It’s depressing to read of yet another attack on faith schools in today’s papers, this time from a self-appointed ‘Commission’ set up by something called the Woolf Institute – an organisation dedicated to ‘interfaith research, teaching and dialogue’. It has just published a ‘report’ on ‘religion and belief in British public life’ called ‘Living with difference: community, diversity and the common good’.
I will leave it to others to comment on the substance of the report, but at first glance it reads like a product of the ‘Thought for the Day’ school of theological discourse. In other words, the usual wishy-washy, Kumbuya, inter-faith bilge, overlaid with a thick layer of Jewish and Christian self-loathing, as well as craven praise for ‘the religion of peace’. Incredibly, one of its recommendations is to make ‘Thought for the Day’ more ‘diverse’ and include secular contributions, as well as religious ones. You can just imagine some hand-wringing, apologetic, liberal Bishop arguing on ‘Thought for the Day’ that ‘Thought for the Day’ has become too doctrinaire and sectarian – and isn’t ‘inclusive’ enough. God forbid that anyone listening to the religious slot on the nation’s flagship current affairs programme should come away with the idea that the speaker actually believes in anything – apart, that is, from the equal validity of all beliefs, which is adhered to with an Islamic State level of fanaticism.
In the executive summary of the report, the commissioners say that one of their aims is to ‘provide a basis for deliberation and policy-making based on research and evidence’, but this principle doesn’t apply to their recommendation that faith schools shouldn’t be allowed to select pupils on the basis of religious faith.
It’s worth quoting the paragraph making the argument against faith schools in full:
‘In England successive governments have claimed in recent years that faith schools and free schools create and promote social inclusion which leads to cohesion and integration. However, in our view it is not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion or that it has not in fact been socially divisive and led rather to greater misunderstanding and tension.’
Note the way the commissioners throw in ‘free schools’ completely randomly, even though free schools are specifically prohibited from reserving a majority of their places for children of a particular faith. God knows what went through their heads here – free schools are equally unpopular among the bien pensant metropolitan elite, so let’s toss them in for good measure!
Also note the non sequitur in the first sentence – if any government minister in the past 50 years has argued that faith schools should be left alone because they ‘promote social inclusion which leads to cohesion and integration’ it has passed me by. This is a straw man par excellence. The main argument for faith schools and free schools – and educational choice in general – is because parents have a right to choose the kind of education their children receive, a right enshrined in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. Whether the educational choices parents make ‘promote social cohesion’ or not is frankly irrelevant – you might as well argue that freedom of expression should only be permitted insofar as it promotes social cohesion (and the authors of the report come dangerously close to saying exactly that in another section).
But even if we accept these ludicrously distorted terms, the argument of the commissioners is still rubbish. To be clear, they’re not arguing that faith schools should be dismantled because they are ‘socially divisive’ and have led to ‘greater misunderstanding and tension’ and nor do they offer any evidence to that effect. Rather, their argument is that in the absence of evidence to the contrary faith schools shouldn’t be allowed to exist. Not so much an evidence-based argument as a lack-of-evidence-based argument. A bit like a witch trial, in fact, which is a little surprising given that the Woolf Institute is named after Lord Harry Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and the Chair of the Commission is Baroness Butler-Sloss, another senior jurist. In the absence of any evidence proving that your existence has not led to greater misunderstanding and tension, I condemn you to death. Light the fire, Brother Welby.
I could point out that schools are channels into which existing inequalities and divisions flow, they don’t create those inequalities or divisions. I could also point out that the French state’s aggressively secular approach to state education hasn’t created a more inclusive, less divided society – in fact, France is considerably more riven by ‘misunderstanding and tension’ between different ethno-religious groups than Britain, one reason why Marine Le Pen triumphed in yesterday’s regional elections.
But what would be the point? None of this would prove that Britain’s faith schools don’t exacerbate social divisions. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any taxpayer-funded institution passing that test. Like 17th century witches, faith schools are guilty until proven innocent and no amount of evidence could convince these self-appointed Witchfinder Generals otherwise. Their report is a perfect illustration of how moral relativism doesn’t foster tolerance and mutual respect, but its opposite.