The following is an open letter to Justine Greening, the current British Secretary of State for Education, on the urgent matter of faith schools.
Dear Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening, and anybody else whom it may concern,
My name is Alex O’Connor, and I’m a fervent advocate for political and educational secularism who has been lucky enough in the past year to amass a considerable following of like-minded individuals with whom I hope you don’t mind me sharing this letter. I’m also a citizen of the country over which your government presides who is deeply concerned with what may seem like a comparably unimportant section of its manifesto, but it is a section that I and many others in fact consider to be of a far greater significance than it may at first seem.
Page 50 of the 2017 Conservative Party Manifesto states the following: ‘We will replace the unfair and ineffective inclusivity rules that prevent the establishment of new Roman Catholic schools, instead requiring new faith schools to prove that parents of other faiths and none would be prepared to send their children to that school.’ I feel this to be deeply misleading regarding the aims of the ruling referred to, and would like you to consider why this proposal may actually do far more harm than good.
As you’ll know, in 2010 the Conservative Party, with Michael Gove as its Education Secretary, introduced a cap on the percentage of students that any faith school could select on the basis of faith. Since then, faith schools have only been able to be selective on the grounds of the religious belief for 50% of their admissions. If your manifesto pledge goes through, schools will be granted the liberty to fully segregate their classrooms, and admit children solely on the basis of religion. Like many respectable institutions, such as Humanists UK (who inspired me to pen this open letter), I find this to be an egregious display of ignorance to one of the driving forces of hatred for and by religious groups—seclusion from a society of many faiths. If we allow our children to grow up in an environment characterised by a complete lack of diversity, how do you suppose we can prepare them for a world of religious pluralism? How do you suppose we can educate them about the tenets of beliefs that are alien to them, perhaps the only way to fight back against the kind of religious and anti-religious bigotry that so often floods our headlines?
The claim is made in your manifesto that the cap is prohibiting the opening of new Roman Catholic schools, but I also find this to be misleading. It stems from the idea that Catholic Bishops are forbidden to not to prioritise Catholic students, however this has been contested, and besides, I think it unwise to base government policy on the internal discrepancies of some particular denomination of Christianity that isn’t even the one officially endorsed by the state. Moreover, even if it was the case that Bishops had to prioritise Catholic admissions, why should an allegedly proudly multicultural country like the United Kingdom respect any policy that advocates for religious discrimination?
Perhaps a more salient question is this: What message do we send to the youngest of our communities when we allow the explicit preferential treatment of certain individuals on the grounds of religion? If the guiding authority in a child’s life is allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion when admitting students, who’s to say that this child won’t adopt a similar policy in the development of their friendship groups and social connections? If you’ll forgive my tendency for complimentary anecdotes, I can assure you from my personal lamentable experience that after leaving my own Catholic education my knowledge of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and even other denominations of Christianity was so badly lacking that for some time after my departure I found myself continuously and unintentionally offending friends and acquaintances because of my inability to show respect for certain religious practices and values of theirs that I didn’t even know existed.
Followers of my online platforms will be well aware of my stance that faith schools as a whole are discriminatory by definition, and seem to me as preposterous as the idea that a child should be sent to schools with, say, political bents. (After all, if parents can send their children to a Catholic school, then why not a Marxist school? Both ideologies take a comparable amount of time and education to understand and align oneself with.) However, I’m willing to compromise if you are. I understand that faith schools aren’t going away any time soon, and so won’t even introduce such an idea into the conversation. However, I also recognise that the 2010 cap was at the very least a step in the right direction and something for which as a citizen I can be proud of my government. It may be tempting to be seduced into believing myths such as the proposition that fully segregated faith schools can perform better than more tolerant secular schools because of the positive impact of religious influence, but by putting aside personal motivations it becomes much easier to see that it’s the ‘segregation’ part to which we can attribute an increase in performance, not the ‘faith’ part. In 2001, for the Times Educational Supplement, a spokesperson for Ofstead wrote that ‘selection, even on religious grounds, is likely to attract well-behaved children from stable backgrounds’. Should this really come as a surprise?
The evidence is unequivocally not in favour of your manifesto. In fact, as noted by Humanists UK, ‘the evidence is clear in demonstrating that integration and fair access would be better served by extending the cap to all religious schools rather than removing it’. They also point to a recent Populus poll which found that 80% of the UK public are in favour of the cap. This includes 67% of Catholics and 77% of Christians as a whole. Of course, all appropriate links are available below for you to explore at your leisure.
I’d like to ask that you carefully reconsider the reversal of the progression that your party so admirably made in 2010. To many, my enthusiasm for this discussion may seem superfluously passionate, but to me this is simply evidence of a lack of public understanding of the enormous importance of this issue. If you can’t be swayed by my own words, then perhaps you may be by those of Jonathan Romain, who wrote, in June of this year, for Independent:
As someone who takes faith seriously, I opted not to send my children to a Jewish school, but to a community one, so that they could sit next to a Christian child, play football during break time with a Muslim child, do homework with a Hindu child and walk back with an atheist child. It is only by mixing together regularly that mutual knowledge and trust can develop. Religious identity should come from the home, and religious education from services and Sunday school, but not divide them from each other Monday to Friday.
This country and it’s inhabitants are undeniably in desperate need of a fuller understanding of the numerous faiths that populate its communities. The choice is yours: continue to move us towards this goal, or place an unnecessary and morally inexcusable barrier in the way of societal progress. I can only hope that you choose with Britain’s best interests at heart.
Alex John O’Connor