by Rob Marchant
God knows (if you’ll forgive the expression) what goes on in Michael Gove’s head. In politics, quotas are rarely a good idea at the best of times, but his removal of the 20% cap on teacher recruitment on grounds of religion has got to be a terrible idea, even for him. In short, he is saying that a school may recruit 100% of its staff according to where they worship or, indeed, if they worship at all.
Making decisions at world leader level is a lot harder than people often give credit for. Ataturk largely saved the modern Turkish nation by his wise decision to keep religion separate from state. And, say what you like about him, but Tony Blair usually had a pretty good nose for decision-making. However, there were undoubtedly the odd times as prime minister when he had clearly had an off-day, a row with Cherie or one too many gin and tonics the night before. Announcing his departure in 2005 but not saying when; the London mayoral elections; and faith schools. Anything involving religion seemed to have the potential to cloud Blair’s judgement, and occasionally cause him to ignore the timeless advice of one A. Campbell: not to “do God”.
So a scheme was cooked up to bolster faith schools, as a way to lock in the perceived positive effect of “specialist” status on academic achievement. Now, I can see the attraction for the Tories – they think they can get good academic performance “for free” – but isn’t there a flip-side to be considered? Why are faith schools such a bad idea?
Well, first and fundamentally they impose a religion on a child which they might not want. As Richard Dawkins brilliantly points out, there is no such thing as a Christian child, merely a child of Christian parents. Children should have the right to choose whether to belong to a religion or not. And parents should not coerce them either way against their will – in fact, this is article 14 of the UN convention on the rights of the child.
Second, faith schools are supposed to give preference to one religious way of life while still maintaining that others are equally valid. But this is a non-sequitur. You cannot tell a child that this way of life is the best one and expect them not to think that another one is inferior. It is human nature, and it is particularly true in children, to make comparisons. In the end, it will not affect all children – some will make up their own minds anyway – but this teaching cannot help but encourage some to see people from a different faith in a negative light, or simply not to relate to them.
Thirty years ago, there was some level of religious segregation at primary schools, but one of the great boons of state education was that it tended to iron out those differences by lumping everyone in together at secondary level and making them learn to get along. Now this is changing. Secondary schools run along religious lines do not create cultural ghettos: but they help to do that. They mean that all the role models tend to come from the same culture: and that is surely unhelpful.
Third, there is a more worrying issue for Muslim schools in particular, which is that we have only modest control over what happens inside them. We have already seen how educational establishments can be not exactly effective at stamping out extremism. Look also at the worrying goings-on around the East London Mosque. There is only one way of creating a jihadist – people are not born that way – and that is by educating them as such. Pulitzer prize-winner Thomas Friedman’s excellent book, Longitudes And Attitudes, shows how the 9/11 terrorists were educated in Saudi schools, where the subjects were not maths and chemistry but Islamic studies and, er, more Islamic studies.
Before someone goes off on one, yes, it’s obvious that Britain is not Saudi Arabia. There will be other subjects on the curriculum and probably 99% of Muslim faith schools will be pillars of the establishment, with decent teachers doing a great, if sectarian, job of educating kids. Agreed.
But the point is that the forming of young minds is the only way that terrorists get created, and that’s why you need to be so careful about protecting them from extremists. Worryingly, there are already examples of this in faith schools. And you don’t need a whole school system to be messed up for there to be problems. We do not need 1% or even 0.1% of Moslem students to be exposed to an extremist mentor – as, let’s not forget, they may easily be outside of school – for there to be a problem. And the various Muslim organisations and community leaders have a habit of being defensive and slow to condemn when community-related problems are found – remember Jack Straw’s remarks about the alleged “grooming” of young white girls in the Pakistani community.
Sounds terribly Daily Mail, doesn’t it? But perhaps it is not. Put simply, there are too many risk factors in the equation: faith schools plus even a tiny minority of radicalised educators plus politically correct educational establishment plus ostrich-like communities come to together to mean trouble. And, even if the risks were overstated, the first two factors alone are enough to make faith schools a bad idea.
And that’s even before you get into sex education or homophobic bullying, both of which are problems for many faith schools. Or the legal quagmire which surrounds the recruitment of up to 100% of faith school teachers on religious grounds, which is openly discriminatory (imagine if you said you could only employ men, or non-Jews, or non-gays in a school!). Oh, and it’s probably illegal under EU law, not consistently enforceable (how do you prove you’re a Catholic?) and objectionable under basic employment rights.
Oh dear, Michael. What a mess.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.