Faith Schools: An Alternative Approach

The British Humanist Association has put forward an alternative to the Government’s current policy on trust schools. I’m not claiming that it is perfect, and I’ve heard objections to a couple of points that I think are worthy of discussion, but overall I think it makes a great deal of sense. It’s certainly a practical and implement-able response that I feel deal with most of the inherent problems of segregated faith schools.

The basic premise is that all state schools should be ‘community schools’, with religious beliefs catered for on an optional basis. The National Curriculum would provide religious education of a greater standard than is currently available – the current system is unfairly biased in favour of six major religions and declines to mention non-religious ideas such as atheism or humanism – and optional, extra-curricular religious instruction would be available for those that want it. Religious instruction is here defined as the teaching of religious beliefs as true, with the intention that children come to believe them as true. Religious beliefs are catered for whenever and wherever possible.

Full details and discussion of each point are available in the full document. The main recommendations are:

  • Inclusive school assemblies suitable for all, thus ending the need for any child to be withdrawn or feel excluded from ‘collective worship’, plus time and designated places for optional worship, prayers, or reflection.
  • Reformed religious education with impartial, fair and balanced teaching about all major worldviews, including non-religious ones, to give all children an understanding of the range of beliefs found in a pluralist society. Provision for additional optional faith-based classes on school premises.
  • More public holidays, recognising a wider range of religious festivals, in workplaces as well as schools. Public examinations should be timetabled to avoid religious holidays.
  • More respect for and flexibility on other cultural and religious requirements, for example in matters such as uniform, food, and Sex and Relationships Education.
  • Better training for teachers on dealing with diversity.
  • Better complaints procedures to deal with unfair discrimination.
  • Better sharing of good practice.
  • The involvement of local people in consultations about accommodations.
  • Reform of the law, where needed, and improved guidance for schools.
  • The phasing out of religious schools, unless they too can be persuaded to become inclusive and accommodating institutions.

When I read over the proposals I had concerns over some of the single-sex education suggestions, but my loudest objection was to the allowing of religious dress such as hijabs. The document makes no statement as to the far more restrictive, and arguably unsafe, jilbab, or the frankly repulsive burqa. It is difficult to see how a place of education could permit what amounts to misogyny. However, I can see that accommodations must be made in order to satisfy (at least the vast majority of) different faiths, and keeping schools a place for free and open discussion of religion is of paramount importance. A well-crafted religious education framework should allow no reason for pupils to be excluded, and I consider it of great importance that women in Muslim communities are at least exposed to the viewpoint that they are being treated badly. I can see how this policy is reasonable, given the world we live in, even if it does stick in the throat.

I worry about the definition of faith, and how it is decided which demands should be met. Scientology has very, very few adherents in the UK, but there will undoubtedly be parents who would wish for such beliefs to be taught in religious education classes. What of Christian Science, which rejects the germ theory of disease? What if I declare my children wongaBlogists, and they can only eat if there’s a monkey in the same room? I suppose this is a problem for another level of government, but I wouldn’t like to be on that committee.

There will undoubtedly be some religious demands that are unacceptable in a common environment. I imagine there are also those which directly conflict. The BHA admit this in their conclusion:

There will always remain a few minority groups whose requirements cannot be satisfied within the mainstream without detriment to the educational entitlements of the majority. Schools cannot be required to give up IT or dance or to accommodate ‘creationist science’. Objections to some aspects of the National Curriculum may have to continue to be satisfied through case by case negotiation and withdrawal from classes. This is not ideal for the pupil, but more accommodating schools would make it far less frequently necessary.

There is, I admit, a part of me that says this whole thing is ridiculous, and that education should be kept completely secular and be done with it. I don’t really see how the impartial teaching of opposing views of religious faith is different from teaching impartially about UFOs or ghosts. But, I guess that’s exactly the point, and balancing what I see as obviously true with as-strongly-held alternative viewpoints is the problem the BHA (and, to be fair, the government) are trying to solve. I recognise that rational people do disagree, and the BHA’s solution is practical and reasonable in today’s world. The proposals are by no means perfect, and are still vulnerable to parental manipulation of children, but I think that they make far more sense than current education policy. This is a solution that should satisfy all reasonable people of religious or non-religious beliefs, and I’d be interested to hear objections to it. The final post is a quick conclusion.

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