The Runnymede Trust report on faith schools, Right to Divide?, is a useful contribution to the debate but it is by no means conclusive. The authors note that discussions "on the role of faith schools and their effect on community cohesion often create more heat than light". The report is therefore welcome not least because of the consultations involved. However, the links between the anecdotal evidence it summarises and its recommendations are not strong enough.Stephen Beer: It's a good start – but the Runnymede Trust needs more evidence to backup its prescription for faith schools | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
There has been relatively little rigorous work done on the impact made by faith schools, whether on educational attainment or community cohesion, however defined. That is the first problem with this report, since it is not clear how accurate any generalisations can be.
The state has to be neutral in matters of belief, while not denying our Christian heritage or the identification by most people with Christianity (a fact acknowledged by the report). It needs to chair the public discourse in a fair manner. Yet people, including young people, do not start from a seat on the fence. Even if agnostic, in practice we will live according to one worldview or another. One purpose of education is to help us understand our own worldview, and to compare it rationally with others.
Right to Divide? worries that faith schools may be too authoritarian, though it gives little supporting evidence. Yet it argues for schools that support liberal democracy and celebrate diversity. The report is right to insist that principles of equal worth must be upheld by all schools. There is no place for discrimination. That is a deal the state makes with faith schools, as part of a "licence to operate" and it must be adhered to. I agree wholeheartedly while noting the report's authoritarian position on this point. Indeed, most faith schools can give clear reasons why we should uphold such moral values, which a "worldview-neutral" school will find hard to do.
Most other schools in practice probably avoid serious engagement with faith, as suggested by the report. Better Religious Education lessons might help, but are not sufficient. In a liberal, secular (but not anti-faith), democracy, an ideal model would be a school which is neutral regarding worldviews, supportive and protective of young people with different outlooks, and which equips them with tools to analyse ideas and faiths around them.
We should ask therefore why some parents feel that their children's faith will be undermined by non-religious schools, before they have acquired the skills to critique their own beliefs and those of others. It is probably because they do not believe other state schools are anywhere near that ideal. In a democracy, we must take these concerns seriously.
Most faith schools are Church of England or Roman Catholic. Apart from Northern Ireland schools, in general it is hard to suggest that over the decades these schools have acted against social cohesion. They may appear anomalous but that does not mean that they or new schools should be forced to end selection on the basis of faith and certainly not without firm evidence that the change would be of benefit. Faith schools may even promote inter-generational bonds. They may also foster social cohesion because people of faith often better understand people of other faiths, even where there are fundamental differences.
The report would have benefited from more analysis of the differences between schools which select according to faith and those which have open selection but are run according to a faith ethos. The latter, in the form of some of the new academies, offer an interesting model. It may be that over time they will provide useful examples of how to engage students of all worldviews, from the starting point of one worldview. They focus on disadvantaged areas, in line with a recommendation of the report.
At worst, in this democracy, faith schools are symptoms of the failure of the state-school system to appreciate the role faith perspectives have in society. That is where we should focus our efforts.