Faith Schools: consensus or conflict?
Roy Gardner, Jo Cairns and Denis Lawton (eds), 2005
267 pp., £24.99 (paperback), ISBN 0-415-33526-4
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2006
When New Labour's 2001 White Paper Schools: achieving success proposed a huge expansion in the number of faith schools in England, there was widespread concern that there had been little or no consideration of the implications of the proposal.
Faith Schools: consensus or conflict? attempts to fill that vacuum by presenting 'a balanced debate and evaluation of the issues involved in the continuing and expanded provision of faith based education in our present society'.
The book is in five parts.
Part I, Faith schools: past and present, tackles some of the issues and concerns which have been raised - both in education and in society in general - as a result of the government's decision to sponsor more faith schools.
Roy Gardner presents an overview of the current situation and asks whether the government has 'paid due attention to the messages and outcomes which the initiative to expand faith based school provision ... will offer to our diverse society and its multi-identity citizens' (p.12).
Brian Gates outlines the history of the development of education in England in a chapter which provides invaluable long-term perspectives on the powerful influence of religion.
Marie Parker-Jenkins explains the legal framework for faith based schools. The biggest problem, she says, is reconciling the rights of parents to choose the type of education they want for their children with the rights of the children themselves.
Part II, Faith schools: for and against notes the lack of agreement about what sort of society Britain is today and presents arguments for and against the existence and expansion of faith schools in the light of a number of themes: 'inclusiveness', 'social justice' and 'social capital'.
Richard Pring asks whether faith schools should be publicly funded. The answer, he says,
hinges ultimately, not upon their academic achievement, the rights of parents, freedom of choice or a distinctive ethos, but upon the aims of education, the rationality of nurturing a particular set of faith based beliefs, the value of individual autonomy and the extent to which indoctrination should at all costs be avoided (p.56).J Mark Halstead and Terence McLaughlin explore allegations that faith schools are divisive. They note that each religion claims that its own values and perspectives are true and that others are false, and point out the difficulty of reconciling such beliefs with the values of a liberal democratic society.
In a chapter based on the British Humanist Association's ongoing work on education policy, Marilyn Mason suggests a rights-based approach to diversity in schools.
Harry Brighouse presents 'an unenthusiastic defence of a slightly reformed status quo' (p.83). His argument seems to be that it's good that faith schools are within the state sector because if they were outside it they would be even more damaging than they already are. He warns that 'introducing the American model of separationism would jeopardise the level of secularisation British society has achieved. British liberals should proceed cautiously'.
Eva Gamarnikow and Anthony Green aim 'to locate and discuss the place of faith schools within overall policies on standards, specialisation, excellence and parental choice' (p.90). They conclude that
the relative positioning of differentially 'ethosed' schools is more concerned with product identity in the educational market place than with the redistribution of access to the structure of educational opportunities (p.97).Part III, Faith schools: in practice, explores some recent initiatives and considers the problems facing faith schools in the area of citizenship education.
Roman Catholic Bart McGettrick's chapter looks at the perceptions and practices of Christian schools and argues that 'if they are genuinely inspired by their faith, and by a love of learning, they will undoubtedly be forces for the common good' (p.112).
Another Catholic writer, Alan J Murphy, makes the case for 'joint church' schools. He acknowledges that setting up and maintaining such schools is not always easy but argues that 'the potential gains far outweigh the difficulties; it is a journey worth taking' (p.121).
Anglicans Rachel Barker and John Anderson seek to play down the damage done by segregated faith schools in Bradford and argue that such schools can play a part in securing social cohesion.
Lynndy Levin presents an Orthodox Jewish perspective on religion, identity and citizenship in a plural culture and claims that religion is necessary for 'personal identity' (p.140).
Part IV, Faith schools: the experience elsewhere offers perspectives from around the world on the critical questions surrounding the place of religion in education.
James Arthur acknowledges the difficulties involved in attempting to measure Catholic school performance internationally but dismisses claims that the schools operate covert selection procedures as 'anecdotal and potentially unreliable' (p.148).
Tony Gallagher presents a useful history of the development of education in Northern Ireland. He appraises the role played by religion and segregated schools in thirty years of violence but warns that a common system of mass education is not necessarily the best means of promoting social integration.
Michael Totterdell considers the consequences for pluralism of the apparent ambivalence of Americans towards religion in the public realm.
Cecile Deer describes how France's secular state sector and religious private sector have developed forms of complementarities which have led to 'an unprecedented level of mutual tolerance' (p.178). But she warns that 'in an atomised school system such as the English one, faith schools constitute yet another layer of differentiation and specialisation which reinforces the system's academic and social divisions' (p.186).
Part V, Faith schools: the way forward revisits the policy dilemmas faced by central government and faith groups over the introduction of citizenship education, argues for a strategic approach to research into faith schools, and suggests that self-researching schools should be supported through programmes of continuing personal and professional development.
John Annette examines New Labour's love affair with religion and the models of social capital which underpin its faith schools policy. He acknowledges concerns about the divisiveness of faith schools but says the answer is to get them to 'work together for the common good' (p.196).
