Opening the floodgates for state-funded religious schools

It is really sad to see the government exacerbated the mistake of expanded state-funded religious schools made by the last government. I’ve said so on Comment is Free today.

On Monday the academies bill, a cornerstone of the Conservative manifesto (the one that most people didn’t vote for), was introduced directly into the House of Lords by a minister from the Liberal Democrats (a party that isn’t in favour of academies). Much has already been made of the wholesale destructive deregulation of our state school system that this bill represents. Less prominent has been comment on the exacerbation the bill represents of one of the most unpopular policy developments under the Labour government – increasing religious discrimination and privilege in our education system.

It is well documented that many state-funded “faith schools” use their legal privileges to have highly selective admissions criteria, discriminating against parents and children, which segregates communities along religious, socioeconomic and often ethnic grounds. Many also bar thousands of suitable teachers from their schools because they do not follow the school’s religion (or don’t behave in their personal lives according to the school’s wishes). Becoming religious academies will not take away these kinds of privileges.

Some “faith schools”, however, do not discriminate, in some cases because the law does not allow them to; others have a religious character now but may well, when taking on academy status with the possibility of growth, wish to free themselves of the restrictive status of being “of a religious character” which has ceased to be relevant to them. These progressive instincts, however, will count for nothing under the bill. If they want to become academies, these schools that have an eye for social justice and  a desire for progress, cannot do so. Under a new mechanism in the bill, they are forced automatically to become “state-funded independent schools with a religious character” when they become academies, locking religious division and discrimination permanently into the state education system.

Although state “faith schools” will automatically and permanently become religious academies, state community schools will not automatically become secular academies and may even acquire a religious sponsor and become religious academies. What’s good for the goose, however, is apparently not good for the gander. Inclusive community schools, free of religious discrimination, privilege or management, which should be the norm, could easily become the exception.

Once a state “faith school” has become a religious academy, it does not need to follow the national curriculum and we know from experience that there are curriculum and teaching concerns specific to existing academy schools with religious sponsors. Since 2002, the teaching of creationism, narrow religious ideologies and inferior sex education has been a constant public concern in connection with religious academies. The present bill removes at a stroke what protections do exist in the national curriculum against such doctrinaire and divisive practises and leaves a thousand questions hanging. Up until now, the religious schools that will become academies have been obliged to teach human sexual reproduction in biology lessons, and the variation over time of species in biology – will they all necessarily do so if they are not so obliged? Nothing in the new, deregulated system proposed by this bill would prohibit abstinence-based relationships education, or the teaching of creationism as a valid alternative to evolution, or the literal truth of a personal god. And – for the first time – it will permit even primary schools to become state-funded religious academies.

We should all be deeply concerned that the education of the youngest in our society will be severely and permanently affected by this bill, which would lift many state-funded “faith schools”, into a largely unregulated sector and increase the public funds spent on them, with no public consultation and no entitlement of children to the sort of balanced education parents expect and wider society should demand.

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