A recent episode of the BBC’s “Big Debate” (hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby) looked at the role of religion in a 21st century state education system. The “negative” side, so to speak, included Richard Dawkins, who maintained that while he favours comparative religious education, faith schools by definition label children with the religion of their parents, a practice he considers abusive. Alongside Dawkins was MP Barry Sheerman, Chair of the DCSF Select Committee who doesn’t mind faith schools, as long as they’re not serious about their faith, and who cited worrying evidence of the unfair treatment of the issue of homosexuality in Catholic schools, and the poor treatment of women in Muslim schools. Speaking in favour of faith schools and religious worship in comprehensive schools was Bishop Peter Price, a former teacher who emphasised the roots of state education in C of E schools in the early 19th century, and claimed that C of E schools have an obligation to teach about other faiths. He also stressed that the history of England is a Christian history–a point he would often return to, as if it were the last word to be had on the topic. Price was joined by Oona Stannard of the Catholic Education Service, who advocates “maintained faith schools” because of their transparency and accountability, given that they are subject to inspections by Ofsted.
The programme also canvassed the opinions of a wide range of stakeholders: RE teachers and consultants, Catholic and Muslim students from both faith schools and comprehensive schools, as well as representatives of various faiths. One of the latter, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, offered a blunt, though in many ways accurate assessment of faith-based education that can be summed up in two words: religious apartheid.
[Romain:] If you have separate [faith] schools, essentially you’re segregating children, you’re separating children. They’re growing up in ignorance of each other. And we’re going to have a whole generation who simply don’t know what each other looks like. And yes, we may know about each other from books, but that’s not the same as interacting with each other. [. . .] Schools should be where you build bridges, not erect barriers [. . . ] You can only love your neighbour if you know your neighbour.
[Price:] I make no apology for the fact that we have a history of being a Christian nation.
[Romain:] It’s a religious apartheid society that we’re creating. I deliberately sent my children to a normal cross-communal school, because I wanted them to sit next to a Christian, to play football with a Muslim, to do homework with a Hindu and walk home with a secularist, and that way we will not fragment society.
The chairman of the Association of Muslim Schools, Dr Mohamad Mukadam, spoke in defence of faith schools and claimed that students coming out of faith schools were more likely to integrate and go on to further education:
As Muslims, we have a right to bring up our children according to our beliefs which have served us well over the centuries [. . .] The rights of the children come when they are old enough to understand the issues. Until they get to that age, it’s the parents’ responsibility.
At this point, Dawkins asked him what the penalty is for apostasy under Islam, upon which Mukadam hemmed and hawed until he was rescued by the host. Later, he admitted that in Islamic societies, the penalty is very clear–death–but he did not see how this was relevant to the UK.
Mukadam was followed by Nadja, a Muslim student at a comprehensive school who welcomes the opportunity it affords her to meet students of other faiths and cultural backgrounds, and Sinead, a student at a Catholic school who maintained that her faith, and the method by which her school teaches it, has taught her to tolerate other faiths. But for Jay Lakhani, director of the Hindu Academy, all this talk of respect for people of other religions “is a red herring. Because in reality what they mean is that we are right and they are wrong, but we won’t make a fuss about it at the moment. They’ll find out soon enough, when they die.” He went on to suggest that the approach to teaching about other faiths in faith schools is exclusivist and divisive, and should not be funded with public money.
It absolutely beggars belief that the state wholly funds religious schools in a secular democracy, but there it is. It has a lot to do, I suppose, with the fact that the UK has an established church (the C of E), and does not enjoy the separation of church and state. The good news is that the faith school system is not popular–a majority of Britons oppose it. The bad news is that there is a lack of political will in favour of dismantling the system: an amendment to the Education Bill that merely required faith schools to offer at least a quarter of their places to students with other religious or no religious affiliation was resoundingly defeated in 2002. As one of the backers, Labor MP Frank Dobson put it, “If you were to substitute race or colour for the word “religion,” [the selection of pupils according to such criteria for taxpayer-funded places] would be unacceptable.” It’s bad enough when students are turned away from a wholly-taxpayer-funded school simply because they are not affiliated with the correct religion. When taxpayers themselves are subject to employment discrimination in the very institutions their taxes pay for, something is terribly amiss. And in a 21st century secular democracy, taxpayers surely deserve a better response from faith school apologists like Bishop Price than “We have a history of being a Christian nation, so STFU.”
The second part of the debate explored the question of whether it is time to make comprehensive (non-faith) schools truly secular. Currently, students are compelled to participate in collective worship of a “broadly Christian” nature, although parents have the option of withdrawing their children from such activities. In the view of Andrew Copson, Director of Education at the British Humanist Association, there are two problems with collective worship: (i) the opt-out choice is available only to parents, rather than children themselves, and (ii) having to opt-out rather than opt-in has the potential to make children feel alienated and marginalised. Price, who supports collective worship in secular schools, was asked by Dimbleby if he was wanting to have his cake and eat it too. Price responded:
There is merit in people gathering together, experiencing “worth-ship,” both of each other and of wider values that may be part of a Christian tradition. [There is also] some merit in giving people space for reflection.
When asked if he would object to a humanist act of collective reflection, he replied: “I take the view that we belong to a Christian culture: I think we should never apologise for that.” Nobody was asking Price to apologise for anything, only to justify de facto compulsory Christian worship in non-Christian schools, especially given the fact that many within the UK don’t belong to a Christian culture. His refusal to justify the status quo he supports smacks of authoritarianism and a smug triumphalism that is surely out of place in an open society (in the Popperian sense.)
The final section of the programme looked at the relationship between religious indoctrination and values education. Asked whether a belief in God offers the best framework for teaching moral values to schoolchildren, Price linked moral boundaries to social cohesion, citing the Ten Commandments as an example. He asserted that there is “greater value in a God-shaped series of values, because we are called back to something beyond ourselves.” You can imagine what Dawkins thought of that:
“Thou shalt have no other God before me.” “Thou shalt make no graven image.” “Thou shalt keep the Sabbath holy.” What on earth does any of that have to do with morals?
For Dawkins, it would be “deeply depressing” if the only way children could acquire morals is from Scripture or from being intimidated by God. “Anybody who is good for those two reasons is not really being good at all.” Stannard seemed to acknowledge the existence of “human values” (i.e. external to religious doctrine), but claimed that religion provides a “lens” through which to apply these values.
There were a couple of low points from the secularist side of the argument, also. When a Muslim student in the audience declared that she wears the hijab out of choice, not compulsion, and that she feels free to change her mind about her faith, Dawkins’ rejoinder–”But what is the penalty for apostasy?”–was far too sharp and aggressive for mine. (Fortunately, he quickly redirected it to Mukadam.) And when NUS Women’s Officer Kat Stark argued that since gay rights and the right to abortion had been won democratically, faith schools had no right to challenge them, I could only agree with Stannard’s reply: “We’re part of the democracy, too.” Of course, that doesn’t mean I support taxpayer-funded religious proselytism on these issues.
Does this issue have any relevance for Australia? You bet it does. Non-government schools here receive $5 billion in taxpayer’s funds–that’s $1.5 million more than the universities get, while still enjoying the perks of not being accountable to taxpayers: faith-based student selection criteria, special exemption from discrimination laws regarding employment, and the ability to shovel problem students into the public system while still enjoying a disproportionate share of the funding pie. The Exclusive Brethren schools alone will receive $10 million of your hard-earned–and that will increase to $50 million–even though you’re not allowed to send your kids there.