Faith schools and social cohesion

Do faith schools promote cohesion and help with integration or are they a force for division in soci

The debate over the contribution that faith schools make to society has been raging over recent months between those of a religious background and secularists.

Representatives of these two groups have their own cheerleaders in the Labour Government. So last October (2006) saw the then secularist Education Secretary Alan Johnson seeking to force through a measure that would see faith schools forced to accept 25 per cent of pupils from non-religious backgrounds.

This attempt was rejected with Johnson backing down when faced with vociferous lobbying from MPs and the Catholic Church.

More recently the pendulum appears to have swung the other way with Ed Balls, the secretary of state for Children Schools and families, launching a document 'Faith in the System' congratulating faith schools on the work they have been doing in promoting societal cohesion. The document is a strong rebuff to those claiming that faith schools promote division.

One worrying element of the way faith schools operate at the moment is their tendency to promote dishonesty both among parents and pupils. Take Catholic schools. There is a strange dynamic operating, whereby upon leaving school many children also leave the Church.

The same individuals often return a few years later, now with their own children attracted by the local Catholic school. Suddenly the absentees are back at church every week, sitting in a prominent place where they cannot be missed by the parish priest. A standing order for the collection is also obligatory to gaining the approval needed to gain entry.

This perverse dynamic also results in many parents moving house each year - or renting addresses - to get themselves into the catchment area for the prized schools. This unhealthy situation promotes dishonest practices among children and parents alike.

What critics need to recognise is the reason why faith schools are in demand - and why government backs them - is because they have a better academic record than their non-faith counterparts. Or put another way they are better exam factories. This is where the criterion is all wrong.

A Catholic education, for instance, is supposed to offer so much more than discipline and good exam results. It must provide a solid moral grounding and awareness of the social justice issues like care for the environment, fair trade and human rights for all.

No doubt many schools do fulfil such a function taking in the wider concept of education but some don't.

Many pander as much to the "I am what I have" consumer culture as their state counterparts. So there is also a need for many faith schools to re-examine their role.

Faith schools have come under attack over recent times from secularists. These critics put together a totally spurious line that links faith schools with division in society and come up with the remarkable conclusion that doing away with faith schools will cut the risk of terrorism.

What such secularists forget is that in many cases faith schools have been established due to the very discrimination that people of certain faiths have received in the mainstream.

In the past it was Catholics, today it is the Muslims who feel under pressure so want their own schools. The idea of the faith school as a centre of excellence regarding academic achievement is also a relatively recent phenomena. In the early days the faith schools struggled for resources and did not always offer the best possible route toward academic excellence.

There is also a wilful misunderstanding by secularists of the education situation in Northern Ireland.

The argument goes that it is the separate faith-based education that has fuelled division and conflict in the community.

The reality is a little different. It was the denial of opportunity to Catholic students once they had achieved excellent academic results that fuelled the conflict not the original method of tuition.

Faith schools certainly do contribute toward producing a more cohesive and integrated society as the government research has verified. As such they need every encouragement and support from the state as well as the wider community.

However, whether the faith schools are conforming too much to the disciplinarian exam factory type model at the cost of a more holistic approach to education is a valid question. The key surely is that education must be diverse and creative for all concerned.

There must be a basic curriculum but to suggest that one size fits all, whether secular or religious, takes away from the very concept of education in its widest form. There is room in our society for faith, secular and many other types of school - lets celebrate diversity in excellence not dwell on division.

Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times