Friday, April 24, 2009

Spring Report 2009: A report by our Chair on Accord’s progress since its launch

source: Alex Kennedy, Accord highlights comments
Please find below a report on what we have been doing at Accord since our launch last autumn.

Best wishes

Alex Kennedy
Coalition Coordinator
Spring Report 2009: A report by our Chair on Accord’s progress since its launch

Accord was born on 1st September 2008
Personally I had been concerned about faith schools for several years, but I always felt I was a lone voice - certainly within the religious world. While I was able to raise the issue every now and then, there was no structure through which to link up with others or to urge a change of policy.
It was that sense of frustration that led to Accord, which aims to unite all those with issues about faith schools - be it their very existence or the way they operate.
Accord can claim to be doubly unique:
First, it goes beyond the stale arguments by those ideologically pre-disposed for or against faith schools. Instead, it is much more nuanced. It asks: what is the best interest of the children and society at large? It believes the answer is schools that are inclusive, tolerant and transparent.
Second, it is a broad coalition of both those who are religious and secular: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, humanists, atheists; all of whom desire an educational system that is based on social cohesion - and not just as a slogan but in reality.
The actual birth of Accord was traumatic. Before the day was out, representatives of the religious groups which have faith schools had jointly produced a three-page press release which not only condemned us, but which deliberately tried to stereotype us as yet another secular conspiracy frothing at the mouth and trying to destroy all that was good in education.
There was also an avalanche of criticism in various religious papers, which served to give us a lot of prominence but which was also painful for Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus who value their faith without wanting faith schools.
Still, we did not turn the other cheek but have been forthright since then in putting our view forward, through radio and television interviews, as well as articles in various papers and on websites. And as well as criticism we received strong support from sources as diverse as the Economist and the Church of England Newspaper editorial.
We also kept in the headlines a fortnight later when Accord’s views were widely sought by the media on the opening of the first Hindu school in Britain.
Our response was simple: by dividing Hindu children from those of other faiths, there was now an enormous responsibility upon the school to work very hard to overcome the social barriers this could cause.
This in turn begs specific questions that apply to all faith schools, and which form the four key concerns of Accord (which will be particularly relevant to the forthcoming Equalities Bill):
  1. Admissions: should state funded schools operate admissions policies that take account of pupil’s religious belief, and which discriminate against those who come from what is deemed “the wrong faith” or no faith at all? This is the litmus test as to whether those schools are serving the local community or serving themselves.
  1. Employment: should state funded schools operate recruitment and employment policies that discriminate on grounds of religion. I can at least understand the argument that an RE teacher should be of a particular faith, but what about the Maths teacher, French assistant, kitchen staff or caretaker?
  1. Syllabus : as there is no National Curriculum for RE (why not ?) and as faith schools can opt out of the locally agreed SACRE syllabus (how come ?), how can we ensure they follow an objective, fair and balanced syllabus for education about religious and non-religious beliefs?
  1. Accountability: is it wise to have a system of inspection whereby special arrangements are made for faith schools that other schools do not have, which permits exemptions from the normal OFSTED regulation. Why should this be the case and why are faith schools not monitored like every other school?
Once the initial glare of publicity was over, the hard work began of campaigning for these reforms, targeting those most able to deliver. So Accord has met with government via the Department for Children, Schools & Families; with the Liberal Shadow Minister for Education and the Conservative Shadow Minister too, as well as other MPs and members of the Lords.
We have tried to expand the coalition with like-minded groups, both those in the educational world (from teachers union to educational think-tanks) and those from the religious communities (such as Christian clergy, the Chair of the Muslim Forum and the Hindu Academy).
We have also sought advice of, and made connections with, bodies that work in other spheres but who sometimes cross-over into the area of faith schools - such as the Runnymede Trust.
It is hard work, but we have found that there are many who profoundly agree with our position and are glad that such a forum exists.
There is definitely a new mood in the air: the rapid expansion of faith schools in the last two decades (without nearly enough public attention) is now being challenged by people who are uncomfortable at what has happened; people who feel that it is important that children from different backgrounds do not grow up as strangers, or even hostile to each other, but as fellow citizens
What is more, independent evidence has recently emerged that admissions procedures are being abused and some state-funded faith schools are acting unethically: either by covertly charging parents or by selection procedures that discriminate against children from less academic backgrounds.
Moreover, the case for examining faith schools has recently received a boost from a report issued by a report entitled ‘Right to Divide’, published by the highly-respected Runnymede Trust. It endorses faith schools, but suggests ways of improving them, many of which answer the key questions of Accord listed above.

There have also been two major pieces of research by academics at the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education showing that religious admissions cause social segregation and don’t improve results over all.
And most recently we have seen the fruits of our hard work with the announcement of a new Lib Dem policy on faith schools. At the party’s Spring Conference in Harrogate on 7th March they announced that they will oppose the creation of new faith schools that discriminate in admissions and would require existing faith schools to prove that they are inclusive or loose state funding.

The policy also commits them to fighting for RE lessons that teach “about beliefs, not what to believe”, for the ability of children to withdraw themselves from collective worship on grounds of conscience and for the right of teaching and support staff to be appointed and promoted without regard to their personal beliefs.
It is another step towards our ultimate goal of changing legislation. Relying on the goodwill of governors or the common-sense of head-teachers is not enough. It is only by initiating legislation about admissions, employment and accountability that the goal of inclusive schools will be achieved.
So, to sum up the position so far: Accord is just over six months old, but we feel that we have started to make our mark....and we have created a vehicle that not only gives voice to concerns about faith schools but is in a position to press for change.
With the Equality Bill due to be published next week we know that the next few weeks and months will be busy. We will be in touch very soon to let you know how you can help, so please keep a look out for future emails
Wish best wishes,
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE
Chair, Accord

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