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Losing faith in faith schools?

Investigations into a so-called Islamist ‘plot’ in Birmingham schools have raised questions about the role of religion in education in Britain. Lucinda Borkett-Jones reports on why the battle lines being drawn are more than just playground squabbles.

Church schools are part of England’s green and pleasant land. They sit next to the local spired church, come complete with cricket pitch, and look pleasant on a postcard. Or maybe not. More significantly, they have won the hearts of many parents for their good grades and moral ethos. Competition for entry remains at a premium.

Enter, stage left, a so-called Islamist ‘plot’ to infiltrate education in Birmingham. For some secularists there is only a fine line between a small minority of Muslims seeking heavy-handed influence in schools and children singing ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ in assembly. But such polarisation isn’t particularly helpful, especially when the pendulum swings towards an agenda with a deeply anti-religious bias.

When discussion of faith schools comes to the fore, we are still largely talking about church schools. There are approximately 7,000 faith-based schools in England, equating to about a third of all schools. The majority of these are CofE schools, then Roman Catholic; other faiths constitute just a tiny handful of these state-maintained schools.

Nevertheless, despite their good reputation, faith-based schools continue to receive substantial scrutiny. With government institutions on high alert, this scrutiny could be set to rise. So what are the possible implications for faith schools? And, if it comes to it, why should we defend them?

A LESSON ON TROJAN HORSES

Operation Trojan Horse was the name given to an alleged Islamist agenda seeking to take over several schools in Birmingham, described in a letter that was leaked in March. While it is not clear whether the letter itself was a hoax, when combined with independent reports to Birmingham City Council, it has resulted in four investigations in up to 25 schools.

The schools in question are not faith schools, or ‘schools with a religious character’, but a combination of academies and council-run schools. At the centre of the investigation is the Park View Educational Trust, a group of three academies. Members of staff at Park View Academy, one of the trust’s schools, initially approached the British Humanist Association (BHA) with concerns about some of the school’s practices. Unsurprisingly, the secularist group has pursued the case with significant interest.

The allegations include claims that male and female pupils were segregated – often with the female pupils sitting at the back or sides of classes; discrimination against non-Muslim pupils, and restricting the curriculum to comply with Islamic teaching.

While the plot may well be a hoax, the National Association of Head Teachers said in a statement: ‘The association affirms its view that the so called “Trojan Horse” letters are likely to be fakes but that a small number of primary and secondary schools in both the maintained and academy sectors have experienced concerted efforts to alter their character in line with the Islamic faith.’

The reports are concerning, but the investigations have resulted in criticism and countercriticism. And blame may not rest entirely with the schools’ governing bodies. Director of the Association for Christian Teachers, Clive Ireson, says: ‘While the allegation of the Islamist agenda in some of Birmingham’s schools is very worrying, we must not allow this criticism to be reflected onto all Muslim governors. The failure in this case appears to be that Birmingham City Council had lost control and wasn’t carrying out due diligence of its schools and their governing bodies.’

This is not the first time in recent months that Islam in schools has been in the news. Al-Madinah School in Derby was placed in special measures in October 2013, having been rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted. Concerns were raised over the strict Islamic dress imposed on female staff as well as the treatment of girls, alongside other health and safety concerns.

For some secularists there is only a fine line between a small minority of Muslims seeking heavy-handed influence in schools and children singing ‘Shine Jesus Shine’

A BAD INFLUENCE ON OTHERS

But what does this have to do with the Church? Secularist groups have seen these events as an opportunity to condemn all religious involvement in education. Stephen Evans, campaigns manager at the National Secular Society (NSS) says: ‘We welcome the government’s robust response to the specific allegations against schools in Birmingham, but it has a long way to go before we can be confident that children’s education isn’t being compromised by groups with a religious agenda.

‘The prevalence of faith schools demonstrates that schools are regarded by many as places where it is legitimate to seek to encourage adherence to a particular religious belief. This mindset needs to be challenged.’

Inevitably, when questions are raised about the activity of one religious group, it affects policy for all religious communities. Responses like those of the NSS are part of the knock-on effect that church schools may feel, and could result both in wider public scrutiny and increased government regulation. If the Church doesn’t get involved in this debate, others will, and no group is without an agenda.

TOP MARKS

Most faith-based schools have a positive reputation. Almost two-thirds of the top 1,000 primary schools in the 2013 league tables were schools with a religious character, although they only make up about one-third of all English primary schools. At secondary level, they still feature, though much less prominently – largely because there are far fewer faith-based secondary schools.

The Church of England educates almost a million children. In recent discussions about Britain as a Christian nation, Archbishop Justin Welby defended the role of church schools. Speaking to the BBC in May, he said that the Church of England’s role in education was ‘an expression of our love and service to the community’.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s comments in April about the influence of Christianity in Britain included praise of his children’s CofE primary school. But this isn’t anything new. Cameron is a long-time supporter of faith schools, and he oversaw the introduction of free schools, a number of which are run by faith-based organisations.

There are frequent reports about the oversubscription of faith schools, and church schools in particular. Stories of families moving house to place themselves in the catchment area are commonplace, not to mention parents attending church, not out of religious conviction, but a desire to guarantee a place at the local school.

