Category Archives: disestablishment

Wandsworth Council endorses religious discrimination in education

By Community Correspondent Stephen Evans

The new Equality Bill may be working its way through Parliament, but Wandsworth Council is still wholeheartedly endorsing religious discrimination and segregation in education.

A recent edition of Brightside, the magazine of Wandsworth Council, proudly announced that a “New Catholic school comes a step closer”. The Council has announced that the Saint John Bosco school will be the only completely new school to be built in the borough as part of the government-funded ‘Building Schools for the Future’ project.

Unfortunately, for the non-Catholics amongst us, this will be yet another religious school in Wandsworth that discriminates against the children of non-religious parents and those of the ‘wrong’ faith.

Just take a look at some of the admissions criteria for Wandsworth’s new state school:

• Baptised Catholic students whose parent(s) and themselves are active committed Roman Catholics.

• Baptised Catholic students who are active committed Roman Catholics.

• Baptised Catholic students who are currently attending a Roman Catholic school.

• Baptised Catholic students for whom there is evidence that the Church (e.g. parent(s), priest, parish worker or godparent) is actively and prayerfully working for their Roman Catholic upbringing.

• Christians who are active in their churches which are in membership of Churches Together in England.

• Other students, subject to their numbers and/or attitudes not endangering the Catholic ethos of the school.

There’s a further warning on the Wandsworth Council website that the Governors will “request proof of baptism and evidence of practice from the relevant Parish Priest or Minister.

How on earth can such backward and antiquated discrimination against the non-religious be allowed in modern Britain?

The National Secular Society has consistently campaigned against faith schools, arguing that they are unjust, discriminatory and detrimental to community cohesion. Many experts seem to agree.

For example, research from London South Bank University demonstrates that the only way to achieve full integration in our communities is for all children to be educated together from primary stage. These findings are backed up by a new study carried out by Psychologists at the University of Ulster on the effects of integrated and segregated schooling in Northern Ireland. They found that sectarianism could be defused if more Catholic and Protestant children were sent to mixed-religion schools. Further recent research by the LSE and the Institute of Education demonstrates that religious schools not only fail to improve standards, but also create ‘social sorting’ of children along lines of class, ability and religion.

By endorsing faith schools, Wandsworth is colluding with religious organisations in segregating children by their parent’s faith – and often as an indirect result, by their race. Many areas of Wandsworth, like most other London boroughs, while being very multicultural remains heavily segregated. We desperately need less division in our communities, not more.

Faith schools are notorious for ‘cherry-picking’ the most promising children from the most affluent families, resulting in a version of ‘private schooling on the rates’. The effect is to deprive community schools of such pupils, making their already-difficult task nearly impossible. Religious schools may well be popular with parents lucky enough to get their children into them, but less so with the population as a whole who just want good schools, not religious schools. An ICM poll for the Guardian newspaper found two thirds of the population said there should be no state funded faith schools at all.

So why is the Labour Government, and Tory opposition for that matter, so intent on handing over the education of children to religious organisations?

I put that question in a letter to local MP Sadiq Khan, but have yet to receive a response. Perhaps this is unsurprising. After all, the honourable member for Tooting is a well known advocate of mixing religion and politics and was the former Chairman of Tooting’s Gatton Primary, a state funded Muslim faith school which, in its own words, aims to: “inculcate in pupils the character and religion to live as a true Muslim.”

What makes the whole situation even more perverse is that there is little doubt that religious belief is in serious decline. Normal Sunday attendance at churches in England in 1980 exceeded 10% of the population. Today it’s around 6% and is projected by Christian Research to drop to 1.2% by 2050. The Government’s own latest Social Trends Survey revealed that 45.8% of British people now regard themselves as non-religious. In light of such findings how can anyone justify an expansion of religious schools?

The faith school system gives the religious, or those that pretend to be religious, greater choice while leaving the non-religious seriously disadvantaged. With state funded ‘minority’ faith schools on the increase, the situation is only going to get worse.

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We must separate church and state

In England, our constitution is blighted by an ancient theocratic hangover. Time to sweep it away and bring England into the 21st century!

We’re not Iran, but our constitution does have a theocratic structure. I think this holds us back, impedes us, like an old invisible injury. Like a subtle poison in the blood, it quietly harms us. Most people seem unaware of it. Even Hazel Blears, who recently said that we are a secular democracy.

Yesterday a seminar was held at the UCL Constitution Unit to mark the launch of a book on the issue by Bob Morris. Church and State in 21st Century Britain is a meticulous analysis of the situation. No such study can be entirely neutral, but Morris seems to have no religious agenda; his aim is to point out that establishment is at odds with the principle of religious equality, making it “anomalous to the point of unsustainability”. He is wary of the term “disestablishment” but he does advocate the big reform – ending the monarch’s need to be Anglican.

In his presentation yesterday he said that reform would ideally come from the church itself. Otherwise it is likely to have reform thrust upon it, in a way it cannot control. So it is in its interest to lead the process. He acknowledged that here is little sign of this willingness as yet, but seemed hopeful that a fresh look at the issue might change that.

In the discussion that followed three Anglican representatives spoke. Each offered a slightly different flavour of the old conservative line: that it would be perilous to mess with our ancient constitution, that it might unleash an aggressive secularism. None admitted that there was a problem here that had to be faced.

These speakers confirmed my view that the Church of England looks very nice and liberal from a slight distance but at heart its philosophy is high Tory: tradition is sacred, those who want to tamper with it are dangerously shallow. I know of almost no Anglican who has said anything different, who admits Morris’ basic point that reform is necessary, so that we can have a constitution we can really affirm, and participate in, rather than an alienating relic from the imperial past. One exception is the Oxford theologian George Pattison, who has recently called for a more honest debate within the church (in an article in The Church Times). It is worth noting that Rowan Williams has failed to start the debate; he has allowed the reactionary position to become stronger – a piece of major political cowardice.

Might reform come from elsewhere? Of course the secularist lobbies advocate it, but in a sense this is unhelpful: it makes it seem an atheist cause, and so strenghtens the hand of the Anglicans, who scarify with the prospect of a Dawkinsish tyranny. Ideally it would come from a political movement that was also Christian, led by a new Cromwell figure.

Why is disestablishment not a mainstream liberal cause? It baffles me frankly. Why is it hardly ever mentioned by the columnists of this paper, except as a quick aside? To my mind it is the very essence of liberalism, that church and state should be separate. This is the English revolution that we have never quite had. It is the way to a new sort of political participation, a new sense that we are citizens of a modern state. Other aspects of constitutional change, and other liberal causes such as CCTV, DNA database and ID Cards are pathetically small-fry compared to this.