Comment: The cost of failing to address the place of religion in our schools
By Andrew Copson
At last Ofsted and the Education Funding Agency have published their investigations into the ethos and curriculum of a number of Birmingham community schools. For the last few years many organisations, including the British Humanist Association (BHA), have been receiving reports from staff and parents at one or other of these schools outlining their concerns. These allegations have included gender discrimination, homophobia, creationism, discrimination in employment and disciplinary practices, bullying, and an unbalanced and closed curriculum, many of which have now been validated.
When we received them at the BHA and had permission, we passed them on to the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted, but it is questionable whether these legitimate concerns would ever have been taken seriously had it not been for the appearance of the 'Operation Trojan Horse' letter in March. This letter, now widely considered to be a hoax, gave rise both to investigations of a conspiracy to advance Islamic extremism and to a vicious public debate.
I think focusing on conspiracy and on violent or political extremism are distractions. What many of those who first blew the whistle in the various schools were reacting to was not these claims but to the teaching and ethos of community state schools being gradually changed to reflect a distinctive and narrow religious position, with a closing down of alternative ways of looking at the world, in a way that made the school an extension of the most religious home and denied the pupils alternative views. The most important issue within the situation in Birmingham remains that children in state schools were given an education that may have prepared them well for exams and formal academic achievement but did not open their horizons, develop their freedom of belief, and equip them as informed and critical citizens of modern society to the extent that we should expect.
The specific findings of unbalanced religious teaching and worship and narrow curricula in a number of disciplines in these cases are deeply shocking, but they are a symptom of underlying problems in a school system based on a general religious bias which is increasingly in tension with our more secular and plural society and where the antique provisions embedding religion in the nature even of our non-religious schools are giving rise to a range of perverse outcomes. The situation in Birmingham is symptomatic of our failure to face up to the consequences of these issues still being governed by a basic framework that is now seventy years old and this is a failure of successive governments, none of which have had an overarching strategy or a principled vision of how the state education system should deal with religion or belief.
The last serious attempt to look at all the issues holistically was in 2002 when the BHA published A Better Way Forward. It was the product of policy work and consultation with a range of religious groups as well as educationists and although its proposals may now look dated in a heavily reformed school system, the issues it engaged with are the same. The message was, and still is, simple: all state schools should be equally inclusive of all pupils and staff, with no one group being given special privileges. Schools should not proselytise or discriminate against anyone on the basis of their religion or belief, in admissions, employment, curriculum, ethos, or assemblies.
There are a number of ways in which our law and practice falls short of this: it allows religious discrimination in admissions and employment; it mandates daily acts of religious worship in all schools; it allows unbalanced confessional RE in many schools and makes minimal national prescription in relation to RE in most others, leaving decisions up to schools; beyond bare bones equality law, it fails to lay out any clear template for how schools can or should be made inclusive of children from different religious or belief backgrounds. When you look at them as a package, these facts are astonishing. Not only do they put our school system's relation to religion way outside of clear international standards and the norms of other liberal democracies, they fail to respect the human rights of children to a horizon-widening education and they fail to recognise the necessity of inclusive civic institutions in a plural society. When combined with the increasingly consumerist approach to public services and our assumption that in schools it is the parent who is the consumer and not the developing child, the fact that the place of religion is so prominent in our school system can lead to people implementing outrageous policies while thinking them entirely acceptable and in keeping with our national provision.
If so many state schools continue to be allowed by law to select the children of Christians, of course Muslim parents and groups will make demands for theirs too. Few people are such policy nerds that they really understand different legal school types, so of course this desire will inevitably translate into influence over schools with no religious character but where most pupils are from Muslim backgrounds. Why shouldn't a state school with a majority of Muslim parents have compulsory Muslim worship every day? The law of the land encourages and allows it. And why should alternative activities be provided for children whose parents opt them out? They aren't in the many schools where the worship is Christian and the potential opters-out are Muslim (or Hindu, or Jewish, or humanist…)
Why shouldn't a school with children whose parents are mostly Muslim have imams coming in to talk regularly? Schools where most of the parents are Christians (and many where they aren't) have vicars visiting frequently. Why shouldn't RE lessons in schools with mostly Muslim parents be mostly about Islam and exclude non-religious beliefs? There's nothing in the law to rule it out and in many other schools the lessons are mostly about Christianity, even confessionally so, and don't include teaching about non-religious beliefs at all.
To me the answer is clear – it is because children have the right to a broad and open education tailored to their development as a whole person. No school should be prioritising religious identities over the need for inclusion in our civic institutions. If you agree with me, then surely you would extend the same principle to all state schools. And if so, surely the fact that these principles don't currently extend in all these ways is the real issue underlying the present problems?
If this is the issue, that what is it that governments have been doing that has allowed this situation to continue? Haven't they done anything to try to address it?
The Labour governments of 1997-2010 were culpable of engineering the biggest expansion of religious state schools in British history and in legislating to remove employment rights from many staff in these schools. But successive secretaries of state did work to address some of the issues of religion in the system in a more helpful direction – though always stopping short of complete reform. Charles Clarke introduced a national framework for a more balanced subject of RE in all schools – but he failed to make it compulsory. Alan Johnson introduced a duty to promote community cohesion on all schools, including in relation to religion – but failed to change the law allowing religious discrimination in admissions to many schools. Ed Balls introduced new guidance on RE and new resources for school assemblies that effectively replaced compulsory worship in many schools – but he didn't change the underlying law on RE, he didn't seek to remove the right of many schools to teach single religious instruction, and he left the law requiring worship on the statute books where it remained in force.
The current coalition government also has a mixed report card, and has similarly failed to treat issues of religion in our education system holistically. It has introduced a quota of pupils from different belief backgrounds in most new religious selective state schools – but it still allows such selection in other schools and has abolished the inspection of community cohesion. It has made provisions for no new school to be able to have pseudoscientific teaching, but has attenuated the regime of accountability to the extent that this is hard to enforce. It has given support to an inclusive new framework for RE but failed to make it compulsory. It has removed many inclusive provisions from subjects such as History, Citizenship, and others, and diluted the applicability of the national curriculum in any case. In its 'freeing up' of academies and free schools it has singularly failed to free them of the requirement to hold daily religious worship, which remains in force for all of them.
To seek to address the issue of religion and belief in our schools holistically is not to attempt to hijack the current debate – it is to debate what the real underlying issue is. In the Commons debate on Monday, Michael Gove did not see it this way. He preferred to focus on Britishness and inspection regime reforms – but the shadow education secretary did open up the issue. Perhaps like Labour secretaries of state before him, he might engage more seriously with it. Perhaps he might go further and address it in a genuinely holistic way. Surely he, or our current minister, or some future minister, must do so. We need a serious and inclusive national conversation at a policy level about this issue in the round, and the need is urgent.
Andrew Copson is chief executive of the British Humanist Association.
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