The 12 Op-Eds of Xmas (Day 8)

Throughout the festive season, LDV is offering our readers a load of repeats another chance to read the 12 most popular opinion articles which appeared on the blog during 2008. Eighth up is this posting by Joe Otten, which appeared on LDV on 10th March…

The issue is not faith schools but freedom of conscience

There has been a lot of comment on Lib Dem blogs lately attacking the faith school system and religion in education. I want to use this opinion piece to offer a different and more liberal perspective on secularism. Secularism to me means that the state has no business deciding on matters of religious truth, and no business telling parents what faith, if any, they ought to bring their children up in.

While I am no believer myself, what matters to me in politics is whether somebody shares tolerant liberal values, whether they are in favour of a critical and questioning approach to problems or simple obedience to authority. It may seem too obvious to be worth saying, but there are religious people and atheists on both sides of that question.

So I would like to see us adopting a policy towards religion in education that has three characteristics:

1. The state does not decide for parents how they should raise their children.

2. We should not attack schools that are well run and have good results. It is my view that in the case of successful faith schools, this is largely due to selection. But then why should a selective faith school be treated differently to a selective community school? And is it not safe to assume that faith schools take a uniformly less broad and less tolerant view of faith than non-faith schools.

3. There should be choice within schools. We have to admit that for all the talk and good will in the world, there is very little choice of school for many people. It should therefore not be assumed that a choice of school represents an endorsement of a school’s faith identity (or lack thereof).

Faith is not just an issue for faith schools. Community schools are also required, in nearly all cases, to assume that their pupils are broadly Christian and are not permitted – in the rules for seeking a “determination” from the SACRE – to canvass for the actual religious views of children or parents.

Let me repeat that.

Schools are not permitted to find out what faith allegiances parents and children actually have. This is illiberalism of the absurdest degree. So rather than focussing – as the faith schools debate usually does – on who runs schools, I wish to focus on the rights of parents and pupils to equality within the system whether they are Christian or not.

I propose:

1. That all schools should respect the faith identities of all children who happen to attend. Parents/children will be asked what they believe in and be put under no pressure to pick one option over another.

2. That there should be parallel provision for all such faith identities represented by a reasonable number of pupils, with philosophy and ethics for non-believers.

3. Initially parents make the choice of identity for their children, but as children grow older, they should progressively gain freedom to make their own choices.

4. Parents and children have the right to change their faith identity.

5 (a), (ideally), faith identity shall not be a permitted criterion for selection, or (b), (compromise) where faith identity is a criterion for selection a pupil/parent declaration shall be considered entirely sufficient. (This deals with the clerical gatekeeper problem.)

Such a policy dismantles what is most objectionable about faith-based education while preserving – and in fact increasing – parental choice, and increasing the opportunity for parents to find an education for their children consistent with their own values.

This policy would maximise the cultural diversity within schools, which is far more effective than the sop of links between schools.

In addition to specific provision for each faith identity, some strictly neutral RE and philosophy should be taught to all pupils to promote understanding. I’m not saying how much of either there should be, this would be a matter for the governors.

I don’t address the question of governance, so in principle faith schools, community schools, academies and so on are equally untouched by this proposal; but at the same time equally bound to respect our human right to freedom of religious conscience. Nothing short of this will end the scandal that allows the freedom of (ir)religious conscience to be impinged upon by where you happen to live.

Simply put, this debate should move beyond these illiberal arguments over what kind of religious education other people’s children should get. Rather, whatever schools we are lumped with, our right and freedom to settle our own questions of faith should be paramount.

I do think this proposal will upset a little people who do want to exercise religious authority over other people’s children. But it will leave them naked of the defences that they are meeting a demand (this meets even more demands) or that their schools are better run – you can still run them, just respect our rights. If anybody claims they could not run a faith school under these terms, I would like to hear, in some detail what the problems are supposed to be. How can you offer 25% of places to non-believers and treat them with respect, if you can’t do this?

The kind of secularism I subscribe to is not about attacking people of faith, but about ensuring that the state, and therefore schools, do not act like an authority on questions of religion. When a state does act like a religious authority, it denies the rights of believers and non-believers alike.

This policy will offend authoritarians who wish to impose religion on others – many of whom, I suspect, are conservative atheists themselves. But, I hope and believe that it can unite liberals with and without faith. Arguing the toss over whether God exists does our party no good at all, and is on the path to (a)theocracy. Arguing for the state to butt out of this one is the only way forward.

* Joe Otten is a Lib Dem member in Sheffield, and blogs here.

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