Friday, November 03, 2006

Thundering about faith schools

Regular readers of About Whose News will be aware that I’m pretty content with our government. Its pragmatic centrist approach seems to me to be about the best we can hope for in a liberal democracy. And liberal democracy seems to be miles better than any other system of government that has ever been implemented in our world.

I’ve grown weary of the idealised theories put forward both by those on the left and right. They all fail the basic test; ‘if it’s so wonderful how come no country has successfully used it?’ Such theoretical forms of government come close to being religions – things that people follow through faith rather than evidence.

There are some things our government seems keen on however with concern me. The question of faith schools is one. As I said in my last but one letter in the Guardian "[it’s] curious ... that some state schools are allowed to discriminate not merely on pupils' religious beliefs but on those professed by their parents". Curious being the sort of understatement typical of the letter’s mild-mannered author.

I’ve discussed the issue with someone who is now a junior minister in the education department. He was quite keen on a proposal to turn a failing local secondary school over to the Church of England. I wasn’t. If I understood him correctly his enthusiasm was based at least in part on pragmatism – it would win the school some more cash and get some good people onto the board of governors.

My own children went to a C of E primary school because it’s our local school. Fortunately the C of E locally still maintains (or did when they were there) its fine old Edwardian traditions; so jam and cake making and the length of the grass on the rector’s lawn were far more important issues than fundamentalism. My favourite joke about the C of E goes something like: ‘its great strength is that it allows its followers to believe in almost anything but of course hardly any of them do’.

But fundamentalism is on the rise especially as the established church’s role as the centre of English lives has vanished. The cosy old image of English church-based schools to which parents of all faiths and none can happily send their children isn’t sustainable in multi-faith Britain.

Sean O'Neill writes in today’s Thunderer column in the Times about his childhood education in Northern Ireland. "Northern Ireland should stand as a stark lesson that segregating children breeds distrust, hatred and violence. ... there should be no truck with those who want to isolate five-year-olds in opposing religious camps."


At 10:51, Blogger Simon said...

Couldn't agree more Brian.

The expansion of faith schools is one of our government's worst pieces of legislation.

How can a party that rightly fights for comprehensive schools legislate to increase social segregation within our education system?

At 11:54, Blogger cassilis said...

My gut reaction is similar but the problem is the very issue you touched on at the top of your post - namely things that people follow through "faith rather than evidence"

From an academic perspective there's lots of evidence that faith schools achieve superior results (for whatever reason) while many people (and I may be one of them) have an ideological (i.e. faith-based) objection to the idea of segregating children along religious lines.

So you could make a reasonable case it's the opponents of faith schools who are the ideologues here whereas those who 'are prepared to accept them' (note the difference between being a wholehearted advocate and mere tolerance - I get the impression that's where Blair really is) are actually the pragmatic lot?

At 12:42, Blogger Hughes Views said...

Thanks Simon & welcome. Thanks too Cassilis - I agree that I put at risk my usual 'if it works it's good' approach but I think that the downsides will come to outweigh the upsides especially as religion becomes more extreme - and that, unhappily, seems to be the way most of it is going at present...

At 12:50, Blogger cassilis said...

Good point - as you said in your original post the relative timidity of most faith schools at the moment is perhaps why people aren't overly concerned. I was educated in an RC secondary school and as per your children's epxerience it wasn't in any way fundamentalist or deeply religious in character so no great harm done.

Excuse the shameless plug but there's a link over on my blog to an article by Mark Steyn which touches on some of these themes (although not in a way you'd always approve of Brian!)

At 16:24, Anonymous Jenni said...

Hear hear! Faith schools are a particular bugbear of mine (though the CofE primary school in question was great) as I firmly believe that the point of education is to teach children to think and to question what they are told. I don't think that the current system of assessment tests these skills particularly well (see my General Studies coursework - I worked pretty hard and got a D, people who'd got theirs off the internet got As), though to be fair they are hard skills to test so I also advocate a "league tables aren't everything!" approach. Except when schools I like are at the top of course.

At 12:44, Blogger Hughes Views said...

Yes coursework seems to have fallen into disrepute - it's a shame because it was a well-intentioned attempt to get away from the tyranny of exams. Perhaps the 'supervised coursework' will be better. Jolly difficult to test the ability to think - see also my earlier post about the earnest young lady at my university who wanted only 'thinking' students to be allowed to vote...

And we all know the shortcomings of league tables but that doesn't stop us checking to see how our local schools, hospitals, police-force, GP surgeries, etc have done!


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