This article that appeared this evening in the Observer reports the results of the predictable survey carried out on behalf of the Labour Party (Tristram Hunt’s picture is on the article) to do with the public funding of faith schools.

Big semantic issues here. Firstly, define faith schools. Are they those that are funded publicly as part of the historic settlement between the historic denominations – principally C of E, Roman Catholic and Jewish – and the government that arose at the time of the 1944 Butler Education Act? Or are we talking about faith-sponsored academies (many of whom have been part of the original settlement and have since opted for academy status)? Or are we talking about those who have a faith basis and have sought public funding (such as many newer Muslim schools)? Or are we talking about schools that are community schools or academies with no religious foundation that have somehow been associated with being faith schools because of the changes they have made in their practice (such as some of those investigated in Birmingham recently)?

These issues must be made clear before the debate proceeds. And whilst we are at it, we need to acknowledge that the Anglican churches were instrumental in the provision and foundation of public schooling for the poor in England and Wales, as were the Catholic churches. The Observer piece states:

The survey by Opinium shows that 58% of voters now believe faith schools, which can give priority to applications from pupils of their faith and are free to teach only about their own religion, should not be funded by the state or should be abolished. Of those with concerns, 70% said the taxpayer should not be funding the promotion of religion in schools, 60% said such schools promoted division and segregation, and 41% said they were contrary to the promotion of a multicultural society. Fewer than one in three (30%) said they had no objections to faith schools being funded by the state. Labour supports the continuation of state-funded faith schools and shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said he saw them as “an important part of the educational landscape”. But he said the recent controversy in Birmingham, where six non-faith schools have been put into special measures and a further five criticised following allegations of a plot by hardline Muslims to infiltrate them, had raised important questions about the relationship between education and religion in a multicultural society. Acknowledging that none of the schools criticised by Ofsted had been faith schools, Hunt said the row had triggered a real debate which politicians needed to join. “Events in Birmingham have raised questions about faith, multiculturalism and state education and in the aftermath this is the moment to think about discussing, on a cross-party basis, how we manage potential tensions, particularly in urban districts.” Hunt said he believed that in future Ofsted should have a strong role in inspecting how religion was taught in faith schools, and that only qualified teachers should give instruction on the subject. He suggested that schools should teach about other religions, and not just one.

So here is another issue – the teaching of religion or religious education. This gets us into another potential minefield, but it is emphatically not the same one as the issue of religious foundation of schooling. We at Christ the Sower are a faith school (at one level), and were founded as one. However, we are also maintained by the Local Authority and have an admissions policy that is absolutely inclusive, with NO religious content to our admissions policy except one criterion that states that after considering children from our immediate catchment, the next level of catchment coincides with the boundaries of the area of the Watling Valley Ecumenical Parish (about 1/4 of Milton Keynes). In some ways this makes us more inclusive than other schools, particularly academies with academic selection criteria.

The idea that the “the promotion of religion should not be funded” is a curious one. Can we include a secular world view in this definition of religion? Can we include an atheistic worldview? I think that if we do, the point is a fair one, but the piece has at its core the familiar secular assumption that a “secular” view is somehow “neutral” and a “faith-based” perspective is somehow “biased”. All have a worldview – there is no neutrality here. For instance, do we include spiral dynamics as a faith-based perspective? One school locally has built its entire philosophy around it, and yet it has some seriously debatable elements, is certainly a world-view, and makes some quasi-religious assumptions. And in the other corner, wearing the blue shorts, what about schools using Accelerated Christian Education, equally cultic?

Hunt’s comments here are sound, and his recommendations probably significant, but readers of the article could be forgiven for thinking that there is somehow more of an issue here than there is. I think it is important for all schools, and particularly Roman Catholic, Muslim and Aided CE schools, to take strong notice of the provisions of the Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education, which should remain local and agreed, and which is taught by the vast majority of  schools in the maintained sector. In Milton Keynes, the aided schools (only four of us!) all follow the guidance of the Locally Agreed Syllabus for RE, and this gives absolutely enough protection and provision for the teaching of Christianity, and in Y3-6, Islam and Hinduism as well (large-minority religions in this borough). The position of Judaism is anomalous – we teach it strongly as part of the roots of Christianity, though the number of local adherents is small.

As to OFSTED’s role in this, haven’t they enough to do? If we can’t now trust the inspectorate when they have waded with their wellies into the mire of Birmingham schools, why should we be able to trust them with “a strong role in how religion (is) taught in faith schools”? They have a good view of what constitutes good RE – isn’t it easier simply to make sure they include a judgement on this area?

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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