Monday, August 14, 2006

Religion and faith schools

The following article on faith schools has been reprinted from the current edition of Workers Action (it's not on their website at the moment and needs updating!) with the agreement of the author, Andrew Berry. Andrew has been active as an Unison activist in campaigning for secular education. I think this article is useful in furthering the debate on religion in schools and the fight for secularism. By the way, before anyone gets their knickers in a twist about reprinting this article from Workers Action I have written for them in the past on feminism and women's liberation and they an OK bunch of Trots!

Faith Schools
One of the cornerstones of socialism is that an education system should be comprehensive, mixed and secular. We are surely against an education system divided on lines of class, religion, race, sex, sexual orientation or disability. There is nothing more important than fighting racism and other discrimination in society than through the education system.

While it is understandable that some Muslims, suffering racism generally and Islamophobia in particular, might want dedicated Muslim schools, if we allow the education system to become segregated by religious and ultimately ethnic grounds it would be a massive step backwards in our defence of a cohesive multicultural society and ultimately a step back from a socialist society. Accepting the ghetto – self-imposing it, in such a case – is a giving up of the anti-racist fight.

The current policies of Tony Blair are deliberately to create a market in education first through academy schools and now through trust schools. There are organisations waiting to take over the running of schools if we let them. One of the main thrusts of Blair’s policies is an increase in faith schools and this should be opposed while secular education supported

The false debate
When this view was raised in UNISON and in UNISON United Left, the SWP denounced it as anti-Muslim and Islamaphobic. Because of this the issue was not debated at UNISON national conference because the UNISON Left fought shy of prioritising a good motion in order to avoid debating an amendment about faith school expansion. Similar issues arose at the NUT conference. These tactics come about from current political accommodations made by the SWP due to their involvement in Respect, and so they are intentionally ignoring a major danger in order to attempt to make an immediate tactical gain.

In fact, the tactic of supporting faith schools won’t work anyway. The consequence of the Blair vision is that we will see organisations competing against each other to run schools and gain influence and profit. As in any market system there will be winners and losers and the winners will tend to be those who have the biggest backing and financial resources. In the world of education those will be the likes of the City Of London or Absolute Return for Kids (ARK) who are international financers, but it will also be the Church of England – under the guise of its front organisation United Learning Trust – or the Roman Catholic church. It is unlikely Muslim organisations would stand any chance of competing against them, and as a result while the absolute number of Muslim schools may increase, the percentage of Muslim schools against those of other faiths would decrease.

The new education bill will widen the current class divide in schools. The interplay between parental choice and schools’ ability to select means that those schools perceived as even slightly better will attract and select children with more developed academic abilities and more parental push – ie, the children of the middle class – while other schools, taking less developed children, will “fail”. Faith schools in the bill are given a far more blatant right to decide which children they will not take, but again the existence of a selection mechanism means these schools end up being the schools where the so- called middle class children go. Failing to deal with the issue of faith schools head on will mean trying to fight the bill with not just one hand but an entire arm and leg tied behind your back!

By campaigning for secular schools, does the SWP understand we are not trying to make schools atheist? Or even anti religious; we are simply opposing running schools on a religious ethos. In faith schools it is not just the children who have to follow the rules of that religion but also often the staff. There have been instances where schools have not wanted to recruit gay or lesbian staff – indeed, church organisations are currently lobbying the government for church schools to be exempted from legislation that would ban discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Union officials are also aware of situations where staff have been asked to leave faith schools because they are doing something the religion frowns upon – such as having a sexual relationship with someone currently married to someone else.

In conclusion
Socialists must campaign for a comprehensive state education system that is fully inclusive and we must ensure in doing so, we campaign against any organisation bidding to take over schools what ever their motives. But we most also campaign for all schools to become secular without this we could rightly be called hypocritical as we would be defending the current dominance of Christianity in British education. But moving further in the wrong direction is not a solution and we must campaign against the new faith schools whenever they are proposed and whatever religion they are.

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