Anxieties about British Faith Schools

August 22, 2016

Can faith schools teach ‘secular’ values? Are ‘British values’ all that British? Public debate about faith schools in the UK stirs up questions about national identity.



Schools as proxy

Western liberal democracies generally conceive of themselves as tolerant, pluralistic sites of multiculturalism that encourage individual autonomy. Religious communities are, at times, understood as intruding on or violating these values, sparking debates about how involved religious traditions should be in public spaces. This blog text will consider the UK example of schools with a religious character – commonly known as “faith schools” – but the topic is of relevance to many other contexts; we see conflicts about religious attire in France, religious celebrations in the US, and religious education in Sweden, among others.

These concerns about the role of religion in the public sphere of Western liberal democracies are bound up in questions of national identity. These nations are typically sites of a historical-but-fading Christian tradition, with an increasing population professing atheism or agnosticism, or at least not engaging in institutionalized religious practices. They also tend to have an increasing number of new religious movements and other world religions. This combination of factors leads to a lot of debate about the transmission of values and which values should even be.

Schools are a useful proxy for wider debates about society as a whole because people get particularly anxious about shared cultural values when children are involved. Young people are in school for a significant percentage of their daily lives, and schools are sites of cultural transmission, responsible for transmitting values and worldviews to their students. As a result, many parents are concerned about what their children learn at school, and want to ensure that the “correct” values and worldviews are being transmitted to their offspring. Many citizens are uneasy about ceding responsibility for moral formation – once the province of religion – to the State, but they are equally uneasy about leaving it in the hands of religious traditions that they perceive as illiberal to varying degrees.

Contesting the Britishness of ‘British Values’

In 2014, then-Minister for Education Michael Gove stated, in response to a controversy in the education system, that British schools must “actively promote British values.” He listed these values as “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” This statement got a lot of coverage in mainstream UK media. In fact, the idea that schools must promote British values has gained traction and has been further codified into education policy and legislation.

Unsurprisingly, the British public was far from unanimous on the subject of British values. Aside from an enormous amount of mockery on Twitter suggesting that British values centred around drinking tea and polite queuing more than liberalism Some people argued that they did not see Britain practicing these values at all, while others contended that claiming them as specifically British was arrogant, as they are, in fact, universal.

In spite of the derision with which the British public responded on Twitter and in op-eds, a survey of media headlines, academic debates, and education policy and legislation suggests that values approximating the ones Gove listed are, if not inherently British, at least the sites of the most contention and anxiety in debates about the role of religion in the education system. Community cohesion, pluralism, tolerance, multiculturalism, and individual autonomy arise regularly as the subjects of media debate about faith schools, RE, and any other topic related to religion in education. These values are tacitly recognized as important and positive, so people on opposing sides of the debate fight to claim them. There is no question as to whether or not tolerance is a good thing; instead, the argument becomes about which activity can be more accurately described as tolerant.

Do Faith Schools Unite or Divide?

Opponents of faith schools claim that they are intolerant and divisive, that they segregate children by religious tradition, lead to isolationism, and disrupt community cohesion. They argue that these schools indoctrinate children, denying them their autonomy by forcing one particular worldview upon them.  In addition, they are sceptical of faith schools’ ability to promote pluralism without compromising the tenets of their faith; if, for example, a school is trying to transmit a Catholic ethos, how can it tell students that all religions and worldviews are equally valid?

Faith schools’ supporters see these values from a different perspective. To them, the existence of faith schools is multiculturalism in action – they see this as the education system allowing a multitude of cultures and worldviews. Faith schools also claim to promote community cohesion by educating their students about other religions and cultivating relationships with other communities in their local area. Those who are in favour of faith schools see them as supporting individual autonomy – the autonomy of the parents to determine how to raise their children.

Laying claim to these values is in part about claiming “Britishness.” Saying that faith schools are tolerant, multicultural, pluralistic, and promote individual autonomy and community cohesion is a way of saying that they fit with British society and ideals. Arguing that faith schools violate these values is saying that they disrupt British society and ideals. In spite of the public confusion and derision at the idea of British values, these values are held to be important in British society, and violating them is a problem.

The Britishness of Religion(s)

The argument for Britishness in the faith schools debate is further complicated by the fact that different religions have different claims on Britishness. The Church of England obviously has close ties to English society and has been grandfathered in to the education system. The Catholic Church, while it has a more fraught history in the UK, has also long been involved in its education system. Religions associated with modern immigrants, however, have a less secure position in British society. Islam, in particular, is often associated in media discourse with extremism, terrorism, and illiberalism.

Currently, 99% of faith schools in the UK are Christian (of those, 30% are Catholic). However, negative media reporting on schools that are “failing” their students by not educating them in a specific values system disproportionately features non-Christian examples: the schools in Birmingham accused of indoctrinating students into extremist Islam (these were, in fact, non-faith schools with a high Muslim population); the London orthodox Jewish school accused of removing questions about evolution from GCSE exams; the Sikh free school blocked from opening in a Buckinghamshire village. Christian schools also face a degree of criticism – Grindon Hall in Sunderland was downgraded in its Ofsted review because it failed to “adequately prepare its 590 pupils for ‘life in modern Britain’” – but these are relatively rare. Some faith schools have a more difficult road to navigate than others when it comes to fitting in to British society and being perceived as adhering to British values.

Let’s return to the earlier argument that the values that Michael Gove called “fundamental British values” are, in fact, universal. Are they? A glance at European policy suggests that they are at least international. For example, the Council of Europe asserts the importance of “recognising that the implementation of education for democratic citizenship requires recognising and accepting differences, and developing a critical approach to information, thought patterns and philosophical, religious, social, political and cultural concepts.”

Even so, it is clear that, at least from certain perspectives, there are cultures that practice illiberal behaviour. So to whom are these values valuable? And what institutions are responsible for transmitting these values in modern Western liberal democracies? These questions continue to be hashed out in a number of national contexts, with different nations finding their own ways of managing conflicts. In the UK, faith schools are not the only site of conflicts around religion and national values; the negotiations, contestations – and, at times, ridicule – of concepts of “Britishness” and the role of religion in schools mark many on-going public debates.