Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Ranking People's Religious Faith

Britain has a long history of pressuring people to behave in a certain way in terms of religion, from the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 until 1656. Fines were introduced in 1559 for anyone who failed to attend church. Until 1793 Catholics were not allowed to vote in Britain and until 1829 could not become members of parliament; a Catholic still cannot become monarch in Britain. Up until 1689 Nonconformists, i.e. Protestants outside the Church of England, could not worship in their own buildings. In the 1944 Education Act the only compulsory subject in British schools was Religious Education and that did not change until the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988.

Now the main area in which we are seeing the segregation of the population in the UK of the 2000s is in terms of education and this stems from the rapid growth of faith schools since Tony Blair first came to power in 1997. Blair had a personal interest in expanding faith schools and he found support among middle class parents who favour segregation in schooling. In the UK faith schools almost died out in 1904 when they ran out of money and it was only state intervention then that allowed any to survive and from this basis to expand rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s. It is correct that all faiths in the UK have the same rights in this field and that the Church of England (4,646 schools in 2006) and the Catholic Church (2,041) no longer have the ability to create faith alone and that Jewish (37), Muslim (8), Hindu (0) and Sikh (2) schools are appearing. However, there are tensions that the increase of faith schools are provoking. The issue for non-Christian schools has been generally on the curriculum and ensuring that it covers what is now expected to be taught in terms of 'citizenship' in the UK. In terms of the Christian schools the biggest issue is admissions.

It soon became apparent to the Christian churches that with the increase in faith schools they had gained a powerful tool. Middle class parents want schools which have selective admissions and faith schools generally are selective. In theory this is on the basis of faith, but as some religious families with children with special needs have learned, that faith is not always enough. There is also a tendency in the UK for certain classes of people to adhere to certain denominations of church and the Church of England congregation is far more middle class in make-up than say the Baptist congregation. British education since the late 1980s has been increasingly divided, the government website on types of schools lists the following types, just in the state sector: Mainstream state schools, Community schools, Foundation schools, Trust schools, Voluntary-aided schools (which includes some faith schools), Voluntary-controlled schools, Specialist schools, Academies, City Technology Colleges, Faith schools, Grammar schools and Maintained boarding schools. In addition their are privately run schools.

By increasing faith schools you have increased the schools which have selective entrance. All schools with selective entrance achieve higher grades and this is something that all parents want. Thus, we have got into the situation in which parents may emphasise their (or adopt a) religion in order to get their child into a local faith school. This has been stimulated by the neglect of the mainstream state schools which have lost out as funds have flown towards all these other types of schools. If most comprehensive schools were better funded then there would be less pressure on these other schools and all that has followed in its wake.

Given the rise in demand the churches have realised they can pressure parents to behave in a more religious manner. This has led to registers being kept at services to make sure that parents are turning up, the implied threat being that if they fail to do so, their child will be removed from the school. There has been very vocal criticism of parents 'faking' their faith in order to get a child into a school and you see clergymen on the television berating parents who do this. However, this approach shows how debased how much of the Church of England and Catholic Church has become in the UK. Unable to win congregations by their arguments or relevance to the modern world, they are now using selective education as both the carrot and the stick to press people into attending church. In addition it is not just any church, but particular parish churches. This has been going on now for almost twenty years. I witnessed it in the town where my parents live where a particular church which sat next to a mainstream comprehensive school over the years filled the board of governors with its members until the time came when they had a majority to suddenly change the school into a faith school, with the priority not simply given to Church of England members but to the parishoners of the particular church. Anyone not a Christian or not attending that particular church suddenly found their child could no longer attend the school. In my home town there are three Church of England churches within walking distance of each other and yet only one is tied to a school which it is in fact not very close to. This church as yet has not started keeping registers, but if it did, you can imagine the impact on attendance at the other two churches. This is not healthy for the community or the Church of England itself.

I do not usually put much store by what David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, says but I did appreciate it when in January 2008 he said he could entirely appreciate parents wanting their best for their children and so 'faking' their faith if that meant gaining access to a particular school. The thing is, in the light of such behaviour, some churches are going even further. The BBC highlighted this week how they are not simply expecting attendance at church services , but if parents do not arrange the flowers in the church or do a reading or take a Sunday school sessioon they are deemed 'not religious enough' with the penalty of their child being excluded from the school. This is madness. There are not enough jobs in a church to allow all parents to do them anyway. Christianity in the past century has not attempted to measure the level of commitment, generally participation has been sufficient, but clearly church zealots are pushing it further. This leads to terrible intolerance. They will not accept parishoners from other districts so are they any less religious? It is not only 'be an Anglican', but 'be an Anglican who attends St. X Church and who reads every Sunday'.

What about children who have parents who are from different denominations? Under such rules they may have one Anglican and one Catholic parent (just like the Tony and Cherie Blair) and be barred from attending either faith school. In addition, there is an all too easy assumption that the faith and level of faith of the parents will be exactly reflected in the child. In my house the 7-year old is the most strongly Christian person in the house in practice as well as thought.

As the Runnymede Trust report this week highlighted, faith schools and their associated churches are leading the way in breeding intolerance and division in our society. Their policies are getting harsher and they are not addressing the fact that people can even follow their faith but without the exact details being required and so are being shut off from the best school in an area. What does that say about the churches involved? There is no 'suffer little children to come unto me', there is 'suffer little children to come unto me, only if their parents are of the same denomination, come every Sunday to this particular church and are involved in a range of duties'. An elitist system is being created. Like Hitler who said 'I decide who is a Jew' many Anglican and Catholic churches are sifting among even the faithful and deciding who is 'worthy' to be permitted into their schools. This may seem like access into Heaven, but if you consider it it is hardly Christian. This whole issue shows the return of religious intolerance on an amazingly parochial basis unmatched in centuries.

British education is in a ridiculous mess. Comprehensive education has effectively been replaced by selective education which cuts off so many people from achieving all that they can. Selection needs to be challenged. I would ban all faith schools as done in France and say that religion stays in the church/chapel/meeting house/synagogue/mosque/temple and education focuses on bringing out the best in all children with an awareness of how humans should behave. To cajole people into attending church and behaving in a particular way in order to win the prize of a decent (not even an excellent) education for their children is too reminiscent of the churches of the 15th century rather than the 21st century. It causes division within denominations even within single towns and particular districts and that is not healthy for any religion.

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