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Faith schools are part of the answer, not the problem

Al-Furqan Muslim school in Birmingham has been grant-maintained since 1998. David Jones/PA Archive

It would take a “bold secretary of state” to argue for more faith schools in Britain, wrote Newsnight’s policy editor Chris Cook commenting on the so-called Trojan Horse storm about Islamist extremists allegedly trying to take over several Birmingham schools.

In fact, Nick Gibb, when he was minister of state for schools, was bold enough when he spoke in 2010 in support of Catholic schools. He hoped that all “faith schools can play the same kind of leading role in the Academies programme as they do in the wider schools system”. It is well-known that former prime minister, Tony Blair, was always supportive of faith schools and some consider faith schools to be his “most damaging legacy”.

About a third of British schools are faith schools. There are more than 4,000 maintained Church of England (CofE) schools and more than 2,000 maintained Catholic Schools and about a dozen maintained Muslim Schools.

Religious people are always proud of the fact that many non-believers are happy to send their children to faith schools, while others denounce these parents as hypocrites who feign belief to get into good schools.

Humanist and secularist groups, along with many trade unions, have a history of hostility to faith schools which is often mixed up with their opposition to free schools.

It’s a rather dull and dated philosophical debate. Not any more.

I was struck by the vitriol behind many discussions of the Trojan Horse investigation by Ofsted, culminating in the spat between the education secretary, Michael Gove, and the home secretary, Theresa May.

Often these “investigations” can find what they are seeking to find. One person with actual experience over several weeks in one of the schools involved told me:

I went to an assembly where there were fairly predictable equality and diversity messages about respect for people of other faiths. The teachers were a mixed bunch, but to be honest the only local Muslim one I worked with didn’t seem to have much respect from the pupils, compared to some of the others who weren’t Muslim…

But no – there was nothing remarkable whatsoever… I certainly didn’t notice any hotbed of terrorist inculcation. The staff were really friendly and it was one of the easiest and most accommodating schools to go into.

There appears to be a more fevered opposition to faith schools that is different from previous philosophical debates. Let’s be clear about one thing. This debate is not about Islamic extremism – although that is the excuse for intervention in the Birmingham case.

If the government wants to deal with what they believe is the cause of radicalisation they should investigate themselves and, in particular, the comments of the foreign secretary, William Hague, and his position on Syria.

Atheism’s impact on free schools

What frames the hostility to free schools today is the rise of “New Atheism”. Religion has been on the retreat since the Enlightenment. The difference is that “New Atheism” is not just against a belief in God. The New Atheists want atheism to be recognised as equivalent to a religion.

But there is nothing that holds the 48% of non-believers in the UK together. They just don’t believe.

In an attempt to promote their ideas the New Atheists have not only dethroned God, but humanity. They have a vision of people with little passion or vision and no strong beliefs. They promote a therapeutic secularism in which everyone is nice to one another and people are not divided by out-dated religious beliefs.

Their fear is that religious schools might teach people to be judgemental. I would defend judgement as the basis of human rationality. But even those schools currently being investigated appear to be as open and non-judgemental as any secular school.

It’s not the nominally CofE or the Catholic schools that are the new targets of today’s critics, but rather Muslim schools. This is not because of anti-Muslim sentiment. Just as government looks for radicalisation in Muslim schools, professional multiculturalists and equality and diversity officers will find “Islamophobia” in every criticism of Muslim schools.

Both sides are wrong in this debate. What critics dislike is the idea that teachers in Muslim schools might have strong beliefs and pass these on to their pupils. Much of what goes on in these schools is probably as “radical” as the education in CofE schools. It only seems different because of cultural dress codes and daily rituals. The fear of belief is what causes the current hostility to faith schools.

As an atheist who believes that education is necessarily secular, I want to defend faith schools for the very reason that others attack them. They are symbols of the possibility of people having strong beliefs. I see religion as embodying a humanist view of the world in which humanity projects itself as Godlike. That is its strength. That is what the new atheists detest.

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