The affair of the Trojan letter shows secular England struggling to deal with a community whose daily lives are increasingly governed by religion. What Ofsted has exposed as a plot to subvert British values is to its protagonists no more than promoting the good life for the benefit of the overwhelming Moslem majority who attend the four schools in question. And by the way, they furiously deny supporting jihad.
Politicians broke away from the anchors of religion long ago. Clearly they are navigating blind as they search for new reference points. The problem is how to accommodate faith in schools- state schools or faith schools, the difference is no matter.
In England, primary education for all began as a great church initiative. The legacy of church control of some schools they’d founded remained when the state took over the leading role. Today non-believers resent the fact that the churches can still impose the entry requirement of belief or at least nominal church attendance to schools which are entirely state funded.
But what was retained by Christian churches and the Jewish faith could not be denied to Moslems.. The distinction between state and faith schools began to blur as some communities became increasingly segregated. Although faith supporters of all religions resist the idea there is a link between a faith that demands close personal obedience and the fanaticism that promotes violence. Thankfully that phase of Christianity is long over.
Independent schools championed by Michael Gove are encouraged to develop their own distinct ethos to stand out from the bog standard of state schools run by local authorities. Who decides whether that ethos is acceptable or not? . The BBC’s Mark Easton points out the dilemma Michael Gove had made for himself.
Mr Gove has spoken of his enthusiasm for schools to be liberated from the “moral and cultural relativism” imposed by some local authority educationalists. The education secretary has explained how the freedoms that come with academy status would mean a religious school “can place itself permanently out of range of any such unsympathetic meddling” and be true to its religious traditions.
There is, though, clearly a limit on how far free-thinking can go. “It’s a free country and we’re not going to attempt to police what people believe,” Mr Gove has said. “But we are determined to ensure that those who receive public funding – and especially those who are shaping young minds – do not peddle an extremist agenda.”
So, when does a religious tradition become an extremist agenda? For example, would a Christian school that tells its pupils that homosexuality is sinful, be traditional or extreme? What about the free school in Lancashire that includes daily mandatory transcendental meditation – is that extreme?
What there may well have been is an attempt by some conservative Muslims to encourage an ethos within Birmingham schools that is true to their religious tradition. But is that very different from Michael Gove’s encouragement of parents in Catholic academies to be true to their religious tradition?
If, like 629 other state-funded English secondaries, Park View had been allowed to become a faith school, then one presumes the Islamic ethos would no longer be regarded as a threat to the welfare of the pupils. Conservative Muslims would be no different from conservative Catholics looking to escape from moral and cultural relativism.
But the problem remains. A faith ethos for schools is at odds with the dominant policy of integration now deemed imperative to preserve a cohesive society. An ethos which regulates behaviour such as the role of women is at odds with contemporary ideas of equality and human rights which are an entirely different mode of thought from the “moral relativism “ which conservative thinkers like Michael Gove share with conservative peace-loving Moslems. And is not a faith ethos a human right itself? Gove’s mistake was to analyse the issue politically in order to discover points of contact between British values and Islam in Britain. He ignored the unique factor of where the religion itself was heading without his permission. This may explain his earlier hesitations over what to do. After recognising the problem, careful handling will be needed to forestall a persecution complex and the militancy that could accompany it.
For once, Northern Ireland seems to be working its own way through its much longer standing faith problems. Our purely religious differences have been easing for years although social divisions are as wide as ever. Integration may be some way off but more sharing is a positive initiative.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London