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.