You and I pay for this chauvinism

Education - Labour is validating the brainwashing of the young

Manifesto pledges are made to woo the electorate, with little foresight of unintended consequences. We are then saddled with bad legislation that is hard to reverse. For example, the bill to outlaw incitement to religious hatred (thankfully watered down by an unusually alert parliament) was the result of an unholy deal made by new Labour with Muslim leaders who opposed the Iraq war and threatened to take votes elsewhere. Under the guise of equality, the government delivered a bribe.

The drive to create hundreds of faith-based schools is a similar display of Labour's politicking. Blair wants to be remembered for his reformist courage, but fails to grasp the most important change required in education - the disestablishment of faith-based schools. It should be up to families to pass on practice, prayer and the collective meanings of a faith. Britain needs a secular public education system where children can be taught about different religions, not pulled into glorifying any one faith. Yet the latter is what our Bible- and Koran-reading PM is encouraging, while his heir drones on about a binding British identity, advocating an aggressive patriotism of the American sort. (Interestingly, state education in the godly US remains uncompromisingly secular.)

Opponents of state-funded religious schools in Britain are disabled by their own anxieties and/or bigotry. Most take the status quo for granted - they just don't want more faith-based schools. They certainly don't want Muslim ones, and they are reluctant to take a stand against existing Jewish, Catholic and Church of England schools, many of which do very well in the league tables.

There are historical, now outdated, reasons why we have state-funded Christian and Jewish schools. Muslim, Sikh and Hindu schools want the same cash and cachet, and the government cannot in fairness deny them this. What it could insist on, however, is that these schools take 30 per cent or more of their pupils from outside their religion, and that these children be exempted from religious instruction, rules and pursuits. That would at least begin to break up the homogeneity, the self-righteous atmosphere and the hold of particular religions on young minds.

Church schools have discriminated against "outsiders" for long enough. A lone black mother I know was told by a C of E school that it could not accept her child because she had not contributed to specific church fundraising initiatives. My son went to the local church primary. It was brilliant, open to diversity and half full (these schools were not popular with the Sixties generation). Some years later I surrendered to the system to get my daughter in, only for her to be made to feel like an interloper. The head of a Catholic school told me they had no interest in taking "mixed-up" children after I said my daughter was mixed-race. Such schools may achieve high grades, but you and I pay for this official chauvinism.

I have been into Muslim and Sikh schools, too, where the children are polite, happy and hard-working. In some, however, 16-year-old Muslim girls cover up their bodies and faces - to me, a violation of young femininity - and young Sikh boys told me proudly they had only Sikh friends. These kids do not learn how to interact with people unlike themselves; they do not acquire the skills to have an honest exchange of ideas. They are encouraged to be tribes apart, distanced from mainstream life.

I come clean now. Both my son and my daughter ended up in private schools where they do not mix with children from low-income families. That worries me. But as for religions and ethnicities, there is a rich mix and lively exchange in both classroom and playground. I went into my daughter's school last year to talk about Islam and two girls in hijab questioned my interpretations. They, in turn, were robustly challenged by their non-Muslim peers. This does not happen in faith-based schools.

On our small island, densely populated and ever more diverse, society is fragmenting. Faith-based schools cannot, by definition, be expansive. On the one hand new Labour proclaims the need for social cohesion and shared principles; on the other it validates and funds the separation and brainwashing of the young. In Northern Ireland, new schools are encouraged towards integration; on the mainland, towards segregation. So this is joined-up government, then, and Blair's poisoned bequest to the children of this nation.

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