From Monday, faith schools in England will be able to adopt religious belief as a criterion for appointing teachers. The move crystallises exactly two urgent and increasingly controversial debates in England. One, is multiculturalism or integration the goal for society? Two, will a new range of Blairite specialist schools including faith schools produce selection by the back door, or will they genuinely improve standards and widen choice? New freedoms for specialist schools reverses a trend set by Brown who had eased back on Blair’s rush towards a mixed economy for schools. Only recently, Schools Secretary Ed Balls named and shamed faith schools for practicing undercover selection by pressurising parent applicants to make donations – a charge they denied, by the way. Now, as the government thrashes around for popular policies, it’s all smiles for faith schools and a return to the Blairite approach.Also on Monday, a new pro-secular coalition called Accord comprising humanists, academics but also some Christians, will launch a campaign against faith schools on the grounds that they widen class and economic division. Interestingly, a Christian think tank Ekklesia is on the secular side on this, stating that faith schools are 90% or even 100% funded by the tax payer and yet they only cater for or prioritise 5% of the population. Faith groups hotly deny that their schools increase divisions of course. Accord is backed by the great secularist celebs, like AC Grayling and Philip Pullman and for the archpriest himself there are no doubts.
Its easy to make this an abstract issue of principle but it’s more complicated on the ground. In Ealing where I live, a very mixed ethnic and social area of west London, the Christian schools are very popular and have an ethnically mixed intake. Southall which is part of Ealing borough is overwhelmingly Asian and the number of faith schools there is increasing in response to widespread consultation and local polling. A new Sikh school there will reserve 20% of places for non-Sikhs, with priority given to looked after children, i.e. its really for the convenience of Sikh nannies. In January 2004 there were almost 7000 state-maintained faith schools in England, making up 36 per cent of primary and 17 per cent of secondary schools. The numbers are growing. While religion has political resonances absent in England, the English trend can only hold back the cause of education together in Northern Ireland.