Schools for a multicultural society
Marilyn Mason, education officer of the British Humanist Association, argues that humanists can make common cause with religious groups that suffer discrimination in schools.
There are two obvious ways to create schools for a multi-faith, multicultural society, where every parent's right "to education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions" is respected. One is the Government's way: diversity of provision, fragmenting the system into a multiplicity of schools catering for different religious groups. The other, promoted by the British Humanist Association, is to reform schools so that the full range of beliefs, including ours, can be respected and accommodated within them. The current system undoubtedly favours Christianity in the number of Christian schools, in the legal requirement for "wholly or mainly... broadly Christian" worship in ordinary community schools, in the prescribed balance within Religious Education, and in the still pervasive assumption that "Christian values" are best for everyone. Non-religious people and non-Christians alike are discriminated against, and humanists have over the years forged useful alliances with liberal religious people who recognise that it is just unfortunate that our opponents (the Church of England, the House of Lords, and several successive governments) are bigger and more powerful than our friends. But we have been slow to link up all our grievances into a coherent whole or to see how our policies could contribute to a genuinely inclusive multicultural educational system. Several recent events and chance meetings crystallised my thinking on these issues and helped me to draft proposals that brought all our demands for inclusion together and made connections between them and those of minority religious groups.
The first was participating last summer in a "faith groups" working party brought together by the Sex Education Forum, and realising that most of our requirements (and indeed values) were compatible. What these, admittedly liberal, representatives from a range of faith groups wanted was for their faith perspectives to be included in Sex and Relationships Education, though not at the expense of the biological, emotional and social facts. SRE, they said, should be taught in the context of values (and I imagine most of us would go along with that) and they were happy for their children to learn about other people's values as long as their own were there too. I thought hard about that. It might make SRE courses a bit longer if everyone's perspectives had to be included, but humanists could hardly object to it on principle, as long as ours were included. Indeed, we might think it useful for our children to learn that some religious groups object to contraception and abortion or consider it their duty to have as many children as possible. Such knowledge could save them from some costly misunderstandings and mistakes. Nor, I thought, could we object to some single-sex SRE lessons, which is what many religious groups prefer. They seem to me either a harmless requirement, which we should tolerate, or conducive to fuller, franker, better targeted SRE, which we should encourage and humanists that I discussed this with agreed.
Another catalyst, for me, was a fairly heated conversation with a young Jewish father after a debate at the Royal Society of Arts last autumn. He was adamant that, whatever the social or philosophical arguments against religious schools, he wanted a Jewish school for his children because of what he had suffered as the only Jewish child in an ordinary comprehensive. He was particularly incensed at having been "excluded" (his word, though in fact he must have been excused by his parents) from assembly, which he, understandably, found humiliating and embarrassing and did not want to inflict on his children. And neither do most of us, I thought, realising that we had common cause with parents like him, and that, if this was the force behind demands for religious schools, changes in community schools could dissipate much of it.
A third thought-provoking experience was reading the Home Office Research Study, Religious Discrimination in England and Wales, and finding that what it calls the "Christian default position" of British society and schools today is as objectionable to many religious groups as it is to humanists. The faith groups in the report described having their beliefs mocked, marginalised or misunderstood by teachers, and resented Christian worship in schools. They wanted their beliefs to be recognised and given a fair hearing in RE. It all sounded horribly familiar, and reminded me of the plight of small or unorganised or scattered minorities, which will never have their own schools and yet are ignored in mainstream education.
So schools do need to become much better at respecting the requirements and rights of people from very diverse religious and non-religious backgrounds. And there are improvements they could make, many of them at very little cost and without affecting the educational entitlements of all, from action based on existing good practice in schools to more radical changes. In the BHA's recent consultation document A fresh way forward we proposed a range of "reasonable accommodations" (a term borrowed from anti-discrimination law and practice) including: making prayers and worship optional in schools and providing time and "quiet rooms" for optional worship or reflection; making a clear distinction between broad-based and impartial religious education and confessional religious instruction, and permitting the latter as an option on school premises; recognising more religious holidays (and Darwin Day); and, wherever practicable, being flexible and sensitive about food, dress, sex and relationships education and other areas where beliefs may come into conflict with normal school practice.
Some religious requirements will undoubtedly remain impossible to accommodate because that would entail serious losses to the majority: schools cannot and should not give up technology or music or dance. But many concessions are both realistic and feasible. Some just need more active encouragement or wider currency. Others depend on changes in the law or on wider societal support. Few are completely new ideas some have been humanist dreams for decades. What would be new would be wholesale adoption and implementation of a complete package of measures designed to make schools truly inclusive and multicultural; and it would be good to see our schools becoming world leaders, for once, in this.
'Accommodations' of this sort may be anathema to some hardline secularists and those rationalists who believe that eventually religion will die away, vanquished by reasonable argument and evidence, and that, in the meantime, it should be banished completely from schools on the French or Turkish secular models. But religious
people have pointed out to me many times that a completely secular school would be as discriminatory in its own way as a religious school, offending many and infringing their rights, and I have come to accept that. Think about the regular conflicts over matters of dress in Turkish or French schools it is not easy to exclude religion completely from schools and may not be possible if one is to respect the right to practise a religion. It may not even be desirable. Learning about religions and what they mean to their adherents should surely be an educational entitlement in a multicultural society. Even France, hitherto a bastion of secularism, is beginning to move towards this view, according to a recent news story in the Times Educational Supplement. There remains the objection that permitting optional religious worship and instruction on school premises may allow some obnoxious ideas (creationism, perhaps, or religious hatred) to enter schools, partly funded by the state. Perhaps this is a risk that inevitably accompanies liberal ideas, or perhaps bringing these classes into schools is preferable to their continuing outside and completely unregulated.
I think we must look realistically at the world around us, at what is possible as well as what is desirable in a multicultural society, and we must try to get wider support for our views. The BHA proposals are not just a cynical manoeuvre, a pragmatic attempt to get more people on our side, though I certainly hope that we will. Humanists can't claim to be reasonable and tolerant, as we do all the time, and then not be reasonable and tolerant. We can't claim an almost religious devotion to human rights, and then ignore the rights of people we disagree with on matters of faith. We ought to be able to co-exist with religious beliefs and practices, as long as they are not actually harmful and do not interfere with our freedoms. Philosophically as well as practically, I believe our policy is the best way to tackle what are inevitably controversial and sensitive matters. In many ways what we are proposing is common sense, a way for almost everyone, including us, to get what they want but common sense has often been a rare commodity in government and in education.