Don't fall into the faith school trap
Responding to Francis Beckett's proposal for a humanist school, Rabbi Jonathan Romain of the Accord Coalition warns of the risks of endorsing religious segregation in education
This is a response to Francis Beckett's proposal for Britain's first atheist and humanist state school
A “humanist school” may sound like a natural development alongside the other types of schools that are suddenly appearing, such as a Sikh school or a Hindu school. The argument being: “They’ve got one, so why can’t we?”
That is exactly the ludicrous justification that politicians have been using to explain why they have allowed minority faiths to break away from mainstream schooling and set up their own educational establishments: “Yes, the Christians and Jews have their own places, so it is only fair to let everybody else go separatist as well.”
But there is no point being a copycat if what you are copying is fundamentally flawed. We may have inherited a system that contains faith schools – with the Church setting up the first schools in the Middle Ages (and all credit to it at the time) – but that is not a reason to perpetuate schooling based on faith in a Britain that is very different from then: no longer religiously monochrome but a colourful mix of many different beliefs and those of none.
Rather than have humanists leap into the attempt at religious school-grabbing, it is far better to analyse what the needs of society are today and determine whether such schooling is a help or a hindrance. To my mind the answer is definitely the latter, and so for humanists to join in the school-grab would not only be a mistake but also effectively an endorsement of what the faith groups are doing.
The reason is twofold. First is the practical effect on both the children attending faith schools and society at large. Whatever their intentions, the result of the schools is to segregate children so that they do not interact with those different to them, which creates a risk that ignorance of each other’s ways can lead to suspicion, which can spiral into fear, degenerate into irrational dislike and end up in violence.
Certainly the better schools – as a humanist school no doubt would be – teach about other faiths, but that is no substitute for actually sitting next to children from those faiths in class, or playing football with them in the break. Moreover, walking home with them after school often leads to going inside their homes, seeing their family life, eating the different foods they have and gaining an insight into their culture.
Dividing the children also means dividing the parents, who no longer meet outside the school gate or at parents’ evenings and sports days. Thus faith schools cut a huge swathe through society. Yet in a multi-faith society it is vital that we work hard to remove barriers, so that when children of different backgrounds emerge from school it is as neighbours, not strangers.
A humanist school for humanist children would make the same intrinsic error as existing faith schools in offering a limited social exposure. The second objection is one of principle: faith schools – who are permitted by law to discriminate in admissions and employment on grounds of religion or belief – stand out as one of the prime instances of institutionalised discrimination within the whole public sector.
Do humanists want to play the same game? What other public body can discriminate along lines of faith? The army? The civil service? The police? Libraries? Surely the object must to be end state-funded discrimination rather than join in with it. Only then will we achieve the goal of schools that are inclusive, tolerant and transparent, and thereby work towards a society that is inclusive, tolerant and transparent.
That is why the Accord Coalition – which links both religious and secular groups – works to change the way faith schools operate. We would be surprised if humanists added to the divisiveness rather than helped us combat it.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain is chair of the Accord Coalition
Do you think humanist schools are a good idea? Join the debate by commenting on Francis Beckett's article (comments closed on this article to encourage discussion in one thread), and voting in the poll below.