Reflection - February 2012

Faith Schools and Secularism: Some Thoughts

Ron Best
Chair of the Editorial Board
Pastoral Care in Education

I received an (unsolicited) e-mail last week from an educational trust called the London School of Islamics. While there are dangers in quoting material out of context, I would like to share the following passage with you.

"There are hundreds of state primary and secondary schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion all such schools may be opted out to become Muslim Academies. This mean the Muslim children will get a decent education. Muslim schools turned out balanced citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism. Muslim schools give young people confidence in who they are and an understanding of Islam's teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fulfilling role in society. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Children like discipline, structure and boundaries. Bilingual Muslim children need Bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods, who understand their needs and demands."

Whatever the truth of these assertions, what is argued here is interesting. The author makes claims, on several grounds, for the superiority of faith schools, not least in the claim that Muslim schools will promote tolerant citizenship and produce young people "less likely to succumb to criminality and extremism." This is in direct contradiction to the conventional wisdom, embraced by many since 9/11 and 7/7, that religious schooling is more likely to divide society and promote extremism.

There is a curious resonance between much of the criticism of faith schools and the recent debate in the media about what has come to be called "militant secularism." In an article on pages 7-8 of G2 section of The Guardian on 15th February 2012, Julian Baggini argues that "there is no doubt that secularism is increasingly seen as a threat to liberty rather than its stoutest defender", going on to quote the Conservative Party chairperson (Baroness Warsi) who fears that "a militant secularism is taking hold of our societies [which] at its core and in its instincts is deeply intolerant [and] demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes." Baggini quotes the Labour MP David Lammy, and a leading cleric (Cardinal Keith O'Brien) as saying something not dissimilar. So this is not a party-political issue, but a perspective which crosses the political and religious divides.

A few days later in the same paper, Andrew Copson (the chief executive of the British Humanist Association) argued that humanist views on education are too often "portrayed in entirely negative terms." In fact (he goes on) humanists are "in favour of integrated schools without discrimination, inclusive assemblies that bring a school together, and objective, fair and balanced education about beliefs" (The Guardian, 24th February 2012).

As Baggini shows, the rhetoric of recent attacks on secularism (which compare it with Nazism and other totalitarian doctrines) betrays a misunderstanding of secularism, which is much more about tolerance and freedom in civic society for all to pursue their faiths (or none), than it is about the truth or otherwise of religious creeds. In short, the critics of secularism confuse it with atheism just as much as the critics of faith schools often confuse the promotion of moral values with religious indoctrination.

And what seems to have sparked off the moral panic about secularism? - a High Court ruling that prayers are not a "lawful part of formal council business" (Baggini, op cit). For those who have long attacked the requirement of state schools since 1944, restated (if I am not mistaken) in the Acts of 1988 and 1992, to have a daily act of worship, and to provide a religious education that is "broadly Christian", this may be a very welcome development. For other it may the thin end of a wedge which will lead to the ghettoisation of all those who believe a rounded personal, social and moral education to require its grounding in long-standing and hallowed religions.

This is not just a topical issue but a perennial one. Articles considering the place of religion and faith schools in the personal, social and emotional development of children would be much welcomed by our Editorial Board.