Battle joined over place of faith in education

Children singing in assembly Image copyright Highwaystarz-Photography

Few topics are as fought over or hotly debated in England as education, not least in a week that saw the UK's pupils score badly in literacy and numeracy compared with their international peers.

Throw religion and faith schools (both public and private) into the mix, a chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, whose own personal faith is at the heart of what he does, and a prominent Christian as Education Secretary, in the form of Nicky Morgan, and perhaps it is little surprise secular and humanist campaigners find themselves at odds with the educational establishment.

About a third of schools in Britain have a religious character - but, of the population, according to the 2014 British Social Attitudes Survey:

  • 49% (and more than 70% of 15- to 24-year-olds) have no religion at all
  • 17% are Anglican
  • 8% Catholic
  • 17% other types of Christian
  • 5% Muslim
  • 3% other minority religions
Image copyright PA
Image caption Sir Michael said society was becoming more secular and materialistic

Last week, Sir Michael told the Catholic Association of Teachers, Schools and Colleges of "an increasingly secular and materialistic society, where young people can so easily have their heads turned and lose sight of what really matters".

"We are also living through an era marked by seemingly ever greater intolerance of other people's beliefs, views and ways of living," he said.

"Therefore, it has never been more important for Christians to stand up for their faith and for the gospel values of love, compassion and tolerance."

But, in the middle of a war of words with Mrs Morgan, the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society do not feel they are receiving much tolerance.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Nicky Morgan has limited the power to complain about faith school admissions

The High Court ruled in the BHA's favour over the need for non-religious schools to ensure pupils had the chance to learn about non-religious worldviews, such as humanism or atheism, in religious education.

Then, after an investigation by the BHA and the Fair Admissions Campaign showed some religiously selective schools had failed to adhere to the schools admissions code, the government pledged to halt "vexatious complaints" by limiting the power to object to parents and councils.

The BHA, in turn, has written to Mrs Morgan criticising moves "to prevent us and other civil society organisations from voicing concerns about the many problems that parents face as a result of discriminatory religious selection within the school admissions system".

Extract from British Humanist Association letter:

Although you entitle your statement "Parents to get greater say in the school admissions process", you must know, in truth, that banning civil society organisations from raising concerns about admission arrangements can only give parents less say in the process.

The complexity of the Admissions Code means that expertise is required to lodge accurate objections and it is difficult for the average parent to have the time to acquire such expertise, or to see the process through. This, along with fears about anonymity, is why parents regularly come to us and ask us to lodge objections on their behalf.

With no body actively monitoring and enforcing compliance with the School Admissions Code, objections from civil society organisations represent one of the few means of ensuring that schools adhere to the law and parents are not unfairly denied places for their children at local schools.

It is also encouraging supporters to write to their MP.

All this is part of a much wider public battle over identity, belief and belonging, as the nation worries about extremism, what constitutes being British in the 21st Century, community cohesion and the role of religion.

Faith appears to be dividing the rest of the world more brutally than ever, and in ways sometimes difficult to comprehend in what many now see as post-Christian Britain.

The Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and others responsible for faith schools say they provide a vital religious, moral and ethical framework in which their pupils can learn and thrive as they develop into adults - whatever their or their parents' faith or lack of it.

And even non-religious parents tend to prefer an outstanding faith school to an underperforming non-faith establishment.

But that hasn't stopped many quietly - or rather less quietly in the case of the BHA, the National Secular Society, and some rebels within the various religious establishments - wondering whether separating children on the basis of religion is a good way of preparing them for their future, or Britain's future as a cohesive society, however outstanding many of those faith schools may be.

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