There has been a recent spat about education in Birmingham, where it appears that Muslim extremists have tried to take over the running of schools by forcing out secular or non-Muslim staff and governors, and replacing them with people who can be relied upon to segregate the sexes in class, avoid any mention of evolution, tell the youngsters that Christians are worthless, adulterers should be stoned, homosexuals lashed, and preach in favour of jihad. The debate has become diverted by two things – the fact that two of the least appealing Ministers in the current government decided to make this an opportunity to get one up on each other, and the way that schools can fake good for Ofsted inspections. The schools, of course, deny it all, and are backed up dishonestly by The Guardian, which has the weakest of weak spots about Islamism. To confuse an already confused situation, (and place the awed listener having to make a choice between Respect and Gove – gee, shit), the answer to Islamic extremism and the lack of curriculum balance is, of course, to turn everything into an academy.
The clue to all this is to be found in two words – “Muslim children”. You may have though kids were kids, and a five-year old trotting off to school with their back-pack and sandwiches has yet to form defined religious views. How wrong you are. The Jesuits may have asked to be given the child until he was seven, but our ‘faith schools’ like to start a little earlier. All this has happened just as we have disempowered local authorities, so that we end up in the truly medieval position where the education service is run by the local bishop, rabbi or imam rather than elected representatives of the community. One Jewish school gets a good report even though their kids are denied access to the internet or telephone (leaving the kids, according to Catherine Bennett, “with the familiarity with modern British life of a Martian”). And there is a pile of evidence that religious schools select their entry on academic or social grounds. This is the way that they maintain the fiction that religious schools are good schools with which we would be foolish to interfere.
Be aware, or course, that the local imam, rabbi or bishop do not pay to run these schools – that is, of course, down to the taxpayer, about 5% of whom attend religious observances each week, and about half of who do not believe in any conventional God. I admit to being tone-deaf to ‘spirituality’, and reacted to reading the “God Delusion” with a sense of relief, punching the air that someone had the guts (and intellectual sharpness) to sink all the religious guff we have to tolerate. I don’t think kids should have to endure religious instruction at all. But even a thoughtful Jew, Muslim or Christian would be stretched to find a reason why someone else should pay for indoctrination in their faith. My view is that
- All state funded schools should be secular
- If parents want kids to attend distinctive religious sessions, they should fund those outside the national curriculum. Parents should have to attend themselves, and the kids should be free to say no.
Not only does this solve the Birmingham situation “at a stroke”, I think that’s pretty bloody moderate. I line up with the crossword setter who realised that “faith school” was an anagram of “foolish chat”.