This month is the twenty fifth anniversary of integration being introduced to state schools in Northern Ireland. For historical reasons, schools in that part of the United Kingdom had hitherto been segregated into Catholic and Protestant alike ? it is probably no coincidence that the past quarter century has, with a few tragic exceptions, been relatively peaceful, at least compared to the troubles of the 1970s.
It is in this context that the more general issue of faith schools throughout the United Kingdom has come into sharper focus.
Before the widespread nationalisation of our schools under the Elementary Education Act of 1870 (legislation ironically designed to fill gaps in independent schooling provision, rather than bring the overwhelming majority of schooling under the state umbrella) faith schools abounded. Indeed during that era, it was the churches of all denominations that were largely responsible for formal schooling in this country. Naturally, in the nineteenth century, church schools tended to be predominantly Christian, reflecting the makeup of English society at that time. As well as Anglican (Church of England) schools here in England, there were also Roman Catholic and an array of Methodist and other non-conformist foundations. To that extent, faith schools ? and many of these long-standing foundations survive to this day ? have always been part of the educational tapestry.
With the historical framework, why should anyone object to other faith schools being created? Clearly, the nationalisation of English schooling over the past century or so has not been described as an entirely good thing. Few would doubt that there has been a lowering of standards and a debasement of the examination system, with illiteracy and innumeracy for today’s school leavers still at an unacceptable level.
Frankly the politics of the faith school issue has become complicated by a desire, across the political divide, to pander to racial minorities.
Over the past decade, there has been a number of exclusive faith schools established, including those for the Sikh, Hindu and Jewish religions as well as those promoting Christian Evangelical and the Greek Orthodox Christian Church. To date, there has also been approval for six Muslim schools with a further eighty or so prospective Muslim schools applying for exclusive faith school status. Yet the purpose of such schools is expressly to segregate and separate children from the age of five. In the Muslim schools, for example, the insistence of a familiarity with the Koran provides an effective bar to any non-Muslim children. No doubt similar restrictions will apply to the other faith schools being created. We must accept that a segregated education also leads to a segregated society. This is a very dangerous precedent to set in an age when the virtues of multiculturalism are being questioned. Ironically, it was precisely this realisation that twenty five years ago persuaded policymakers to breakdown the walls in schooling in Northern Ireland.
By contrast, many of the existing English faith schools under the Anglican Church are already entirely inclusive in their arrangements. Their long-standing, historical place in English education should not be confused by comparison with those who now wish to create a new generation of faith schools. It would not be feasible to turn back the clock and unravel any of the foundations that go back to pre-1870 days. However, in the interests of promoting good community relations, and fostering integration amongst every succeeding young generation of school children, we must ensure that no new exclusive faith schools are created.