Ian Schagen and Sandie Schagen analyse the statistical evidence and conclude that there is very little difference between faith and non faith schools in terms of examination outcomes. Where faith schools do achieve marginally better results, they say, it is usually because of the 'nature and quality of their intake' (p.210).
Given the findings of the previous chapter, it is odd that John Keast should begin by asserting that 'faith schools achieved proportionally higher standards than other schools, in terms of examination results' (p.215). However, he goes on to present useful definitions of citizenship education and of faith and values. He argues for a national framework for RE to prevent it being taught in an exclusive manner in faith schools, and calls for a national debate about how faith schools can teach citizenship, given their different beliefs.
Roy Gardner and Jo Cairns argue for school based continuing personal and professional development to enable individual teachers, leaders, faith schools and faith communities to 'contribute to an informed discussion and evaluation of the work of faith schools in their mission, culture and outcomes in our present plural and possibly post-secular society' (p.239).
In the final chapter, Denis Lawton and Jo Cairns criticise the Blair government for not thinking through the implications of 'opening the gates of grant maintained status ... to any religious group that wanted to establish their own schools' (p.243) and for a complete lack of consultation, debate or serious consideration of the 'unintended consequences' (p.244) of the policy. They call for 'a considerable research programme' to 'mitigate possible dangers' (p.244), pose a series of questions about culture, identity and ethos, and conclude that
situating faith in an open, postmodern and democratic schooling system is a huge responsibility, challenge and opportunity both for the state and for the faith communities involved (p.255).
I have one major concern about Faith Schools: consensus or conflict? and that is that one voice is entirely missing: the voice of the atheist or secularist.
Most of the book's contributors seem to take it for granted that religions per se, and therefore the schools they sponsor, are a good thing, and that they are widely supported by the public.
Gardner, for example, appears to take at face value the 2001 census finding that 'just over three quarters of the population identified themselves as religious' (p.7). Well, most will have put 'C of E' on the form despite the fact that few of them will have set foot in a church for years, barring the odd wedding or funeral. It's a pity he didn't mention that, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published in August 2005, two thirds of the public believe the government 'should not be funding faith schools of any kind' (The Guardian 23 August 2005).
Throughout the book there are frequent references to the 'values' and 'morality' implicit in religion and promoted by religious schools.
Annette, for example, talks of the 'inspirational ideology' (p.197) of faith schools, and Gardner and Cairns quote former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey:
Church schools themselves embody the truth that a context of firm principles suffused by faith and love is the best and right basis for learning and growing (p.231).They also quote Scottish Catholic Education Service director Michael McGrath:
Catholic schooling involves developing Catholic values, religious education, spiritual and moral formation and a commitment to serve the common good, all within a supportive climate that affirms the life and dignity of every person (p.232).Such quotations beg a number of questions. What sort of morality is espoused by Carey? As Archbishop he encouraged adulterers Charles and Camilla to marry but rigidly refused to countenance gay partnerships.
And what sort of values are promoted by McGrath? 'Serve the common good'? This is the man who wouldn't support interdenominational schools in Scotland unless the Catholics had separate entrances, separate staffrooms, separate gyms, separate nurseries and even separate staff toilets (The Guardian 30 January 2004). 'The life and dignity of every person'? McGrath is part of the church whose former Cardinal, Thomas Winning, called homosexuals 'perverted' and whose new Pope has declared that gays are 'intrinsically immoral' and 'objectively disordered' (The Guardian 30 November 2005).
There is much talk of 'tolerance' and 'understanding' between faiths. Yet on BBC2's God and the Politicians, broadcast in September 2005, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor told David Aaronovitch that he wouldn't want to see Catholic children attending Muslim schools because he wouldn't want them 'brought up in that particular atmosphere'.
Are these the 'values', 'morality' and 'inspirational ideology' promoted by religions? If so, we'd be better off without them - and so would the nation's children.
There are even suggestions that secular schools are lacking when it comes to teaching values. For example, Halstead and McLaughlin argue that 'Common [ie non-faith] schools often fail to deal adequately with matters of moral texture and complexity' (p.69), though they provide no evidence for this sweeping and offensive statement.
Now don't get me wrong - many of the contributors do raise and discuss serious concerns about the existence and expansion of faith schools. The book aims to present a 'balanced debate and evaluation of the issues' (p.1) and to a great extent it achieves that. But it would have presented an even more balanced picture if had it included at least one chapter arguing that the state has no business promoting religious education at all.
Having said that, this is an invaluable book. It contains much important historical information, accurate description and analysis of the current situation and a wide range of interesting views.
Faith Schools: consensus or conflict? reaches no simplistic answers. Indeed, for the most part it asks difficult questions. In doing so it provides much that should inform the debate about government education policy in relation to religious schools - a debate which Tony Blair and his administration seem determined not to hold.
As Roy Gardner warns, unless the government is prepared to demand of faith schools that they acknowledge that they operate in a pluralist society, the current policy poses a 'real and present danger' (p.12).
This review was first published in Forum 49(3) Autumn 2007 349-353.