It’s often said of the Liberal Democrats that we vote as one on issues of party politics, but are regularly split down the middle on moral issues. The argument about faith schools, currently making waves amongst Lib Dem bloggers, is a case in point. It was kicked off by Nick Clegg, who recently gave an interview to a Jewish newspaper. The atheist Lib Dem leader lent his support to Britain’s faith schools:
If we are to create a society in which everyone has a fair chance in life, we need to focus on education, above all. Faith schools have an important role to play in that, and I am keen that they become engines of integration, not of segregation. I would like to see faith schools working together, so you get a network of different schools and faiths. That way children will grow up in an environment where they are aware of the plurality of faiths and views around them.
The response from the bloggers has been varied. Charlotte Gore calls for an end to faith schools, claiming that a religious education can have a disproportionate effect on kids’ futures. Leo Watkins can’t see any difference between teaching a child Christianity, and indoctrinating them with Marxism. Peter Bancroft is happy to trust parents to make their own decision, and points out that you can’t reasonably force a child to believe something once they get to a certain age. And according to Alix Mortimer, the debate shows how “people can reach wildly different conclusions on allegedly the same principles. And will probably continue to do so long into the night.”
The fundamental problem is that the liberal ideas we usually rely on in these situations are all geared towards mature adults. If people are grown up enough to be legally responsible for themselves, they can make whatever lifestyle choices they like. With young children, that all breaks down, because kids take on trust the things adults tell them. As Dawkins points out in The God Delusion, it’s an important survival mechanism which has been drummed into our offspring by many thousands of years of natural selection. The kids who listened to their parents when they said “Don’t stroke the sabre-toothed tiger!” were more likely to survive than the kids who decided to try it out and see for themselves.
Being trusting and dependent, kids have to rely on their guardians to make decisions for them – but they’re also vulnerable to being influenced by ideas which their adult selves may later regret. Which freedom do we go with? The parents’ freedom to make their own decisions about what’s in a kid’s best interest? Or a kid’s freedom to have a neutral upbringing, so that they can make more permanent choices later on in life?
Realistically, it’s impossible for a kid to have an entirely neutral upbringing – and I’m not convinced that it would do any good, either. Far from creating thinking, questioning and well-balanced individuals, it would breed a generation of young people who were unable to hold opinions of their own, because their growing brains had never had any intellectual meat to chew on. More to the point, any attempt to shield children from political or religious influence would involve a horrendous and unworkable intrusion into the private lives of their families.
A sensible modus operandi for liberals, then, would be to trust parents to decide what sort of upbringing is best for their children, even if it is a religious one – and only step in if that upbringing becomes so extremist as to count as psychological abuse.
But faith schools still give us a serious institutional issue to deal with. We may be happy to let parents bring their kids up in a certain religion at home, but is it acceptable for them to do it at a public institution, funded by the state? This is where Clegg gets onto more shaky ground. The use of taxpayers’ money to fund and promote religion crosses a line, and goes far further than simply tolerating parents teaching religious views to their children in private.
Added to that is the thorny issue of school admissions. I fail to understand how we can live in a country where selecting children on the basis of their academic needs is completely taboo, treated as a divisive and prejudiced exercise in social engineering, but where selecting them on the basis of their parents’ preferred brand of mythology is perfectly acceptable and actually rather popular!
I think it’s perfectly liberal to say that a religious upbringing should come from the family rather than the taxpayer, that all state-funded schools should be prepared to accept all pupils in the catchment area, and that a culturally mixed peer group is a better environment for children to grow up in – the sort of environment government should actively promote.
For that reason, I’m coming out against faith schools, but I’d also like to disagree with some of the more strident flavours of anti-religious rhetoric that we’ve seen during the debate – to take a dual line of respecting people’s right to a religious private life if they want one, but asking them to forgo state funding and state support.
Whilst I'm at it - happy new year to everyone!