Monday, September 10, 2007

The unbelievable privilege of faith

reposted from: guardian

Francis Beckett

The unbelievable privilege of faith

The government seems to think funding faith schools will foster community cohesion. Nothing could be further from the truth.

September 10, 2007 5:30 PM | Printable version

Faith schools, we're told in the document released today, Faith in the System, have "a long and noble tradition", and predate state education. There's a subtext here. Churches were once the gatekeepers for education, and the state had little involvement. Having made a compact with the state in 1944, they are now trying to claw back that power - but using public money, not their own.

The Catholic Education Service is on record as believing that it has given too much power to the state. Last year, it successfully lobbied Tony Blair to spike proposals that would force its schools to take quotas of non-Catholics. And it fought a little-reported court battle in Scotland to keep the power to vet bits teachers' beliefs.

David McNab, an atheist maths teacher, was told by the headmaster that his application for a pastoral care post at St Pauls Roman Catholic High School in Glasgow had been blocked, because the job was reserved for Catholics. The employment tribunal ruled that this decision breached the European convention on human rights.

But here's the sting. McNab's victory was based on the fact that the post was not one of those the church had designated as "reserved". It can designate any post it likes as "reserved", only to be filled by candidates it has vetted and approved. The "reserved" list includes headteachers, deputy heads, religious education teachers and "principal guidance teachers", who are expected to toe the Catholic line on issues like contraception. Since Catholicism is supposed to run across the curriculum, this could cover all posts. Now the Scottish Catholic Education Service is making more reserved posts, so as to bar non-Catholics from more jobs.

If anyone doubts that churches, panicked about falling attendances, run schools in order to "get 'em young"
, they should read this month's pastoral letter from Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor. Catholic schools, he says, are "based on the truth revealed by God about ourselves, our life together in community and our ultimate destiny with God. This gives rise to an educational endeavour centred on the person of Jesus Christ, who is our Way, Truth and Life."

This summer, the Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien had the brass nerve to say that sex education in schools was akin to "state-sponsored sexual abuse" of children. And the Catholic Church knows a thing or two about sexual abuse of children; have a look at the dreadful story of Graham Wilmer.

Anil Bhanot prefers multi-faith schooling, but finds single-faith schools a necessary accommodation - even though all experience suggests that what he calls "exclusivist-indoctrination" is an irresistible impulse of faith education. This power to indoctrinate children is to be used ruthlessly. A petition to Downing Street, led by Muslims but signed by people of other faiths, says: "Evolution and other scientific theories should not be taught as fact, but instead alongside other 'faith' views of origins." Downing Street's mealy-mouthed reply is:

"Religious Education (RE) encourages respect for those holding different beliefs and helps promote pupils' moral, cultural and mental development. There is scope for pupils to discuss the origins of the Earth and living things in religious education lessons, including different traditional faith views of how the world began ... Evolution is a scientific theory. As part of the science curriculum, pupils learn about scientific theories as established bodies of scientific knowledge with extensive supporting evidence, and how evidence can form the basis for experimentation to test hypotheses."

Why could the prime minister not have told the simple truth - that we should teach evolution in the same way just as we teach that the earth is round and moves in the heavens (even though the Christian church once tortured people for saying it)?

But the strongest case against church schools is not that they are narrow and Stalinist, but that they are divisive. My daughter's excellent local comprehensive school, in a multicultural part of north London, has pupils of all religions - except one. There are no religious Jews, even though there is a strong Jewish community here. They all go to the faith school 100 yards away, to avoid being contaminated by contact with those not of the faith. There, they learn racist playground jokes about Arabs.

What about that "long and noble tradition"? It's certainly long. It predates my sixties' education at a Jesuit school, where I was required each day to learn by heart three questions and answers from the catechism (the Catholic statement of faith). Failure to get it word-perfect resulted in a beating, presumably to teach us the love of God. (More on this on my blog.)

But noble? The noble thing to do would be to stop taking public money for the purpose of indoctrinating our children.

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