Updated Wednesday morning
The media reports of recent OFSTED inspections of a number of Birmingham schools, linked to the “Trojan Horse affair” alleging Islamist extremism, have led the British Humanist Association to call for a wider review of the place of religion in schools, see BHA: Birmingham schools findings reflect need for wider review of place of religion in schools
Today the BHA has called for a wider review of the place of religion in state-funded schools.
BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘It is vital that every young person receives a broad and balanced education in an environment that is free from discrimination on the basis of religion, gender or sexual orientation and that prepares them for life in wider British society. It is only if schools provide such an education in such an environment that we can live in a society where everyone is treated equally with tolerance and respect. Park View has been failing to do this, and we are pleased that that is now set to change.
‘However, these issues speak more widely to the need for a thorough review of the place of religion in schools. While controversy has raged about these admittedly serious problems, there has been no similar level of concern expressed about the all-too-common situation where a pupil is unable to get into their local Church of England school because their parents are not Christian; a teacher is unable to find employment at a Catholic school because they are not Catholic; or a child is left distressed or sidelined because of Christian proselytising in an assembly in a school with no religious character. While these situations are allowed to continue, it is no surprise that some people of another faith will take existing schools of no religious character and effectively treat them as their own “faith” schools. This kind of behaviour will only be stopped once no school is legally able to discriminate against any pupil, parent or member of staff.’
Birmingham, the BHA, Religious Education and Church Schools
The publication of the OFSTED report into 21 schools in Birmingham linked to the so called “Trojan Horse” affair led to a flurry of tweets and comment from the British Humanist Association (BHA) yesterday. The thrust of their contention – that the OFSTED report showed the damage done by the presence of faith schools in the education system – is a shaky attempt to build one of the BHA’s long held aims into the news agenda. The tweeting of a comment from the debate on the report was typical: “Great from @crispinbluntmp – there should be no faith schools, every school should prepare pupils for life in wider British society”.
Unfortunately for the BHA the facts do little to support their claims. The fundamental problem with the BHA’s argument is that none of the schools being looked into in Birmingham are faith schools.
Of the 21 Birmingham schools investigated by Ofsted, 8 are Academies and 13 are local authority run. So the BHA’s argument that “the way to stop this kind of thing is to make get rid of faith schools” is not simply misleading, it is so far off the mark as to require special measures.
Perhaps one of the deeper ironies of the BHA’s attempt to hijack this issue for their own aims is that it is a perfect example of using a “Trojan Horse”; using the OFSTED findings as subterfuge for attacking the work of church schools not least in Birmingham itself.
At the same time that the BHA was going into overdrive about the OFSTED report, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell, was making his maiden speech in the House of Lords. His theme was education. In his speech Bishop Stephen noted that the diocese of Chelmsford has recently accepted an invitation to be a co-sponsor of the London Design and Engineering University Technical college where in addition to receiving technical and practical training, Religious Education will be given a high priority on the curriculum. The Bishop noted that the trustees of the college recognise that it is “impossible to understand and inhabit the modern world – especially in East London – without a critical appreciation of faith, and even more than this, a mature spiritual, moral, social and cultural worldview. Moreover, good religious education has been shown to be one of the best ways of countering religious extremism. “
In an interview after his speech Stephen Cottrell warmed to this theme saying “RE, perhaps in the past, might have been something which was just of academic interest. Now it’s of practical relevance to actually understand who is my neighbour, how do I love and understand and appreciate my neighbour…One of the things that most obviously contributes to cohesion between people of different cultures and different faiths is proper appreciation and understanding of different faith traditions”
The Church of England educates a million children a day in its schools. Even the BHA, in its more reflective moments, would be hard pressed to describe CofE Schools as hotbeds of religious extremism or indoctrination. The contrast between some of the findings in the recent OFSTED investigation and the experience of those educated at Church of England schools stand in marked contrast. As the former Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, wrote of his own experience of Church of England primary and secondary schools: “I went to Christian schools, St Mary’s Church Primary, then Christ’s College Finchley. We Jews were different and a minority. Yet not once was I insulted for my faith.”
The work of Church of England schools in Birmingham is evidence of Stephen Cottrell’s contention that the best way of countering religious extremism is to engage with faith and not banish it. For over a decade some Church of England primary schools in the city have had an almost 100% school roll from Muslim families, serving children from local communities in the inner city. Every Church of England School in the city educates children of all faiths and none. Meanwhile the Church of England’s only secondary school in the city provides an account of excellence and achievement in the midst of challenging circumstances.
St Alban’s Academy is the only state-funded Church of England secondary school in Birmingham and is the nearest secondary school to the city centre. The proportion of students known to be eligible for free school meals is very much higher than the national average. The percentage of students from minority ethnic backgrounds is over four times higher than the national figure and the proportion of those who speak English as an additional language is high. The percentage of students registered by as having special educational needs and/or disabilities is well above the national average.
The School’s most recent OFSTED report – from 2011 – found the school was “outstanding”. The report said “From exceptionally low attainment on entry, students leave with above average attainment and outstanding achievement.” The report further highlights the achievements of the school in providing: “outstanding spiritual, moral, social and cultural development that underpins students’ exemplary behaviour and makes an exceptional contribution to their excellent learning.”
This is the experience of millions of families who have been served by Church of England schools which remains a testament at firm odds with the doctrinaire dogmatism and opportunism of the BHA.
There is also this interview by Nigel Genders the newly-appointed Church of England Chief Education Officer.
Some media reports and comment (Updated Wednesday morning):
Dan Hodges All faith-based schools are Trojan Horse schools. Let’s ban every single one of them
Tim Stanley Trojan horse plot: the problem isn’t faith schools, it’s Islamic fundamentalism
Graeme Paton ‘Selection by faith’ axed at new wave of Anglican schools
John Harris The lesson of Birmingham? State education is in chaos
Simon Jenkins When Whitehall meddles in schools, it’s only ever bad news
BBC Sean Coughlan What is the fall out from the Trojan Horse?
Church Times Madeleine Davies Birmingham schools hit back at OFSTED after critical reports
Daily Mail Manzoor Moghal I fear Islamic extremism in these schools is just the tip of the iceberg