Accord: A Challenge to Faith Schools

There’s a new pressure group on the block: the Accord Coalition. Accord includes both those who are religious and those who are not, including some prominent Hindu and Christian organisations, journalists, politicians, scientists, rabbis and vicars. Plus Sunny from Pickled Politics.

And this is what it stands for:

Declaration of aims

In a pluralist, multi-cultural society, the state should promote tolerance and recognition of different values and beliefs. Given the dangers of segregation and the importance of community cohesion we need schools that welcome all and are committed to non-discrimination. Schools should promote a culture of questioning, of knowledge, of respect and of exploration of values, where students develop their own identities and sense of place in the world. We believe all state-funded schools should:

1. Operate admissions policies that take no account of pupils’ – or their parents’ – religion or beliefs.

2. Operate recruitment and employment policies that do not discriminate on the grounds of religion or belief.

3. Follow an objective, fair and balanced syllabus for education about religious and non-religious beliefs – whether determined by their local authority or by any future national syllabus or curriculum for RE.

4. Be made accountable under a single inspection regime for RE, Personal, Social & Health Education (PSHE) and Citizenship.

5. Provide their pupils with inclusive, inspiring and stimulating assemblies in place of compulsory acts of worship.

And we commit to work with each other locally and nationally to turn public support for inclusive education into a campaign for reform that the government cannot ignore.

I disgree with none of this, and therefore I have signed up to their campaign, here. If you’d like to, you can do the same.

The function of schools is to educate students. It is not, in my view, to promote the transmission of familiar religious beliefs.

Religious institutions are perfectly entitled to decide who ‘counts’ as a member of the religion, and who does not. I also have no objection to clerics deciding whether a person is sufficiently religious or observant of the requirements of the faith. Private clubs can make these rules for themselves, and that they do so, is no business of mine.

What I do object to, is priests denying potential students access to a state funded school, because their family hasn’t attended church services with sufficent frequency. This happened to a friend of mine: a busy mother of two who missed two Sundays in a row and was told by the priest that he was beginning to doubt their commitment to the Church, and that this was bound to be relayed to the school at admissions time. At the risk of sounding like an Essex taxi driver – and no shame in that – this is being subsidised by my taxes!

Likewise, who can have missed the shambles at various Jewish schools, where Rabbis have decided that culturally and ethnically Jewish students who want to attend a school with a Jewish ethos, should be excluded on the grounds of their interpretation of some ancient rabbincal commentary that, to them, determines whether a person counts as a Jew or not?

What is particularly objectionable here, is the top-down power that religious institutions have to decide who is entitled to attend a state funded school, and who should be excluded. Religious institutions do not pay for sectarian education. In fact, they’re largely exempt from paying taxes. Those whose taxes pay for public education, and parents whose children attend these schools, should have the power to decide who attends: not clerics.

I suspect that an awful lot of people feel like this; including a good number of parents whose children attend schools run by religious institutions and funded by the State. Many of them will have been forced to go through the charade of affecting a level of religiousity that they would not otherwise manifest, in order to persuade some divine that their children should be entitled to attend a particular state school. I doubt that more than a minority would object to their children being educated alongside other children who did not meet certain of the exacting religion-based admissions tests. In some denominational schools, the supply of places outstrips the number of children from a particular faith available to take them up, and therefore the schools admit children of families who adhere to another religion. Parents do not object to those children attending such schools in these circumstances: so why should they in any other situation?

There is another alternative, that ought to be considered, by those who do think that schools ought to play some role in transmitting religious value systems. A school voucher model could allow a plurality of religious and secular models of schooling to continue. Unlike the current system, which effectively relies on the State granting patronage to certain recognised religious denominations, but excluding others, school vouchers would entitle parents to determine for themselves the sort of educational institutions which they’d like their children to be educated in.

Unfortunately, school voucher type systems are associated, ideologically, with US Republicans and Tories. They shouldn’t be.