'Taxpayers’ money should not fund faith schools'
Ninja Turtles were the first witnesses at the Spectator debate. The motion ‘Taxpayers’ Money Should Not Fund Faith Schools’ was proposed by Sunday Times columnist Minette Marrin. She evoked the green cartoon reptiles as proof that faith schools are discriminatory and irrational. The child of a friend had been denounced as ‘satanic’ at his Christian school for wearing Ninja-branded pyjamas. Religious schools, she went on, are not only divisive, they lead to ghettoisation and contempt for the host culture. Three Islamic schools in the UK require girls to wear the full veil, and they boast openly that they ‘oppose the lifestyle of the West’.
Christina Odone, former editor of the Catholic Herald, trumpeted the soaraway success of faith schools. A newspaper survey confirmed that 66 percent of all top primaries had a strong religious element. ‘Don’t mess with excellence,’ she warned. In a pre-emptive strike against the ‘selection argument’, she pointed out that state schools also select, but on the grounds of wealth, not faith: house prices soar in the catchment area of any decent state secondary. She imagined that, if the secularists triumphed, a rash of grisly humanist lycees would spring up. Assembly would start with a reading of Polly Toynbee’s column from that morning’s Guardian followed by recitals of books by Richard Dawkins. She politely begged her opponents to ‘spend more time fixing your schools, not wrecking ours’.
Dr Jonathan Romain, a progressive rabbi from the Maidenhead Synagogue, accused faith schools of ‘pulling Jews and Christians out of the rest of society’. He said religious schools are guilty of selecting on the sly. Department of Education figures indicate that faith schools are ‘the most likely not to comply with the admissions code’. Even when faith schools teach comparative religion, they get it wrong. He cited a Catholic school which taught comparative religion in ‘heresy class’. This sort of segregation fosters ignorance and mistrust. He gave the example of a Moslem child quizzed about Christianity who said, ‘Christians have only one spouse. And it’s called monotony.’ The rabbi didn’t want his children raised in an atmosphere of prejudice where they might be taught that ‘Indians smell because they only wash when they go to the Ganges’ or that ‘Moslems go to heaven if they’ve killed someone.’ Though a Jew, he sent his children to a community school where they could ‘sit next to a Christian, hang out with a Hindu, play football with a Moslem and go home with an atheist’. It’s great to love your neighbour, he concluded, but you can’t love him if you don’t know him.
The Bishop of Nottingham, Malcolm McMahon, set out his egalitarian principles by quoting two precepts laid down by Cardinal Manning at the time of the 1870 education act: ‘It is every man’s right to have his child educated according to his conscience. And the cost should not be greater than for his neighbour.’ The bishop denied Rabbi Romain’s allegation that church schools are insular and selective. He served as governor of a Catholic secondary in King’s Cross where the pupils were drawn from all over the world, whereas a nearby community school had a much narrower ethnic range. Church schools not only fostered ‘a moral centre’ they contributed hefty sums towards the building work. A recently completed school in Nottingham received 10 percent of its £25m budget from the Church. The bishop deplored New Labour’s attacks on Catholic adoption agencies and urged all faiths to defend their hard-won rights against the secularists. ‘This debate should not be taking place!’ he concluded.
Evan Harris, the recently deposed LibDem MP, recalled his experience at a pluralist school: ‘I was savagely beaten by children of all faiths.’ He had no objection to church schools, but insisted that they change the way they teach religion. Catholic teachers should not say, ‘homosexuality is wrong,’ but should use this arms-length formula: ‘Our faith teaches that homosexuality is wrong.’ He admitted that many faith schools outperform community schools, but ascribed this to ‘the prior attainment and family background’ of the pupils. Arguing that religious discrimination is inherent in faith schools, he pointed out that schools enjoy specific exemptions from the equality legislation. Excluding someone from an institution ‘because of their Jewish parentage’ would be illegal. But schools are permitted to practise this sort of discrimination openly. He called on Michael Gove to include pluralist religious education in his revised version of the national curriculum.
Melanie McDonagh of the Evening Standard paid tribute to her ‘absent friends’ the Anglican Church. The majority of faith schools in this country are run by the C of E. And they welcome all comers. In Oldham, there are C of E schools where 80 percent of the pupils are Moslem. And these schools aren’t indoctrinating pupils. Studies show that many children raised to a particular religious orthodoxy abandon their beliefs in adulthood. She warned against diluting faith schools with the children of non-believers. Do that, she said, ‘and the magic will evaporate’.
Before the debate, the audience was inclined to support the motion. That support had strengthened by the end. The motion was carried.