If ‘faith schools’ have enemies like these…

You may have seen the pamphlet published by Christina Odone which claims that ‘faith schools’ are being attacked. This is not how it seems to most people and a strange accusation to level at a Government that has created more ‘faith schools’ than any other. I’ve made my own response to her pamphlet in a Comment is Free piece today.

Pity the poor faith schools. According to a pamphlet published today by the Centre for Policy Studies, penned by Cristina Odone, they are under threat as never before from “a government … aligning itself with a stridently secularist lobby”.

Few apart from than Odone can have noticed this dangerous development. Under Labour governments since 1997 more new state-funded faith schools have opened than under any other government, and there is no sign that this increase is being stemmed or about to be. Certainly no evidence for such a change of direction is presented in today’s pamphlet, a mish-mash of anecdote, selective factoids and non-sequiturs (“The schools are not divisive. Not one of the 72 British citizens convicted under the Terrorism Act of 2000 attended a faith school.”).

Odone claims to “dismiss” the arguments against faith schools one by one – in fact she adds nothing to the defences of faith schools that have already been repeatedly refuted in the last few years of public debate over these issues, whether by teachershumanists like me, or academics. But the bizarre backbone of here argument is this fiction of a secularising cabinet – it’s almost the absolute opposite of reality.

Ed Balls – the arch-secularist of Odone’s pamphlet – hates faith schools so much that this very year he actually went to court to defend their right to discriminate in their admissions. In March he weighed in on a case against the Jewish Free School, where parents whose children had been denied places at this state-funded school alleged the admission policies of the school were ethnically discriminatory, to say that the government did not consider the requirement for children to have Jewish mothers as ethnic discrimination, and supported faith-based admissions to state-funded faith schools.

He is so opposed to faith schools that he recently gave special dispensation for the closing of a community school in Northumberland and its replacement with a Church of England school without the competition for a new school that the latest education law now usually dictates – just the latest example of a new faith school established under this government.

Of course we should have suspected Balls’ secularist intentions earlier. One of his earliest actions on taking up the job of secretary of state was to put his signature to Faith in the System (pdf), a document that contained such obvious warning shots across the bow as “Our unequivocal purpose in agreeing this document is for other parties to appreciate the contribution of faith schools”, “the government welcomes the contribution that schools with a religious character make to the school system” and “the government remains committed to supporting the establishment of new schools by a range of providers – including faith organisations”.

Come to think of it, the signs of this slippery secularist slope were evident long before Ed Balls entered the frame. Alan Johnson, current cabinet member and Ed Balls’ predecessor, was so opposed to faith schools that he changed the law – in his Education and Inspections Act 2006 – to extend the areas in which they can discriminate on religious grounds in the employment of staff by removing previous protections for staff of other faiths and none. His department also signed off on Church of England plans to open an additional 100 state-funded academies.

It is true that the public in general is overwhelmingly against state-funded faith schools – they have always said so in poll after poll and opposition comes from MuslimChristian, and Jewish sources as well as from humanists – but unfortunately Odone’s claim that the government is doing anything to reflect this public attitude is woefully mistaken. This government is not the great reformer of faiths schools that Odone makes it out to be, but it should be.