Education isn’t about ‘faith’ – public money shouldn’t fund religious schools

Independent on Sunday, 20 October 2013

Here is an alarming statistic: around a third of state-funded schools are now ‘faith’ establishments. How this has happened in a secular country, where few of us attend a church or mosque, is hard to comprehend. Religious schools are the most racially segregated, according to the British Humanist Association; it has published research suggesting that the majority of state-funded Sikh, Muslim and Hindu schools have no ‘white British’ pupils. Yet new ‘faith’ schools are opening all the time, thanks mainly to the government’s free schools programme.

Last week Ofsted published a damning report on a Muslim free school in Derby, describing the Al-Madinah school as ‘dysfunctional’. The school’s shortcomings are too many to catalogue, ranging from employment of unqualified teachers to failure to carry out criminal records checks. The governing body has now written to staff, withdrawing a requirement for female teachers to wear headscarves, but the letter includes a revealing statement: ‘Until recently, in keeping with our ethos as a faith based school we believed that it was in the best interests of pupils at Al-Madinah school, their parents and the community that female members of staff cover their hair’.

In a country which is legally committed to gender equality, how did anyone imagine such a policy was acceptable, let alone that it should be funded with public money? In this instance, it happens to be a Muslim school which has failed, but the episode highlights a major flaw in the thinking behind the free schools programme; it is not sufficiently critical of ‘faith’ organisations. Fifteen months ago, an Ofsted inspector visited the trust which proposed setting up the Al-Madinah school and looked at its plans. She reported that various regulations were unlikely to be met, including a requirement for all members of staff to undergo training in child protection.

Before the school had even opened, its curriculum sounded like a madrassa. It promised to encourage tolerance and respect but the school’s prospectus was open about censorship; books and resources would have to ‘conform to the teachings of Islam’ and anything considered ‘sensitive, inaccurate and potentially blasphemous’ would be removed. Despite all this, the inspector recommended that the free school should be allowed to open.

Since 2010, around half the applications to set up free schools have come from religious groups. That isn’t surprising; it’s a fantastic opportunity for proselytising. The applicants have included nine private schools teaching an American form of Creationism which holds that the Loch Ness monster exists and disproves evolution. They didn’t get through the process but almost a third of successful applications have a religious ethos. There is even a Maharishi free school in Lancashire which teaches ‘consciousness-based education’, invented by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, one-time ‘spiritual advisor’ to The Beatles.

The purpose of education is to develop critical faculties. We don’t have atheist schools or Lib Dem schools, and kids should be left to make up their own minds. The debacle in Derby demonstrates that religion has no place in state-funded education, other than as an optional subject.

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