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Faith no more

The spat over faith schools reveals the rotten core of British education.

David Perks

Topics Politics

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Multiculturalism, for so long the mantra of the left and the government when dealing with the issue of race, seems to have run out of steam. Margaret Hodge, minister for employment and welfare reform and MP for Barking in East London, seemed to echo the sentiment of many when she said that faith schools should promote integration, not segregation.

But this comes at the moment the government seems determined to fund more and more faith schools. David Bell, the chief inspector for the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), has called for the government to fund more of the 120 independent Muslim schools in Britain, to ensure that they can be regulated. There is a growing fear that faith schools will become detached from British society and could become hotbeds of anti-Western dissent.

Of course there are those who just dismiss faith schools altogether. The British Humanist Association has welcomed Hodge’s statement, which it says acknowledges what it has been saying for many years: ‘faith schools are a key cause of segregation.’ However, it complains that Hodge did not include atheists in her catalogue of those kept out of faith schools: ‘We are, however, disappointed that Ms Hodge mentions only that children of “other faiths” should not be excluded. Sixty-five per cent of 12- to 19-year-olds describe themselves as having no religion – are they to continue to be excluded from learning with their peers?’

This spat over faith schools reveals the rotten core at the heart of British education. Despite the rhetoric, there is no vision for schools in this country. When the government sees it as necessary to fund more faith schools, it does so because at least such schools can unashamedly promote some values. They have an ethos and a credo that they can promote. The ‘multicultural comprehensive’, by contrast, is a confused place, not knowing whether Christmas is offensive or Muslims should be allowed to wear religious garments as part of their uniform. The only value it aspires to is to have no values – which it refers to as ‘tolerance’. Hodge attacked religious schools for being intolerant, saying: ‘We need Ofsted to ensure the curriculum and values of faith schools are consistent with the national curriculum and with promoting tolerance.’

How a set of absolute moral and religious beliefs fits in with any notion of tolerance is beyond me. Unless, of course, you adopt the multiculturalist perspective – according to which tolerance means an appreciation of ‘other values’, without accepting them yourself. It means denying the right to criticise believers for their values, but denouncing anyone who evangelises belief to us. It is both a separation from other cultures and a failure to define our own culture. If we were to define our culture as apart from other religious cultures we would no doubt be subject to the government’s new religious hatred legislation.

As far as faith schools go, I find the arguments put forward by the secularists particularly unconvincing. By taking the stance that all faith schools should be abolished, the British Humanist Association ends up suggesting that multicultural comprehensives are better than faith schools. But a system that denies the possibility of belief to its pupils, and offers nothing but cynicism and intellectual paralysis, can hardly be said to be good. At least a child brought up in a Catholic or Jewish school has a God to rail against. All state schools offer is the certainty that there is no truth other than the impossibility of knowing – a kind of postmodern purgatory.

But for Muslims, the promise of religious schools is a trap they could well do without. The ghettoisation of Muslims into faith-based communities can only reinforce the estrangement that young British Asians already feel. Some of them turn to religion and the symbols of religion as the easy route to rebellion. But this is a script largely written for them by an establishment that avoids engagement with young Asians.

Instead of promoting values around which we can fight to build a future for all, we have collapsed into looking for enemies in every community. Some young Asians appear ready to act out the worst fantasies of Hodge and co – but the political elite must bear the bulk of the responsibility for the Islamicisation of Britain’s Asian youth.

David Perks has taught science for 20 years and is currently head of physics in a large comprehensive school in Tooting, South London.

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Topics Politics

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