Church of England

Non-Christian faith schools are "straining the State educational system to breaking point"


In his Lyndwood Lecture delivered to the Ecclesiastical Law Society last December, former Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC MP made a potent case for the continuing Establishment of the Church of England, observing its deep commitment to social action at a local community level, “whether it be voluntary work in a charity shop or serving in a youth organization or helping in a one off community project in a Deanery or Diocese such as those for rough sleepers in winter or to the carefully organized and permanent, such as schools, food banks and counselling services”. He concedes that Establishment “may be seen by some as archaic and irrational”, but asserts that “it is in practice the bedrock of the State’s legitimacy, frequently acted out in ceremonies and oaths up and down the land. In it we recognise that it is the task of every citizen as it is of the Church and of Parliament to enable the monarch to discharge her Coronation oath”.

But most important of all, he avers, is the Church of England’s contribution to education, with 7000 state-funded schools (including 26% of primary schools) being run by the Church. The tradition of education under the aegis of a religious ethos “has facilitated the extension of free schools to include other faiths”, He explains:

It is this unusual and indeed privileged position that has fuelled the arguments of so many secularists against the Church’s established role in our constitution and in our society. This has been most marked in the field of education with calls for the State to abandon support for faith based schools and to move to an entirely secular based model or at least not to promote new ones. This argument has never been accepted by any Government, because the participation of the Church in education has been so successful. I would add that there would also be the most interesting and horrific arguments about property if there was any attempt to abolish church schools. But it would be rash to say that the risk does not exist. One of the key problems I identify is that the need in a multicultural society to accommodate other faiths and offer them an opportunity to participate on equal terms with both the Church of England and other well established Christian churches is straining the State educational system to breaking point.

In my own constituency for example, the decision of the Secretary of State for Education to facilitate the opening a Sikh faith based Free School to serve the needs of both Sikhs in the area wanting faith based education and non-Sikh children needing a local community school has provoked the biggest storm of protest that I have experienced in my time as an MP. In a multicultural area with growing religious and ethnic minorities and a tradition of exceptionally good integration and community cohesion, there has never previously been a problem with faith based education. Indeed my Church of England primary schools have consistently been a magnet for children of all faiths and of none. But in this case, despite, I am sure, the benevolent intentions of the trustees there is no acceptance that this school can deliver a level of inclusivity that will embrace non Sikhs. Furthermore the controversy is causing people to call into question the entire basis of faith based education in the state system. A significant number of those who have contacted me about it argue that the State should have nothing to do with faith based education at all and suggest that its time may now be up. This view is reinforced for them by stories of non-faith based state schools being hijacked as in the case of the Trojan horse scandal in Birmingham, by small religious groups eager to promote their own narrow agendas. That Church of England schools such as Sir John Cass in Whitechapel appear, whatever the reality, to be being converted to the sole promotion of Islam is astonishing to many. And these are responses intimately bound up with one of those fundamental fears I have already identified that reveal themselves in the gloomy outlook that many now have of the possibility of any integration of the diverse cultural and religious groups now settled in our country.

Religious relativism in a context of ethnic pluralism and the statist assertion of an inviolable and absolute equality has given rise to an educational dilemma. In the Conservative tradition, it is for parents to determine how best to educate their children, which the state then facilitates in the hope of individual enlightenment and pursuit of the common good. But what happens when those parents seek out an education for their children which conflicts with the state’s understanding of the common good? Church of England schools have historically been inclusive because education is perceived to be part of the Church’s mission in society. It inculcates values, and those values are seen to be virtuous.

But what of those faith schools whose theological traditions are not so inclusive, and whose notion of virtue is not quite contiguous with Christian values? Are they really ‘equal’ to the extent that the children of (say) Christian parents should be obliged to attend (say) a Sikh school because it is the only school in the area with spare capacity?

This is the very contemporary issue to which Dominic Grieve refers. In his constituency (Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire), a Sikh secondary school has arisen in the quaint village of Stoke Poges, just down the road from the churchyard where Thomas Gray wrote his famous elegy. The Khalsa Secondary Academy currently has 180 pupils, mainly journeying over the county border from Slough, Berkshire. The school is obliged by statutory admissions policy to ensure that 50 per cent of its places are available for non-Sikh students.

But 11-year old Freya Jarvis, a Christian, has been allocated a place at this school, and her mother is “shocked and upset“, to put it mildly. The school’s ethos is, of course, benevolent – brotherhood, honest living, social responsibility, helping those in need – and its values are undoubtedly virtuous. But they are expressed in a language of vision that is alien to Freya and in terms which are foreign to Freya’s culture – Kirat Karna, Naam Japna, Vand Chakna. And further questions arise relating to the curriculum. What will be the focus of the history syllabus as it relates to British culture and the Empire? Will the refectory serve meat at lunchtime? In what sense will the daily act of collective worship be ‘broadly Christian’? Purity of spirit? Meditation? As Dominic Grieve observes, “there is no acceptance that this school can deliver a level of inclusivity that will embrace non Sikhs”.

It is one thing for the State to permit Sikhs the freedom to educate their children in accordance with the benign and benevolent precepts of the Guru Granth Sahib, but it is quite another for the State to impose this alien religious ethos upon its own indigenous Christian children. They may be inculcated with attitudes of tolerance and imbued with notions of karmic charity, but what can they learn of idolatry, sin, salvation or theological truth? How can non-Christian faith schools hope to contribute to the common good if the unhappy children of “shocked and upset” parents begrudge the manifest spiritual coercion and are aggrieved at an unjust educational obligation?