For once Northern Ireland may be ahead of England over matters of faith

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.

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  • abucs

    The ideas of some in the West that ‘secular’ is neutral and all religion is the same (equal) and doesn’t matter much except that it is negative to society is an idea that will not last.

    The more such a partisan view is imposed the more resistance it will create. We’ve been here many times before.

  • dodrade

    Isn’t “ethos” just the acceptable term for ideology, “faith schools” the polite word for sectarian schools?

    Is the answer to 2+2 different in a muslim school than a catholic or secular one?

    How can Gove get on his high horse when we have dozens (probably hundreds) of single sex, single denomination state funded schools across the country?

  • aquifer

    The USA decided early to separate church and state, and ban state funding of religious schools.

    Keeps things simple.

  • Newman

    Aquifer..The USA also has a burgeoning home school movement and significant private school system. State schools are not the answer for millions. The point being that you cannot enforce a secular system nor is it a panacea as displayed so graphically in the US.

  • abucs


    3% of people are so against the public school system in the US that they educate their kids themselves.

    A further 9% send their kids to private schools.

    Of course this builds resentment as the parents have to pay for public schools also. The issue of the fairness in peoples taxes being spent on the schools they choose instead of a forced partisan state system is regularly raised.

    Another school system in the US is the chartered school system. It has been created because of dissatisfaction with government run schools. In the news recently it was reported that Louisiana closed all public schools and moved to a chartered school system.

    There is also the voucher system which operates in some US states.

    This has been created because of the failure of public education to properly educate some children. Families are given money to educate their own children at the school of their choice. Local governments have found this is the most cost effective way to educate some students.

    Amazingly this has been challenged legally in some states because people are choosing a religious education as the best form of education and some other people just don’t like taxes going to such schools. It is really hard to argue that such a system is “Congress propagating a religion” and the naked sectarian anti-Christian ideology is in full view. From memory the court decisions have been mixed.

    Of course the balance use the default government system. It is not so simple.

    What is clear is that the education sector is highly ideological and governments are not good at running some things. Large numbers of people vote with their feet even though it means they have to pay twice, .Governments often waste lots of money and get poor results. On balance other forms of education are cheaper and produce better outcomes.

    Most western school systems were based on Christian school systems that were put under government control and later (mistakenly) made secular. The level of results in western school systems have been gradually falling compared to the rest of the world. There is a move in some western countries to try and reverse government control of education because it is such a public cost and produces falling standards.

    In Australia for example the country now funds both public and private schools (mostly Christian) and the choice of parents has meant a growing private system (about a third of all students). While some don’t like the results of a level playing field the bottom line is that it is cheaper and better. It costs the /Australian government significantly less to educate students in the Catholic system. From memory it is a cost saving of about $3000 per student per year which is a large amount when multiplied by the number of students (about 25% of students are in Catholic schools).

    In the end economics trumps ideology and there has been a move back to the original non government sector of education.

  • mr x

    Be interesting to have some blogs from Irish people in Birmingham on this. As I recall most were grateful to have left the poverty and bigotry of Eire.

  • mr x

    Just as a matter of interest is it the religious schools or the third level colleges that are educating the IT professionals in Ireland these days?

  • Delphin

    One of the reasons for separating church and state, especially in primary education is to build a cohesive society. Not so important in mono-cultural countries, but vital in a functioning multicultural one. In a free society it is not possible to impose secular primary education against the parents wishes, but I fear the price paid for this will be an exacerbation of division and distrust.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh Delphin, this is the old Multicultural/Polycultural debate. The usual lazy choice of homogenising modern states is for multiculturalism, which tries to bind together all the different strands of religious thought with a rope made up of secularism. But unless there is a real “polycultural” blending of ideas and cultural concepts through a tolerant mutual underestanding of one another’s beliefs then even the most secular guidance will still simply end up with an “exacerbation of division and distrust.”

  • Delphin

    Seaan, I don’t know how you nurture tolerance and respect for other creeds and cultures, I suspect it comes from the home. But in a society with more than one culture, separation of church and state and secular primary education can create a neutral space for tolerance and respect to develop.
    I am not against religion, and only a fool would say it cannot have a positive affect on people’s lives.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi Delphin, some parts of the U.S.(west coast is what I know best) do polyculturalism well. It comes from having a mature and easy going mix of races and religions. But I’m only too aware of the other versions of the U.S.

    I was reacting to the term multicultural, which argues politically against any kind of blending. And I’m all for a rich multiplicity of beliefs to keep me on my toes.