Vichaar Series: Should faith schools have a place in modern Britain?

Vichaar Series: Should faith schools have a place in modern Britain?
Vichaar Manthan is an independent voluntary organisation which engages in open dialogue with members of society and institutions to explore issues facing modern British society through a Hindu civilisational lens. In this first instalment in a Vichaar Series (thought series), iGlobal reflects on a recent session on faith schools and their place in modern Britain.
Last year 1.9 million children were educated in faith schools. We are going through unprecedented times where the status quo is being challenged and our principles are being re-examined. Vichaar Manthan's virtual panel discussion looked at how we are building our future generations and what role, if any, faith schools have to play. The result was a fruitful churning of ideas between thought leaders of our generation.
The panelists included:
  • Dr Minlib Dallh, the H.M. King Abdullah II Ibn Al Hussein of Jordan Fellow for the Study of Love in Religion, Regent's Park College, University of Oxford.
  • Alastair Lichten, National Secular Society's Education and Schools Campaign Officer, currently leading on a No Faith Schools? campaign. He has openly stood against having a Bishop's Bench at the House of Lords.
  • Sunil Randev, Head of Hindu Curriculum of Krishna Avanti School in Leicester, having spent 10 years as a monk at the Bhaktivedanta Manor.

History of faith schools

While vocational education has always existed, it was only in the late 6th century that cathedrals and monasteries provided an education, that too only for boys. Dallh reflected on prestigious institutions, Oxford and Yale, and how they were both founded on the same religious grounds: Historically, the connection between religion and schooling has always been there, not only in the West but also in Muslim cultures. The secular idea is to make religion a private business, in the sense that religion does not play the defining role in a particular society as it did in medieval times.
Lichten agreed that the idea of universal education may be a modern one, but it is as old as the argument that schooling should be funded by the state: The role of voluntary and religious organisations in establishing schools prior to the move towards a universal state-funded education system is an important but a different issue. Everyone wants good schools and we all have shared ideas of what makes a good one on a broad level. It's an accident of history that we?ve chosen one form of identity and say that schools should be organised around that. We don t take class or political identity and do the same, even though these strands of identity can be just as all-encompassing as religion for many people. Parents and families may raise children within a worldview, but we don t need that to form part of our schools. We?re a majority non-religious country, but there are no schools organised around non-religion.
A liberal secular society doesn t mean a society free of religion, but we do not need to make religion the focal point of our shared institutions. Someone may be motivated by their faith to go into medicine, but we wouldn t expect that they have a hospital organised around that faith. Can you think of a single state-funded public service or area of public life where we would permit the sort of discrimination that we see in faith schools? Would we build a road only for or to promote a specific worldview? Would we have Muslim dentists, Christian doctors? surgeries, Hindu police stations? I think most of us would find those sorts of ideas ridiculous. We do not need to lock our religious beliefs away or privatise them, but we do not need to make them the centre of something so important. School should be about being open to new perspectives.

Spectrum of morality

Randev shared from personal experience that values are not taught in the same level of depth between faith and community schools: We focus a whole half term on each value and it's a whole school collective effort. We teach through repetition exploring different angles, including non-religious. This gives children an enriching insight and impacts their moral literacy, which I didn t receive in my state education growing up.
Lichten agreed that there is a big debate among educationalists around character development and that across the board they do see the value of non-academic teachings within education, but there is no need to put these values in an exclusively faith ethos: Schools are not a morally-neutral place. They all teach children to be kind and that bullying is wrong. If you don t have a faith, you do not have a moral vaccum; you still have the basic, shared community ethos of a school. It becomes a problem when you impose a framework on that.
He reflected on Church of England (CofE) reports on their faith schools: One of the really worrying things is when a CofE schools are said to be good because the children are kind and they value the environment or care for the community, but then the school is criticised for not framing that in an exclusively Christian way; or equally, when they claim that these sorts of values, which are promoted in all schools, uniquely belong to a particular religion. This is our shared community heritage.

Over-subscription and under-representation

Randev talked about the high demand for faith schools nationwide. When preparing to open a new school in south London, the staff at Krishna Avanti Faith School asked 4,000 members of the local community (of which only 10 per cent were Hindu) if they would support and welcome its opening; 93 per cent said yes.
When questioned on the low number of students from low-income families in faith schools across the board, Randev agreed that one issue is that faith schools have the power to be selective with their submissions: While this does occur, at Avanti, we accept everyone and anyone in students and staff. Half of our teachers and teaching assistants are from non-Hindu families and freely wear religious symbols like the burqa to work. Our head teacher also has no particular faith, but everyone is bought into the ethos of the school.

Building consensus

Vichaar Manthan recognises that it is easier to argue against extreme topics but in order for real change to occur, it is important to listen to more nuanced arguments and to build consensus and legitimacy around ideas.
At the end of the discussion, Dallh shared that the debate has now moved onto how particular communities can organise quality schooling and education for the largest number of people in the community so that unnecessary discrimination does not occur: What is needed is to undermine inequality in terms of access to quality education. We have to seriously rethink a new paradigm, one that figures out where we place religious tradition and faith in all our public services.
Randev closed by extending an invitation to the panellists and viewers to visit Krishna Avanti School in Leicester to see the added benefit that faith schools can provide. He said that that he does not believe faith in schools is inherently bad, but that there are bad practitioners of faith: Just like in sport. Let's take Lance Armstrong. Is what he did wrong? Yes. Does it make cycling wrong? No. There is an obvious gap in the emphasis on academics, character formation, and developing qualities of compassion, understanding, integrity, self-discipline and respect. That gap is now bigger in 2020 than in any point it has been. Faith schools are not the only tool, but an important one if they?re conducted in the right way.
Lichten closed by reflecting on the progress made within the discussion and shared that it is important to move together albeit slowly towards a more community approach to education: Taking into account the history of education and the added development of character in faith schools, I would argue that we don't need to agree on every part of the journey. If we want to have an inclusive society where all different faiths and backgrounds can work together, then let's start doing that in our schools.
by Vidhu Sharma
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