I believe that the truth of God is being upheld in these places – people see the love and the integrity

MUST TRY HARDER

Despite the clamour for places, there are prominent campaigns from the country’s major secularist groups against faith schools. Admissions criteria is one aspect of this. Critics say that British taxpayers shouldn’t be funding educational institutions where those of different faiths (or no faith) are excluded. In state-funded faith schools, selection on faith grounds only comes into play when schools are oversubscribed, which is mainly a consideration in London and the south-east, and even then, schools are encouraged to select a balance of pupils.

The academic success of faith schools is also often called into question. ‘There’s lots of work that’s been done by academics on how well different types of schools perform,’ says Richy Thompson, the BHA’s campaigns officer for faith schools and education. ‘What they find is that any difference in performance can be explained by other factors, and that faith schools aren’t just religiously selective, they are socio-economically selective as well. It seems very clear that if religious selection stopped, any difference in performance would also go away.’

Chief education officer for the Church of England, Rev Jan Ainsworth, responds: ‘It also happens the other way – there are some church secondary schools in leafy suburbia, which through the church criteria have enabled children who live in deprived areas to go to those schools. However, manipulation of admissions criteria happens across the whole range of schools in this country; it’s not exclusively a problem for faith-based schools.’

The religious curriculum is another sore point. Much discussion centres on the teaching of creationism as an alternative to evolution in science lessons; however, state-funded faith schools must follow the national curriculum. It is primarily in religious education that curriculum varies, as well as in the opportunity for corporate worship.

Critics also argue that the division of pupils in faith-specific schools deters integration and fails to prepare students for life in a multi-faith society. Evans says: ‘All schools should be properly focused on delivering the best education possible, rather than trying to instil religious beliefs in children.’

But is any school devoid of underlying doctrines? ‘All schools have a view of the world, be it one that includes or excludes God,’ says Graham Coyle, one of the leadership team of the Christian Schools Trust – a group of 40 independent Christian schools. ‘All of those positions are positions of belief, if not faith. Many of the schools in our country have a strong position of belief in secular humanism, and children are undoubtedly influenced by that in school.’

So what if state-funded faith schools were banned? It’s worth considering the question, not as a scaremongering exercise, but as an opportunity to reflect on what Christianity has to offer to education. What fills the void when faith is taken out of schools?

EXTRA-CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES

The enduring popularity of faith schools despite a national decline in church attendance could be put down to their academic record. But Coyle also feels there’s something deeper at work. ‘I honestly believe it’s because the truth of God is being upheld in these places – people see the love and the integrity, the interest that goes on,’ he says.

Whatever the league tables might look like, faith-based education clearly isn’t all about results, and has something to offer that secular humanism does not. ‘What are we doing in sending children to school?’ asks Coyle. ‘It’s not just learning facts or preparing children for having a good job in the future. It’s much richer. There’s no aspect that isn’t touched by God.’

There’s also a historical precedent for Christian involvement in education, whether you look at the monastic schools of the middle ages or the wealthy benefactors providing education for the 19thcentury poor. ‘Education was the “family business” of the Church. We have let it go,’ says Ireson. ‘It is no good complaining from the sidelines; Christians need to get involved in their local schools to support them.’

The ‘mission’ aspect of Christian influence in schools is, of course, a thorny subject. The NSS published a highly critical report in October 2013 outlining the various evangelical Christian groups that were involved in schools. This included Youth Alpha, Youth for Christ, Prayer Spaces In Schools and numerous other organisations that assist with religious education or corporate worship.

For Christian teachers in community (nonchurch) schools there are added difficulties. ‘It should be natural for a member of staff to be able to share their faith with colleagues, because it is intrinsic to who they are,’ says Ireson. ‘Of course, there is a difference between sharing their faith and trying to evangelise, which doesn’t have a place in secular schools. Indeed this imposing of belief and/or religious practice is part of the alleged Islamist agenda investigation in Birmingham.’

Ainsworth believes that ‘mission’ in CofE schools shouldn’t be used for scare-quotes by secularists. ‘The Church of England would say it’s there to serve the common good, by enabling people to hear the gospel and to respond to it,’ she says. ‘Part of our task is making sure that every child has an opportunity to encounter the Christian faith and the person of Jesus Christ.

‘Accord [a coalition for inclusive education] hates us declaring mission to people, and they think we are using schools to proselytise, but it’s not as explicit as that. The language we use of “encounter” is very deliberately chosen, because in an encounter there’s no pressure, but you are offering something.’

PASSING THE FINAL TEST

So what is the likely fallout of the Birmingham investigations? Birmingham City Council has pre-warned the schools involved that there will be a media frenzy about any findings released at the beginning of June.

‘Whatever has or hasn’t been happening in Birmingham, the reaction appears to have been massive,’ says Ainsworth. ‘And I think there’s a certain amount of playing to a particular constituency by wanting to seem very hard, particularly in the face of Islam. So there are some things being written into government policies to tackle religious extremism which are clearly meant to be directed at Islam, but which could have an impact across all faith-based schools.’

Coyle says that schools shouldn’t fear any additional scrutiny it may bring. ‘Groups that are involved just have to continue in openness and transparency; if what we’re doing is good, then it’s good for all children, and I think we can stand that kind of investigation,’ he says. ‘If we can’t do it because there’s something we don’t want to be seen, then that’s not good.’

The average Christian and secularist can at least agree that religious extremism should not be taught in schools. Christians want to be a positive influence in education, but find themselves having to tread ever more carefully. In a polarising debate that has already played on the public’s fear of creeping Islamisation, those who believe in the inherent value of faith-based schools will be hoping that the baby Jesus doesn’t get thrown out with the bathwater. 



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