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Classroom debate

28 July 2017


I AM pretty sure that it is un­­common for a 14-year-old boy to enquire of a girl how she would like to be treated in a gender-appro­priate manner. Such sensitiv­ity to the correctness of adolescent politics is not typical. Yet this was the vision conjured up by Matthew Taylor when, in The Moral Maze (Radio 4, Wednesday), he made his case for co-education. Having boys in the same classroom as girls may indeed be a healthier option than single-sex education; but let us not get carried away.

To be fair, Taylor was up against Imam Asad Zaman, who runs an Islamic school in Manchester, and whose case for segregated schooling suggested an agenda far deeper than the usual arguments about academic attainment. Both Taylor and his co-accuser, Michael Portillo, tried to smoke him out, the latter with some success.

Segregated learning enables chil­dren to stay within the law, Mr Zaman declared: we live in a highly sexualised world, and the presence of the opposite sex in the classroom can be off-putting. So what about before and after school, Portillo asked: do you advocate segregation throughout the day? We do what we can, and pray, came the tired reply.

Appropriately for the subject un­­der discussion, the four panellists fell into polemical pairs: the boys — Portillo and Taylor — were sceptical about the gender segregation prac­tised by some faith schools; the girls — Anne McElvoy and Melanie Phillips — were less concerned, so long as rigorous academic standards were maintained for both sexes.

Their most potentially toxic wit­ness was Professor Anthony O’Hear, who made the case for faith-based, segregated schooling from the stand­­point of the libertarian. If schools choose to teach socially con­servative doctrines, and parents choose to send their children to such schools, they should be allowed to do so. It is not for the state to in­­sist upon a standardised ideological curriculum.

One institution born from the principle of segregation was the subject of And Then There Were Nun (Radio 4, Friday). Bishop Martin Shaw was our sym­pathetic com­panion as we met elderly members of two depleted convents. Sisters Clare and Gio­vanna reminisced about the gar­dening, the bee-keeping, and the beautiful singing; all of which was reinforced by a canned soundscape of chanting, and chirruping birds. It needed a Franciscan, Brother Samuel, to bring us back to reality: this form of the contemplative life was in terminal decline, he said. It is the unenviable task of pastors such as Bishop Shaw to manage the last rites.

Being wedded to Christ might bring its challenges, but it is no great shakes at the other extreme, either, as we discovered in The Why Factor (Radio 4, Thursday of last week). “My husband is my god,” Ma­­Khumalo, the third wife of Musa Mseleku, said. They are co-stars in a South African reality series about polygamy. Musa has imposed a 5 p.m. curfew on his wives “for man­agement purposes” — not so that they can gather to sing vespers.

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