Less faith, but more faith-schools

What lies behind the seemingly inexorable spread of religious-based education?

The new school year will see the launch of a crop of state-funded "free schools", several of them with a religious dimension. The British Humanist Association has launched a new fundraising campaign to support opposition to the spread of faith schools. In a message to supporters Polly Toynbee, who is apparently still president following the A.C. Grayling debacle earlier this summer, bemoaned the fact that there are already around 7,000 faith schools in England and Wales, including nearly a fifth of secondary schools. She described the advent of the free schools as "a growing threat" to mainstream education in this country.

Faith schools are gaining more control over their curricula, which they now entirely set themselves. Those that cannot currently discriminate in their admissions criteria are often gaining the ability to do so. And teachers at Academies and Free Schools are not required to hold qualified teacher status.

This renaissance of faith schools is a paradox in what continues to be one of the least religously observant countries in the world. Until a few years ago, church schools (as they were then called) were largely peripheral to the education debate. The overwhelming majority were (and are) Anglican and most of the rest Roman Catholic. They were generally primary schools. They were successful and over-subscribed, but were not expanding and attracted little interest from politicians of any party. Their existence was a legacy of history - of the time, before universal state education, when church-run schools usually offered the only education available.

All that has changed. Both the last Labour government (especially under Tony Blair) and the present Coalition have been vocal in their support of faith schools, and have legislated to encourage their spread. Even before the introduction this year of free schools, we have seen new denominational schools being built and even former "bog-standard" comprehensives taken over by church authorities and re-invented as faith academies. In some cases, children who might previously have expected to attend their local school are being turned away because they have not been baptised, or because their parents are unable to convince the religiously appointed (and religiously accountable) teachers and governors that they are sufficiently rigorous in church attendance.

For the quality of a child's education, and their life-chances thereafter, to be dependent on the religiosity of their parents, and for this blatant discrimination to be sanctioned by the state, is alarming. For it to be occurring in an increasingly secular society, where most people are indifferent to religion, is almost incomprehensible. What, exactly, is going on?

Two very different trends underpin the modern expansion in faith-based schooling. One derives from church schools' reputation for promoting discipline and good exam results. David Blunkett once expressed a desire to "bottle" their recipe for success. For middle-class parents who can't afford, or who are ideologically opposed to, private education, such schools present an attractive option. Thus they become ever-more desirable, more over-subscribed and more dominated by middle-class families who have the time and determination to do what is necessary to get their children into them. While the "faith" label has become a brand marker of quality, the appeal of these schools has little or nothing to do with religion as such.

Instead, church schools have come to embody the twin desiderata of education ministers: higher standards and greater parental choice. That in itself might be enough to explain their expansion. But there's another factor at play, too, which is the increasing importance of religion in the politics of identity and multiculturalism. The most obvious manifestation of this has been the demand by non-Christian religious groups to open their own faith schools. To many, this seems only fair: once you accept the principle of religions running schools it looks discriminatory to restrict the right to one or two churches. There are well-established Jewish schools, and in the past decade state-supported Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools have followed.

These moves have been controversial, with opponents arguing that the new schools encourage the development of a ghettoised society. Education should be about bringing children together, not about segregating and labelling them on the basis of their parents' religion. The existing (and new) schools run by the Church of England have largely escaped this criticism. Yet there have been very few non-Christian faith schools created. There are only eleven state-funded Muslim schools, as opposed to more than four and a half thousand Anglican ones. Moreover, partly because there now exist faith schools for other religions, many church schools have felt entitled to impose stricter religious tests on parents and to make these schools more overtly Christian than they ever used to be.

Most notoriously, this leads some parents to fake religious devotion in order to get their children into a good local school. A friend of mine, an Anglican rector, describes a depressing scene he witnessed when visiting a church where he used to worship before his ordination. At the end of a suspiciously well-attended early morning service, most of the congregation queued up to sign an attendance register. He reported that "a vast extension to the church was built simply to accommodate the influx of parents, barely any of whom turn up once their children are safely in the school."

He doesn't approve, not because he dislikes church involvement in education but because he sees it as an abuse of power by the church, which "simultaneously sits in judgement on parents and families, and encourages hypocrisy among them". It also "degrades the sacraments of Christ's Kingdom by making them entry requirements for something they have nothing to do with."

It is anomalous, certainly, that taxpayers who are not religious - and are not prepared to fake it - should be expected to fund schools that discriminate blatantly on grounds unconnected with education. It makes no more sense than would a school that operated an overt preference for white pupils, or the children of Liberal Democrats, or those whose parents support Manchester United.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses