Concerns about “faith schools” raised around the country
Concerns about the separatist and divisive nature of “faith schools” are being raised around the country as the Government’s “free schools” initiative opens the doors to many more.
In Leicester, the first Hindu “faith school” is to open in September 2011 as a “free school”. The Krishna-Avanti School will provide 420 places for children aged four to eleven years old.
Pradip Gajjar, project director for the educational charity I-Foundation, and the school, said the school hoped to invest in the “spirituality, philosophy and culture” of Hinduism in Leicester, “the seat of the Hindu community here in the UK”.
The school claims that admission policy intends to bring in 50% of the students from Hindu families and 50% from a mixture of other diverse backgrounds. They have not explained, however, how they are going to find 210 families from a Christian, Muslim, Sikh or non-religious background who would want their children raised in such a religious “ethos”.
Mr Gajjar would like us to think that: “Our future generations can continue in the same pride that our parents and our grandparents brought to this country, yet remain embedded within the Hindu values”.
Meanwhile, councillors in Birmingham are raising concerns with the Government about the number of religious organisations that are applying to set up “free schools” in the city. Free schools, which are independent of the city council, can be opened by charities, universities, faith groups, teachers, businesses, parents or existing schools in the independent sector.
Up to 11 organisations in Birmingham have applied to the Department of Education to set up “free schools”, many of them with a religious character. The City Council has warned the Department for Education that this proliferation of religious schools will increase division.
Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in September that Nishkam Education Trust had been given initial approval to open a primary and a secondary school in Birmingham which will both have links with a major Sikh temple in Handsworth.
In response to questioning from Birmingham’s Hall Green MP, Roger Godsiff (Lab), Ministers revealed that another ten groups have submitted proposals and six of these are from his constituency. Mr Godsiff said: “I suspect a lot of them will be for faith schools. I am sceptical about the concept of free schools. They seem to be based on the assumption that if you get rid of the role of local education authorities, then anything that replaces them must be better.”
Councillor Lawrence said he was not aware of all the proposals, as applications were made to the Department for Education. He told the Birmingham Mail: “Some of the proposals I do know of are for religious schools which will not be inclusive and we have made our concerns clear to the department.”
Free schools are able to set their own pay and conditions for staff, set their own curriculum and change the length of terms and school days.
Secondary schools in Northern Ireland are being asked to ditch their religious labels and transform to integrated status. Just five secondary schools in the North have transformed in the last 20 years, the most recent being Parkhall College in Antrim last year.
In Northern Ireland, the only state “faith” schools are Catholic – but the majority of state schools are technically “non-denominational” and in essence Protestant. Transformation is the process by which existing schools can vote by parental ballot to join the integrated sector. They must work towards having a mix of students from both Catholic and Protestant faiths. To date, only schools in the non-Catholic state-controlled sector have transformed.
But Catholic education heads are resistant to the changes, saying the process is not viable for their own institutions and criticise it as a route for survival for controlled schools threatened with closure.
Two years ago, the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) revealed ambitious plans to “transform” 30 more schools to integrated status by 2014. Since then, however, just one secondary has changed its status.
Now the IEF is hoping to encourage schools once again to consider transformation. A new booklet, Exploring Transformation, has been sent to all post-primary schools in the North. The IEF said that the majority of schools were already involved in some cross-community activity. The booklet is designed to help schools willing to take a further step by detailing the support available, including grants of up to £30,000.
Republic of Ireland
Over the border in the Republic, the Irish Government has been warned that permitting religion — particularly Catholicism — to play such a major role in its schools may lay it open to charges of human rights abuses.
The Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) last week issued a discussion paper posing a number of questions about the prominence of religion in schools, saying that allowing pupils from minority faiths or none to opt out of religious instruction may not be enough to rectify the situation because the Catholic Church’s ethos permeates the day-to-day life of most schools, a discussion paper has said.
Ireland’s record on religion in schools will also come under scrutiny next year during a review by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
IHRC president Maurice Manning pulled no punches: “To put it somewhat baldly, the core issue to be discussed concerns whether religion has a place in the classroom and, if so, what role should it play”. He added that the Irish position faced challenges under the European Convention on Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
The discussion paper particularly focussed on the rights of children in a rural setting who have no option but to attend a religious-ethos school. At primary level, Catholic schools are required to devote two-and-a-half hours per week to religious instruction, and two hours even at secondary level.
In the multi-denominational Educate Together schools, the issue of religious instruction is regarded as a matter for parents and, where it takes place, it is done outside of school hours. Pupils may take Religious Education as a subject in Junior and Leaving Cert exams. While that involves a general study of world religions and beliefs, it does not involve an assessment of a student’s personal faith or commitment.
The IHCR paper notes that provision is made for the right of parents to withdraw their children from any instruction that conflicts with their own convictions. However, because of the way that religion might informally permeate the school day in denominational schools, this right would not necessarily insulate such pupils from receiving religious education informally, it stated.
Dr Manning said the place of religion in the classroom was an issue with which all countries were grappling, but Ireland was somewhat unique internationally because of the prominence religious orders played in Irish education. Even now, 92 per cent of primary schools in Ireland are controlled by the Catholic Church. Just over 2 percent of schools are inter-denominational or multi-denominational, and there are no non-denominational schools.
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “Much of what the IHRC says would be applicable in Britain where religion plays far too great a role in our education system. The Irish Government has been made well aware of the dangers that permitting the education system to be dominated by one version of one faith can pose. The same must be acknowledged in England and Wales.”
The paper was launched at a conference held in association with the School of Law at Trinity College Dublin, which kick-started a national consultation process.
Dr Manning confirmed that after the consultation process was complete, at the end of January, the IHRC would make recommendations to the Government on the measures required for the State to meet its human rights obligations in this area.