Catholic and some other faith schools exist primarily to educate the children of parents who share that faith.
THE Chief Education Officer for the Church of England, the Revd Nigel Genders, expressed this well: “Our schools are not faith schools for the faithful, they are church schools for the community.” And he has written that “more than half the 4700 Church of England schools have no faith criteria for admissions”. They have a clear faith ethos, but they are open to all.
The distinction between schools whose admissions criteria include faith, and those whose criteria do not, is particularly significant, and should be recognised. The greatest concerns about inclusivity arise in relation to schools where faith criteria are used; so they should be the main focus of government action in this area.
At the outset, debate focused on the proposal to remove the “cap” on faith-based admissions. This happened at the behest of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England, however, has stated that removal of the cap will not change its approach, and the impact will be limited.
THE Government’s other proposals are more significant. They require free schools with a religious designation to:
• Prove that there is demand for school places from parents of other faiths.
• Establish twinning arrangements with other schools.
• Set up mixed-faith multi-academy trusts.
• Include an independent governor who has a different religion or belief.
These four measures should be supported, provided that they are well conducted, effective, and targeted upon those schools that admit pupils using faith criteria.
The proposals on “twinning” and “mixed-faith MATs” are particularly important, but need to learn from successful existing programmes and include specialised training for teachers. Properly resourced local SACREs could organise this well.
THESE measures alone, however, are not enough to fulfil the Government’s aspirations, and so, in our response to the government consultation, Professor Linda Woodhead and I urge the addition of two more measures.
First, faith schools should follow an agreed and well-taught religious-education syllabus. A school’s inclusivity depends on the way in which religion is taught, and it is essential that all schools follow an RE syllabus that reflects the Government’s approach.
The school should be funded and inspected on that basis. This would be far easier if there were a nationally agreed RE syllabus, perhaps building on the non-statutory framework that I published in 2004 as Secretary of State.
Second, the right of withdrawal of pupils from the RE syllabus should be removed. This right is now too often being used by parents who want to stop their children being exposed to faiths other than their own. This form of intolerance is dangerous, and should be discouraged.
These six measures should be implemented for all schools, but the issues are most pressing for those faith schools whose admissions policies use faith criteria.
The Government’s consultation gives us the opportunity to provide a stronger and more balanced foundation to the place of religion in our schools. This would also remove many of the uncertainties and ambiguities that surround the current place of faith schools. We should seize the opportunity with both hands.
Charles Clarke was Secretary of State for Education and Skills from 2002 to 2004 and Home Secretary from 2004 to 2006. He is Visiting Professor in Politics and Faith at the University of Lancaster and joint author of recent pamphlets calling for a national-curriculum place for RE.