David Cameron and Michael Gove have expressed fears about extremist religious groups running independent schools. They are right to highlight religious schools as a problem – but wrong to target only independent schools.
£157,000,000 of public money has been given to independent faith schools in the last year in the attempt to bring them into the state-funded sector. If you are concerned about this and want to know precisely how much has gone where and which additional public money has gone to independent religious schools then too bad – the Government has refused again and again to answer that question. New allegations that public money has gone to religious schools with links to violent extremists has re-opened the debate, and it is not just what is taught in independent religious schools that is relevant but what is taught in state-funded religious schools too.
2007’s revelations that London’s King Fahad Academy was using textbooks which branded religions other than Islam ‘worthless’ and contained a quote such as “The monkeys are the Jews. And the pigs, they are the Christian infidels at Jesus’ table” are at the extreme end of the spectrum but a textbook produced by the mainstream Muslim Educational Trust, ‘Islam: beliefs and teachings’, which it is claimed is widely used, advocates Islam as a total ideology with political implications, and contains derogatory material on other religions. Examples in Christian schools of learning via the Accelerated Christian Learning course which have revealed how children are taught creationism, may apply only to independent Christian schools, but the Roman Catholic Bishop of Lancaster was addressing teachers in state-funded Catholic schools when he said they ‘must not lose sight of the evangelical and catechetical components of their work’. Similarly, it is to state-funded schools that the Church of England guidance on RE that ‘the secular assumption that there is no reality beyond the physical world is ultimately sterile’ is directed to. This is all far from the balanced, open and objective approach to learning that schools should take if we really care about social cohesion.
Greater public regulation of the curriculum and inspection are arguments often made in favour of bringing private religious schools into the state sector, where they already constitute a third of all state-funded schools. It is true that all schools in the state sector must teach the National Curriculum and be inspected on this and other aspects of school life by Ofsted. But there is currently no national curriculum or syllabus for Religious Education, leaving state-funded religious schools to write their own. In addition, state-funded religious schools are currently inspected on their RE and worship not by Ofsted as community schools are, but by their own religious inspectors.
If David Cameron and Michael Gove take the problem they have highlighted seriously then these are just two of the issues they should address, in addition to ending all public funding for independent religious schools. Both the introduction of a proper national curriculum for RE and regular Ofsted inspections of all aspects of religious schools could be manifesto promises. Even better of course, would be for them to go even further and introduce what the majority of Britons say repeatedly in polls and surveys they would like to see – an end to faith schools and a commitment instead to inclusive secular schools that will bring our children together instead of fostering divisions in society.