Education will be poorer if religion is banned from schools | Letters

Polly Toynbee’s articles are always worth reading, but to keep religion out of schools is, in my view, quite wrong (Banning prayer rituals in school? Just get religion out of education completely, 23 January). Her article makes it very clear that what is needed is the best education possible for every child – and every child is an individual with individual needs. There is no “one size fits all”, though there are basic matters that all children should learn, starting with reading and writing. Michaela community school has a regimen which to me sounds like a prison, but it seems to work for the children who attend and for their parents. But I do not think that the present problems, which seem to relate to bullying and coercion, will be solved through inflexibility.

Surely it is vital for children to learn about religions and philosophy in school, just as they need to know about geography, history, languages and many more subjects, as well as having tuition in art, music, sciences etc. All these things are crucial parts of how the world and its denizens operate and how they are interlocked. If you want to enjoy Shakespeare’s work, it helps to know about the historical context, the geographical references, the social mores and the religious beliefs of the time. Children must learn how to think and reason for themselves, rather than learning to behave like robots.

We are not just physical creatures – we have spiritual needs, so ethics, morals and religious beliefs are very important. It’s worth remembering that the church has been in the forefront of establishing education in many countries, and that huge numbers of people have been prepared to be martyred for their faith. We should learn from this.
Juliet Chaplin

Polly Toynbee writes that faith schools “escape other schools’ obligation to prioritise children in care”. This is not the case. All state-funded schools in England, including schools with a religious character, must legally comply with the government’s admissions code. This requires all schools to give the highest priority in their admissions oversubscription criteria to looked-after children and previously looked-after children (children who were in care but have been adopted, or become subject to a child arrangements order or special guardianship order). In practice this means that whenever any school, including a faith school, receives more applications than there are places, children in care are at the front of the queue.

It’s also somewhat misleading to claim that the state “pays religions to run a third of our schools”. Maintained faith schools are funded in exactly the same way as maintained community schools: central government funding is delegated to local authorities, where schools forums – statutory decision-making bodies whose membership will include school leaders from both faith and non-faith maintained schools – determine an agreed funding formula for the distribution of this funding.

Faith academies are funded directly by the Education and Skills Funding Agency, in the same way as academies with no faith designation. Diocesan education services have a relationship with their faith schools, and can provide advice and professional development, but they are not paid to run faith schools. Headteachers run schools, supported by governing boards. As a former chair of governors in a C of E maintained school, I can assure Ms Toynbee that I paid close attention to ensuring that our admissions policy was legal and fair, and the school continues to admit many looked-after and previously looked-after children.
Becky Lawrence

I welcome Polly Toynbee’s article – while debating some conclusions. I have long argued that a secular approach to education is the best antidote to extremism (see my book Unsafe Gods: Security, Secularism and Schooling). Yet my argument is not for a hard secularism, as in France, but a dynamic secularism that is able to accommodate belief in the supernatural as long as this does not harm others. But the Michaela community school case revealed such harm, exposing intimidation and coercion in the name of religion.

The ethos and culture of the school are indeed key here – but not rigid, unquestioning discipline; rather, the discipline of a rights-based approach which enables understanding by students, teachers and parents of what is acceptable. Just like freedom of expression, the right to manifestation of religious expression is a qualified right, not an absolute one. The type of manifestation of religion demanded by the student in Katharine Birbalsingh’s school would have been detrimental and divisive. A dynamic secularism means compromise and pragmatism, but not at the expense of equal rights.

I’m fully with Polly Toynbee about faith schools fostering social segregation, while they pretend not to. I recall arguing with a Catholic school head who claimed that his school valued all faiths equally. But, I said, puzzled, the very existence of your school means you think that Catholicism is better than other value positions – or you wouldn’t need a designated school to promote it. Yet to challenge such religious particularism the answer is not banishment – either banning prayer or banning faith schools. What should be banned is state funding of faith schools – and the implicit state funding of selectivity and hypocrisy.
Lynn Davies
Emeritus professor of international education, University of Birmingham

Has Polly Toynbee any idea of what it would cost to “abolish religious schools”? About a third of these schools in England and Wales, 2,200 of them, are Catholic. The land on which the schools stand and the buildings themselves are the property of the Catholic church, bought and built with money given by ordinary Catholics. Let’s say buying out each one would cost on average £2m. That’s £4.4bn. If we include C of E schools, that could be another £8bn. What advantage to society would be gained for such a colossal expenditure by the state? Pointless is hardly the word for it. Or is she suggesting confiscation?
Clifford Longley
Orpington, Kent

One definition of hypocrisy is “feigning to be what one is not”. Religion in schools invites hypocrisy. There is the widespread semi-legal hypocrisy that we are a religious country – we are not. There is the educational hypocrisy that religious education is an integral part of the curriculum, yet in practice it is often watered down or almost nonexistent in non-faith schools. There is the hypocrisy of many faith schools claiming to be inclusive but not taking their fair share of disadvantaged pupils. There is the hypocrisy of parents feigning a faith to secure admission to faith schools.

Polly Toynbee is right: faith schools should be abolished, and with them the accompanying whiff of hypocrisy.
Prof Colin Richards
Spark Bridge, Cumbria

I couldn’t agree more with Polly Toynbee’s views in this article, but I must take issue with her misrepresentation of French secularism, which, she claims, “tends to cause less social harmony, not more, used as an easy pretext for far-right anti-Muslim attacks”. This has only become the case in the last 20 years or so, when French government policies (as opposed to the French state) began to turn away from the original 1905 law on the separation of church and state.

The promulgation of this fundamental piece of legislation was one consequence of the Dreyfus affair, and sought to enshrine the principle of religious belief as a private matter that should not be allowed to interfere in public life and politics.

Secularism as a principle governing public life in France worked reasonably well for pretty much a whole century, until successive governments began to do the very thing that it was conceived to prevent: they began, as in many other countries, to politicise religion – or rather, a religion – Islam.

In France, the turning point came under Nicolas Sarkozy from around 2008 with the hijab debate. The politicisation of Islam has now become toxic, and it is this, not secularism, that has created “a pretext for far-right Muslim attacks”. The traditional right and the so-called centre quickly adopted the far right’s poisonous conflation of Islam with antisemitism, while many on the left unwittingly reinforced their political opponents’ betrayal of secularism by launching into “the fight against Islamophobia”, instead of recognising Islamophobia for what it is – a form of racism.
Ilona Bossanyi
Saint-Sardos, France

Title: Education will be poorer if religion is banned from schools | Letters
Source: World news: Religion |
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Date: January 26, 2024 at 06:45PM
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