Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Nick Clegg on faith schools: an uncomfortable grey area for liberals

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!

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice


Anonymous said...

Or ... we should introduce a voucher system, and then the state won't have to give a damn anyhow!

Jonny Wright said...

Nice try, but with a voucher system, the state would still be paying for it. You'd just be handing over the managerial responsibility to an independently-run school.

Linda Jack said...

An interesting and important debate. This is one of the few areas in which I struggle with the arguments. You are so right to say that there is no such thing as a truly neutral upbringing. As an ex RE teacher one of my objectives was to encourage my pupils to question. Frankly if someone's faith is worth anything it is surely up to challenge. Fine to say, for example, as Anglicans we believe y, not quite so fine to teach in a way that leaves no room for manoeuvre or choice. And I say that as a Christian, my faith is meaningless if it is imposed, or it is offered in a vacuum. So, on faith schools, we need to have the debate in a context that recognises the current inequity, but does so against a backdrop that acknowledges the impact of segregation in, for example, Northern Ireland.

Barry Stocker said...

I'm a non-believer and I'm against faith schools on principle, but there is sometimes a difference between having a principle and believing that it should be implemented in full immediately. Some principles should but not all. Liberalism can be radical but it is not a burn it down and start all over again doctrine. Faith schools clearly provide a decent standard of education and are popular with parents. Choice in public services is good and faith schools help broaden the choice. Though I consider myself a militant secularist, faith schools are something I can live with in the forseeable future if they do not impose an extreme form of whatever religion it is and provide an education appropriate to an open society with many traditions of belief and non-belief. Our political ancestors the Whigs approached the power of the Tory linked Church of England with a pragmatic policy of restraining church power, de facto toleration of those outside the CofE, and fostering 'latitudinarianism' (inclusion and tolerance)inside the CofE. We can approach faith schools in a similar spirit, and wait to see how relevant they may look in future, less and less is my guess, particularly if general state education is improved. I must ask those who demand only secular schools immediately how they will explain this to parents with kids at such schools and what benefit would be gained by us and by school children that would compensate for the resistance this policy would encounter, doubtless giving the really extreme religious a chance to mobilise. Let us concentrate on marginalising those people for the moment.

Jennie said...

I don't want ONLY secular schools, but the opportunity to use ONE would be nice. There are NO secular schools available in my area; I would suspect that many parents of primary school age children are in the same boat.

Anonymous said...

This is a very difficult issue, as is clear from your thoughtful post and the constructive comments to date. It is clearly also a very sensitive one for many people and it is no surprise to find politicians settling for bland policies, placing pragmatism above raw principle. LibDems will no doubt be looking for breathtaking radical ideas from Clegg in general but he's not stupid, and getting it wrong on faith schools could be a damaging vote-loser.

As for what would make for sensible policy in the long run, I don't think you can get an answer just addressing faith schools in isolation. It's part of a wider policy area - multiculturalism. Britain has gone down the path of a multicultural society whereas other European countries (think of France) are more integrationist. Each political party in Britain needs to work out its own policy on the appropriate co-existence of faiths and cultures; ie in which spheres is segregation appropriate or desirable, in which spheres is integration appropriate or desirable? You need a comprehensive, over-arching, self-consistent policy at that level before you can begin to address subsidiary questions such as the place of faith schools in the community.

Anonymous said...

In my post which you referenced, i talked specifically about inculcating children with religious or political beliefs at school. You're perfectly right to attack the idea of the suppression of all influences including those present in the home; it's the kind of weird conclusion one arrives at if one follows the determinism-reliant arguments of Richard Dawkins where he says religion is child abuse.

It is an entirely different matter in schools. As an area for which the state is responsible, it should teach skepticism, intellectual curiosity and appetite, and an interest in debating issues of controversy. One of the problems with indoctrination is the stifling attitude it has on the critical faculties of the indoctrinated.

If by 'indoctrination' is meant (as my dictionary tells me it is) the teaching of a person or group to accept a belief or set of beliefs uncritically, then when the Bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O'Donoghue, calls for books criticising Catholicism to be removed from school libraries, that seems exactly what is being encouraged.

He goes further, saying that "under no circumstances should any outside authority or agency that is not fully qualified to speak on behalf of the Catholic church ever be allowed to speak to pupils or individuals on sexual or any other matter involving faith and morals"


Paul Walter said...

The nub of this debate is "what kind of faith schools are we talking about?"

If we are talking about the CofE model as clarified by the Lord Deering commission, that is where there is an absence of segregation and a policy against any "bussing in". That is, they take from the local community. So, you end up with CofE schools in the north of England which have 90% Muslim pupils. The model and the practice is not flawless but I agree with that sort of model where there is no segregation and "bussing in" from other areas to fill a school up with pupils from one religion.

If we are talking about the opposite - i.e schools which only practically take pupils from one denomination or religion - then I am dead against that sort of model.

And Linda is right to highlight the example of Northern ireland.

I support, incidentally, Evan Harris proposed bill of a few years ago which proposed an end to inequalities in the faith school system and I note that it was supported by David Trimble when he was still an MP.

Steven Allan said...

I fail to see why this is such a difficult subject for any party.

Surely a decent country provides schools for children to learn facts.

An immoral country provides for children to be brainwashed with what someone wants them to believe and allows for the hatreds of the parents to be passed down through the generations.

And never the twain shall meet !

Nick Clegg's remarks are obscure and I fail to see how they are liberal. He seems to be saying something to the effect that segregating the children will teach them the benefit of a diverse society ( which isn't a society; it's segregation ).

I totally disagree with him. As one who believes in God, I also believe that
school can be used as a mechanism to allow for people to undertsand and accept each other. Dividing them up will, I believe, achieve the opposite.

I am surprised at him giving his own views on such an important issue without first allowing for a full debate within the party. I'm trying to make up my mind whether he's another dictatorial leader like T. Blair or whether he's just shown us some of his lack of experience.

I am interested that on your LibDem blog, I, as a Conservative, would appear to be more or less in line with yourself, Jonny, and most of those who have made comments than with the LibDem leader. I wonder if you've just chosen the wrong one, like the other 2 big parties have ( Con should be David Davis, Lab should be David Milliband and LibDem should be Vince Cable ).

Joe Otten said...

I intend to post fully on this on my own blog in due course. However I'd like to take partial issue with your "neutral upbringing" point.

I suggest that children should understand - as I hope mine do - a range of religious and philosophical/ethical viewpoints and adopt a similar critical and questioning attitude to them all. This is, in a sense, neutrality between those points of view.

It isn't neutrality on the question of whether one should strive to be a good person, or on the question of whether one should think for oneself, or simply obey the nearest authority. I make no apologies for this particular lack of neutrality.

Some, but not all, religious approaches do indeed object to children thinking for themselves, as indeed do godless authoritarians.

I see the challenge not as faith schools vs other schools - all schools have a faith duty after all, but rather the challenge of promoting a critical and questioning approach to ethical questions rather than an authoritarian one or avoiding the subject altogether.

Anonymous said...

School is not the place for religion ; home and the church,(mosque,temple,-whatever)is.Social training(eg don't kick the living daylights out of another pupil in the Wendy House!)pick up your litter,be kind/tolerant to each other,keep the law of the land,etc. etc is the rule.Retired(and tired!) teacher.

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