Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Should We Have Any Faith in the System? The Case for Having More and Less

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Should We Have Any Faith in the System? The Case for Having More and Less

No society can flourish in the absence of its enjoying a considerable degree of cohesion among its members.

In determining how much cohesion a society enjoys, few factors play a more decisive role than do the policies it adopts towards two decisive matters. These are immigration and education.

In the case of both, we may lay down two very general principles of great relevance to how much each may be said in any given instance to promote or undermine social cohesion.

Principle One: Ceteris paribus, the more ethnically and religiously diverse a society becomes, the less cohesive it will be.

Principle Two: Ceteris paribus, the more deeply rooted the members of a society are in its traditions and culture, the more cohesive it will be.

There can be little doubt that post-war immigration policy in the UK has put a great strain on social cohesion on both counts. It has encouraged the admission of large numbers of immigrants whose native traditions have been markedly dissimilar from those of the indigenous population.

Quite apart from this large wave of immigration, the UK has placed a great strain on its social cohesion since the war, and especially since the sixties, through having adopted a whole range of social, economic, and educational policies and measures that have steadily attenuated the hold which the country’s native traditions and culture have upon its members.

In no area has this trend been more conspicuous or pronounced than in the realm of religious observance. And, in this process of progressive deracination, the role that state schooling has played has been decisive.

Even had there been little or no post war immigration to Britain, the country today would have still have enjoyed far less social cohesion than it did in 1945 or 1950 had the same progressive abandonment of tradition occurred, particularly in the realm of religious education.

What motivated the retreat from religion in schools in the early decades after the war had little to do with accommodating the increasing diversity within classrooms. It had much more to do with the progressive culture of the swinging sixties. This combined great faith in the ability of the human intellect to order society so as to optimise social and economic well-being, with contempt for all traditions and customs that could not justified before the bar of an equally rationalistically-minded outlook. This outlooked viewed with contempt or in bemusement on all that could not be scientifically demonstrated or verified. (Think: logical positivism, scientific socialism, and all the other assorted forms of rationalism in politics and culture).

The combination of mass immigration by those of very different outlook and tradition from those of the indigenous population, plus the post-war deracination encouraged by its rationalism in politics and culture, has proved a particularly destructive force so far as social cohesion is concerned. It would be a vast exaggeration to say that, as a society, Britain has ceased to exist. Yet, it undoubtedly remains true that today its members share far less in common with each other and with earlier generations of members than they did before the war and in the early decades after it.

Anyway, to cut a long story short and come to the point, yesterday saw the publication of a paper by the newly named Department for Children, Schools and Families. (Notice, incidentally, how any reference to ‘education’ has vanished from the title of this department of state. Schools have now assumed in its eyes a far more important and pressing role, as being a panacea for all social ills.) The full title of this paper is Faith in the system: the place of schools with a religious character in English education.

Basically, what this paper amounts to is a volte face by the present government in terms of its attitude towards faith schools. Whereas until recently they were seen by it as potential sources of social disunity, it now wants to claim that, especially when brought under state regulation, they can and will be sources of greater social cohesion.

Whether that is so remains to be seen. Personally, having read the document, I remain profoundly worried on two counts.

First, the paper chooses to call faith schools ‘schools with a religious character’ and contrasts them with non-denominational schools which it calls ‘schools without a religious character’.
It does so despite its stating that, according to current law, irrespective of whether they are faith schools or not, ‘all maintained schools and Academies, whether or not they have a religious character, are supposed to have daily acts of collective worship and teach religious education as part of their curriculum’.

How schools are expected to provide for their pupils a daily act of collective worship in the absence of having any religious character is something the paper leaves totally unclear. It is a testament to the poverty of thinking that has beset post-war educational policy as successive governments, especially Labour ones, have moved further and further away from the manifest intentions of those who drafted and passed the 1944 Education Act which laid the requirement down.

Actually, despite the law, state schools which are not faith schools routinely get round the law by claiming not to have the requisite facilities for a daily act of collective worship or else, where they go in for such assemblies, by making them so anoydne as for them to cease to involve worship in any meaningful sense. That allows the form of religious education that they are also obliged to provide to turn into comparative religion, learning about religion rather than children being initiated into any form of religious belief without which worship is impossible.

The point is that, given the unwillingness of the present government to face up to the fact that you cannot have worship without religion, nor religion without some form of religious belief, you can be sure that a great opportunity for the promotion of social cohesion will continue to be lost.

My second misgiving about the paper relates specifically to what it says about Muslim schools. These faith schools are ones of which the paper goes to great pains to point out there is a massive shortage within the maintained sector, relative to that proportion of the overall number of school-age children which Muslim children make up.

The paper argues, on grounds of fairness as well as by appeal to considerations of alleged greater social cohesion, for a considerable expansion of their number. Left in the independent sector, it argues, Muslim schools would not be obliged to follow the national curriculum and thereby have to concern themselves with citizenship and social cohesion, as maintained schools all now are. Hence, it claims, social cohesion will be helped by expanding their number, rather than allow their number to grow outside the maintained sector.

My worry with this second aspect of the report is that the Muslim organisation named as co-author of it, along with government and organisations representing other faith groups, is the Association of Muslim Schools. This organisation was set up and originally chaired by Ibrahim Hewitt who remains its development officer.

Ibrahim Hewitt is head of a Muslim primary school in Leicester, but also is chair of the trustees of Interpal, a Muslim organisation that provides aid to Palestinians and which is currently investigation by the Charities Commission following allegations that it has helped extremist groups in Palestine that support and engage in acts of terror. See the entry on Interpal in the Centre for Social Cohesion's 'A to Z of Muslim Organisations.

Mr Hewitt is also a member of one of the committees of the Muslim Council of Britain, and like its spokemen, has expressed opposition to Holocaust Memorial Day, as somehow privileging Jews.

I just wonder whether, if there is a massive expansion of the number of Muslim faith schools, particularly in the present climate, it might not just be a matter of time before the call goes out for special branches of Ofsted catering exclusively for specific different faiths. Then, the idea that the state would have greater control over what goes on in such schools than were they independent would be undermined.

By having funded such schools, instead of greater social cohesion, all we would have is yet more ‘hate on the state’.

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