Today, a new report was published by the Centre for Policy Studies. Entitled, “In Bad Faith” and written by Christine Odine, the report sets out to challenge the rhetoric that has been permeating different parts of society in recent years about faith schools. First off, let me just stress the point that I am not against faith schools and do not necessarily adhere to the argument that faith schools by their very existence are any more divisive than any other state or independent school. However, I am concerned about some of the arguments that Odine puts forward in this latest report. In the Preface to the report, Odine states:
“THE WITCH HUNT IS ON. A Government obsessed with phoney egalitarianism and control freakery is aligning itself with the strident secularist lobby to threaten the future of faith schools in Britain. At stake is our understanding of education. Should it be a tool for social engineering, or a consumer service? Should it ensure equality, or fairness? The issue also raises questions about faith in the modern world: how relevant is it to a child’s identity? To a community? Does someone’s faith command greater allegiance than someone’s nationality? These questions, in the wake of 11 September and the 7 July London bombings, burn ever more fiercely. They rouse passions and fears, and regularly stir public debate. They will surface again this month when the interim report by the schools adjudicator Philip Hunter into claims against faith schools is expected to be published”
From the outset and the recognition that a ‘witch hunt is on’, it appears that Odine is far from going to be presenting a balanced and objective analysis of the situation. Ending the Preface with the observation that Philip Hunter is due to publish a report this month that will critique faith schools, one can only really believe that this particular report is merely an exercise in trying to counter – possibly without any objectivity – these presumed findings. Not, I hasten to add, a good reason or indeed justification for the report itself.
What worries me is that Odine makes somewhat sweeping generalisations about faith schools that are easily questioned, undermined or indeed refuted, given your particular reaction to her findings. Take for example the fact that Muslim faith schools have increased three-fold over the past decade. Is this in itself ‘proof’ that faith schools are essentially good, or is it merely evidence to suggest that there is a greater ‘supply and demand’: demand from Muslim parents with the supply being provided by Muslim educationalists.
In terms of what Odine calls ‘Cherry Picking’, then it is an aparent fact that faith schools do have less children from the lower socio-economic groups than other schools. One example that she herself gives of this is that faith schools are under-represented in terms of children that have Free School Meals. As Odine herself points out:
“It is true that in faith schools fewer students take up Free School Meals…”
However her arguments as to why this might be – and I stress might – are extremely weak, clearly viewing faith communities through the most rose-tinted of glasses:
“…signing up for Free School Meals is seen as a loss of face in tight-knit faith communities…
…Dr Flowers, whose primary school Our Lady of Victories school includes many children from Polish, Lithuanian, Filipino, and Portuguese immigrant families, agrees. “My perception is that our mothers would beggar themselves rather than have their children take up Free School Meals”…
…In faith communities in particular, the first port of call is not the government but the family, more distant relatives, even the neighbours…[it] “tends to look after its own”…
…Moreover, some parents would hate the intrusion in to their privacy – where do they work, where do they live, how much do they earn? – entailed in filling out application forms for Free School Meals”
On this last point especially, I am sure that there is nothing in having a particular faith that makes you want to fill in forms of this nature any less than anybody else. A belief in the divine surely cannot be held up as ‘evidence’ that you’re less likely to want to disclose personal information. And if it is, and given the current climate of suspicion around faith communities, wouldn’t that merely reinforce that some faith communities have – in the style of the Daily Express – ‘got something to hide’?
Whilst not wanting to offer a full and complete deconstruction of the entire report, another criticism posited against faith schools that Odine sets out to tackle is the issue of selection. Whilst she admits that the Government’s banning of interviews and application forms may make for a “comprehensive intake”, she counters this with the observation that these also remove the checks that a faith school relies on to ensure that applicants subscribe to its distinctive ethos. Here she gives an example:
“To the Government, as Ed Balls’s attack revealed, a request for a marriage certificate as part of an application form is an ignominious attempt to flush out single mothers. To the Orthodox Jewish school, it is the only way to verify that both parents are born Jews”
Why exactly would the school need to see that ‘both parents are born Jews’? In orthodox Judaism, it is a child born of a Jewish mother that is Jewish and not the father. Consequently, Odine’s argument doesn’t stand up and clearly undermines her own understanding of not only the faith, but also her understanding of why both birth certificates might be required.
One final way of judging whether Odine approaches her subject matter with an open mind can be seen in the way that she describes the children who attend specialist schools. To use her example of those children that might have a particular aptitude for either the piano or French, she writes:
“These Mozart-loving, French-appreciating children are less likely to be the product of a poor and ill-educated household than a child who knows how to perform the salat, or Muslim prayer”
A little stereotypical to suggest that only well-educated and affluent families can enjoy Mozart or indeed want their children to speak French? An even more stereotypical to suggest that those children that can perform the salat are from ill-educated and poor backgrounds?
For me personally, I find the whole attitude and approach of the report highly distasteful and massively objectionable. For me at least, it is some distance from providing a coherent and evidence based argument for faith schools and merely plays into the hands of the critics of faith schools: the very people that the report allegedly sets out to challenge.
One final thing is the response that those from faith backgrounds have offered to the report. Far from being objective and questioning the ‘evidence’ being presented, as is far too often the case, many faith communities and their representatives have endorsed the report without any hesitation whatsoever, adopting the metaphorical ‘Animal Farm’ mentality of ‘faith is good, non-faith bad’. As a report in the Times highlighted, one Muslim commentator is quoted as saying:
“The drugs, sex and rock’n’roll scene is not an option for Muslim girls…So there is a huge pressure to marry them off early or send them home”
A little presumptious and surely a bit too wide-reaching and homogenous an attitude? I believe so. Of course some – and I stress some – Muslim girls do get into the ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ scene as indeed do only some non-Muslim girls also. And is this really a justification for marrying ‘them off early’ or sending ‘them home’? Here I don’t think so.
All in all, the report is far from balanced and far from presenting a strong enough argument to challenge the (sometime) misconceptions about faith schools. When it comes to issues around faith it is essential that commentators are as honest, open and as rigorous as indeed they are about everybody and everything else. Taking the ‘soft’ option, or persisting in wearing the rose tinted glasses rarely – if indeed ever – does anyone or any particular group any favours whatsoever. In fact, there is little that this report will add to the debates about faith schools apart from reaffirming the view that many critics of faith schools have including about the growing role of faith in the public and political spaces. That is, that faith groups are unable to be objective when it comes to that most important and central of issues. That of faith itself.