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Education Update

Right to Divide? Faith Schools and the Community Cohesion Agenda

There’s this funny paradox around faith. You would be hard pushed to find a religion that doesn’t hold peace as one of its central creedal aspirations. You would struggle to find one that doesn’t aspire to make the world a better, more connected place. And yet you ask your average guy on the street what causes division amongst people and 9 times out of 10 they’ll tell you ‘religion’. John Lennon famously asked us to imagine a place where it doesn’t exist – and clearly believed that this would cure all of the world’s problems. So it comes as no real surprise to find an official report into the impact of faith schools in promoting – or not promoting at all, as their critics would suggest – the Government’s ‘Community Cohesion’ agenda.

In the light of recent faith-related conflicts, the Government recently called for a set of shared values that cross faith boundaries to bring people together and send them in the same direction. Accordingly, schools have a critical role to play in ensuring this is nurtured amongst the young people in their care. Right to Divide was published in December 2008 seeking answers to the following questions:

  • How do or can faith schools contribute to community cohesion and good race relations?

  • What barriers or challenges do faith schools face in promoting this?

  • What, if any impact do faith schools have upon ethnic segregation?

These are important questions. After all, there are nearly 6900 faith schools in the state-maintained sector. The Church of England has the largest representation with 4657, followed by 2053 Roman Catholic, 36 Jewish, 8 Muslim, 2 Sikh, 1 Hindu and around 82 other Christian schools. In total, a third of children in state education attend a faith school. Clearly, what is taught (or preached, as their critics would have it) to young people here has a massive impact for all of society.

So what of the findings? Encouragingly, Right to Divide undeniably endorses faith schools. It praises them for their strong emphasis on morals and values and finds students at the schools solid achievers. Faith schools are beacons of the community and have a lot to offer neighbouring schools as a result. But it also sees room for improvement, making the following key recommendations:

  • End selection on the basis of faith

  • Children should have a greater say in how they are educated

  • RE should be part of the core National Curriculum

  • Faith schools should also serve the most disadvantaged

  • Faith schools must value all young people

  • If these recommendations are acted upon, faith will continue to play an important role in our education system

In short, faith schools are predominantly mono-cultural and make only token efforts at ‘creating cohesion’. They are more interested in consolidating and developing one perspective – that of their own faith – than looking beyond it to see and value others. To change this, there needs to be a greater mix of students of different faith, race and socio-economic backgrounds to encourage ‘meaningful contact’ and space for debate. The RE curriculum must give less space to one faith view and more time to deepening understanding of other viewpoints. And lastly, young people should feel respected, valued and validated, being given the same life opportunities even if they do not subscribe to the sponsoring faith of the school. If you can do all these things, then you’ll be a Cohesive School, my son!

Whether you see these recommendations as friend or foe largely depends on your perspective on what a faith school is and who it is there to serve. For some, the challenge to open up church schools to those with a different or no faith will defeat the purpose for its very existence: to provide instruction to children of that faith, in that faith. A national curriculum for RE will be a further threat, as the privileged position of Christianity will be compromised by the need to open up investigation into other religions. But others will welcome the call to serve their community and take the message and love of Christ to young people who would not otherwise hear it. They will remember Jesus’ words that people who were healthy didn’t need the doctor and will see a return to the core mission of the kingdom – to serve the ‘last, least and lost’. To learn about other perspectives is not to compromise your own. After all, Jesus’ model of evangelism involved meeting people where they were at, speaking their language and using it to move them into His kingdom.

The report never wavers in its optimism for faith schools. Having said this, there will be some tough tensions for faith schools to reconcile that stem from the Government’s essential game plan. Community cohesion is about breaking down social division. Fair enough. It does this by finding or even creating things that can unite us. So far, so good. But it seems scared to acknowledge that there are some things that we will always see differently. I may be able to agree with my non-Christian neighbour that we should treat people with respect, but I cannot agree that all roads lead to God. There are few faiths that would equate themselves with others, in terms of what they believe, and it will be a challenge for schools to find a balance between doing justice to a cohesive agenda and promoting – as integrity to belief demands – that which makes their faith position unique.

The church and society hold overlapping but not identical values – and perhaps one of the most staunchly debated areas involves questions about sexuality. A cohesive school appreciates that young people may identify themselves as being lesbian, gay or bisexual and will value these young people as much as those who identify themselves as heterosexual. How? By teaching about homosexuality in the same terms as heterosexuality and by providing support for gay, lesbian and bisexual young people if they have questions. This is an issue that some schools that hold orthodox views favouring male / female relationships will struggle with and will need to find an answer to. There is no denying the imperative importance of valuing any and every young person in the schools’ care. What this will look like when value is equated to promoting something many faith school leaders consider wrong will be a tough call but one that should not and cannot be ignored, for the sake of their young people.

On balance, Right to Divide values faith schools and their contribution to the moral and spiritual development of our young people, and they are right to remind them of their duty to the community which they are called to serve. What’s more, when all is said and done there is no denying that we live in a society that is diverse and we need to prepare our young people to meet it with the love of Christ: a love that is compassionate and peace-loving. Christian schools will need to consider this document carefully and prayerfully to seek how they can live up to the noble aspirations contained within it, in a manner which truly honours the God we serve.