Faith Schools

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:25 pm on 8th February 2006.

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Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 7:25 pm, 8th February 2006

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have for the extension of faith schools.

My Lords, one aspect of the education White Paper that has not had the attention it deserves is the projected increase in the number of faith schools. I believe this would be a mistaken and deeply retrograde step. I will not argue that we should abolish existing faith schools. I recognise that many of them have high standards, although this is mainly because they are selective. To abolish them would be a negative approach, but I believe that faith schools are undesirable both in principle and in practice.

Let me start with the principle. The American constitution got it right: religion should not be taught in schools. That is an important part of the separation of Church and state, which itself has been a crucial element in the progress of liberal democracy. Although the Church of England is the established Church in this country, for all practical purposes this is a secular country. When I say that we should not teach religion in schools, I do not mean that children should not be taught about the Bible, as that is part of our culture. I personally support teaching children about other religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. I think it is important that they should realise, for example, the important part that Islam has played in the history of civilisation, and that at one time it was the centre of learning and much more tolerant of other faiths than contemporary Christianity.

Teaching about religion is, however, different from teaching religion. One of the most important tasks of education is to teach us to think. To think means to question, and to question means to be taught not to accept blindly what one is told and what one should believe. Teaching people to think is the opposite of indoctrination. Isaiah Berlin rightly called the Enlightenment one of the best and most hopeful episodes in the history of mankind. It was a time when the Church lost its authority to tell us what to think and when reason replaced superstition. Reason means replacing certainty with doubt. A willingness to question authority and to ask for evidence is one of the most important legacies of the Enlightenment.

Faith schools exist to promote particular faiths, not Enlightenment values. Church of England schools exist, as the Archbishops Council said in 2001, to promote the mission of the Church of England to children. Catholic schools exist to reinforce Catholicism and Muslim schools to promote Islam. That is essentially their raison d'être which distinguishes them from other schools. They do not teach children to question these faiths or to make up their own minds whether or not to accept these religious beliefs. Do the new evangelical schools in the north-east teach children to question the truth of the Bible? Are they to be taught creationism? Do Muslim schools teach any of their pupils ever to question the Koran? To teach a faith is to teach children to believe and not to question, let alone to allow room for doubt.

The existence of faith schools assumes that children are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim, not the children of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim parents. I believe that this is no more justified than treating children as Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat children. In the end, religion, like politics, should be a matter of individual choice, not imposed by indoctrination at a tender age. Of course most children are influenced by their parents, but schools should encourage them to open their minds, and that should be the goal of a liberal education—to prepare children for life in a liberal democracy.

I turn next to the practical objections. Surely there can be little doubt that faith schools are divisive. Many of them teach tolerance of other religions, but I put the question: have separate faith schools in Northern Ireland brought the communities closer together or have they had a divisive effect? Have they led to a greater understanding of the respective Catholic and Protestant viewpoints? Who can doubt that segregation in schools has not helped to reduce hostility between the two communities and a lack of understanding of the other's attitude? Indeed, one of the more encouraging signs of the past few years, which has been widely welcomed by the less partisan, is the increase in the number of integrated schools.

Faith schools over-emphasise religious identity. They encourage children to see themselves in terms of their religion. Faith schools mean that children are less likely to meet young people from different religions and ethnic backgrounds, to play with them and make friends. Yet ignorance about different communities can only aggravate racism since one of its root causes is fear of the unknown.

I am worried about the gradual intrusion into this country of the American religious right, with its profound intolerance of the values of the Enlightenment. It is lush with funds and keen to proselytise. Can the Government guarantee that it will not, by one means or another, gain a foothold in our education system through this projected expansion of faith schools? The new academy schools in Newcastle and Gateshead are not a good augury.

Above all, I am worried about the large projected increase in Muslim schools. If there are to be more Catholic schools and Church of England schools, of course we cannot refuse new Muslim schools. But these schools will increase the isolation of a community that is already the least integrated into our society. Religion already divides Muslims from the rest of society by dress, the intensity of their religious observance, and some social attitudes, especially their attitudes towards women. As the Ouseley report on Bradford found in 2001, monocultural schools add to social exclusion and racism.

What effect will more Muslim schools have on girls? This is surely one of the most important issues. Women of Asian heritage have been some of the strongest opponents of religious schools. As the London South Asia Solidarity Group said in 2002:

"We believe that single faith schools will mean more discrimination and a greater stranglehold of the most conservative, anti-women and communal individuals over our children's education and our communities as a whole".

Is that what the Government are prepared to accept?

Let me return to the Enlightenment. At present we are seeing a reaction against Enlightenment values, a march of unreason, a rejection of the evidence-based approach to a number of current social issues. We see a proliferation of quack remedies and of sellers of snake oil. These trends are dangerous because if we reject evidence and reason and go back to the superstitions that reigned before the Enlightenment, how, for example, can we deal with the chauvinist and the racist? It is vital that our schools teach pupils to think critically and give children at least some immunity against fundamentalism and other forms of credulity.

I am all for cultural diversity. But schools should be a place for integration, not segregation—for the liberation of the spirit, not indoctrination of any kind. I wish we had no faith schools at all. It is too late for that. But at least we should say: no more.