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Saturday, 3 March, 2001, 00:27 GMT
Do religion and schools mix?
By BBC education correspondent Mike Baker

Is the government in danger of ignoring the lessons of history? The rumblings over the plans to create new Church schools in England suggest it may be.

So far the discontent is merely simmering, but religion and education can be an explosive mixture.

The rumblings have been triggered by the Church of England's proposal to create 100 new secondary schools and the government's recent green paper on reforming - to quote the Prime Minister's Press Secretary - England's "bog standard" comprehensives.

The Green Paper promised 42m of taxpayers' money towards the capital costs at church schools over next two years and encouraged churches and other groups to set up new schools or take over the management of those which are struggling.

Behind this lies the prime minister's enthusiasm for the "sense of mission" often found at church schools. The Blairs chose the Roman Catholic London Oratory school for their sons.

Proportion has been falling

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church currently run around one quarter of all secondary schools.

For the past century the proportion of church-run schools has been falling as education became a state, rather than church, responsibility. Do we want to reverse this trend in the 21st Century?

Few would deny the excellence of many church schools. Many would also accept the right of groups to run their own schools. But should taxpayers foot the bill for denominational schools dedicated to particular spiritual and moral codes?

More church schools runs the risk of religious polarisation. Look at Northern Ireland where the vast majority of schools are run by the churches. Living separately, and being educated apart, does not facilitate better understanding between communities.

US amazement

The United States - founded by escapees from religious intolerance - ensures its public school system is religion free. Denominational schools do not exist within the taxpayer-funded system and no religious worship is allowed in public schools.

They are aghast that our government requires head teachers (many of them atheists) to conduct daily worship in schools.

There is also a risk of social polarisation. While many church schools serve deprived communities, and educate children from other faiths or no faith at all, this is not always so.

Popular and over-subscribed church schools often select on the basis of families" religious commitment or church attendance. It is not unknown for parents to start attending church as admission deadlines approach.

Might you not feel aggrieved if you lived close to a good church school, funded from your taxes, but which refused your child because its places were taken up by churchgoers who live further afield?

Social disorder

There is also the wider concern over the influence the churches should have over schools within a democratic, state-funded system. History has a few lessons on this score.

Mass education in England began with the churches responding to concerns at the immorality and lack of faith amongst the growing urban working classes. There was a real fear of social disorder.

Teaching children to read was seen as a prerequisite to scripture studies and the teaching of morality and obedience. As Thomas B Macaulay said in Parliament in 1848: "education of the common people is the most effectual means of protecting person and property".

But once they got a hold, the competing church school societies were reluctant to loosen their grip on the minds of the young.

Drag on progress

One effect was to hold back educational development in Britain. While France and Prussia pressed ahead with compulsory schooling and a national curriculum, British schools remained the preserve of paternal voluntarism.

Even the famous Foster Act of 1870 - seen as the foundation of a national school system - was a compromise allowing the state to fill in the gaps left by the church schools.

The biggest obstacle to RA Butler's 1944 Education Act, which created the modern school system, was the opposition of the churches reluctant to give up the requirement for denominational worship and teaching in school in exchange for desperately needed state funds. It led to a typically British compromise over "aided" and "controlled" church schools.

More recently, Kenneth Baker had to reach his own church settlement to guarantee progress on his 1987 Education Reform Bill. Its first clause states clearly that spiritual education is one of the main purposes of schooling.

Role of schools

This raises the fundamental question: What are schools for? It's a topical issue. Chris Woodhead marked his transition from chief schools inspector to columnist by accusing the government of promoting "utilitarian" education policies.

Is the main aim of schools to prepare the future workforce? Or is it to foster religious belief? Or to promote personal development? Or to ensure the transmission of a core of culturally specific knowledge from one generation to the next?

By promoting state-funded church schools the government is tilting the answer in a religious direction. That could cause problems if their other reforms want to go in a different direction.

A hundred or so extra church schools may not be a lot but they take us, with little fanfare, to a significant cross-roads in the history of our school system.

Mike Baker welcomes your comments at: although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.
See also:

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