Lest anyone think the headline of this article is a secular attack on faith, let me assure them that I am not Dawkins-in-disguise. I value faith - both my own (Judaism) and that of others. I also like churches and often visit them when on holiday because of the deep spirituality many of them exude - be it soaring cathedrals or rural chapels - while I have attended enough Christian services for inter-faith purposes to know my way around the liturgy.
However, I am deeply disturbed by the news this week that thousands of secular state schools could be run by the Church of England as a result of an agreement between it and the Government. Officially the schools would remain secular, but they would be run by church-led Academy chains, and it is impossible to imagine that the Church would not wish to influence them in accordance with its own outlook and practices.
The problem with this is two-fold. First, it is a development that has caught everyone by surprise. Why has there been no public consultation - either at local or national level - on such a far-reaching change in education? Instead we have a done-deal between the Government and one of the providers in the education world. It might be viewed with favour by parents or teachers or governors, but equally it might be regarded with horror. The lack of any prior consultation for such a radical move is astonishing.
Second, it influences educational policy in exactly the opposite direction from the path along which it should travel. Every survey shows that the public wants inclusive schools, where children of different faith and ethnic backgrounds mix and meet, not ones where faith is a criterion in the admission of pupils, employment of teachers and content of the curriculum, invariably narrowing down the parameters. Yet now the Department for Education is helping to entrench exclusivity.
It will be tragic if community schools that currently serve their local population without discrimination and see themselves as the hub of local life are transformed into ones that serve one particular faith group only and exclude others - be it those of different faiths or no-belief system. Let faith be celebrated in the home or in church or at Sunday school or at summer camp, but school should be the place where the whole of society comes together and interacts.
This is not some messianic vision, but what many parents currently do, including those of faith who regard communal harmony as enormously important. They see social cohesion as a religious value and regard it as part of fulfilling the command to 'love your neighbour as yourself' (Leviticus 19.18) - which can only be achieved by knowing your neighbour in the first place. It is the same reason why I sent my own children not to a Jewish school but to a community school - so that they could sit next to a Christian, play football in the break with a Muslim, and do homework with a Hindu. It meant my children came to know about them and their ways, those children got to know Jewish children and our ways. Everyone benefitted, and they will all be better citizens because of it.
A multi-faith Britain needs more community schools that bring everyone together, not more faith schools that segregate children and fragment society.
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