Leading British journalist and blogger Toby Young, Co-Founder of the West London Free School, writes exclusively for the JLC in response to recent critiques of faith schools.
One of the most common arguments against faith schools is that since they're paid for by the taxpayer it's wrong for them to only admit children of a particular faith. If they're funded by people of all faiths and none, they should be open to children of all faiths and none. Otherwise, you're asking the majority of taxpayers to pay for schools that they cannot send their children to, even if they live next door. That was one of the arguments made by Ellie Levenson in her recent attack on faith schools in the Jewish Chronicle.
My problem with this is that it ignores the wishes of those taxpayers who want their children to go to a faith school. They believe that if their children go to a school that doesn't share their religious values, and if they're taught by teachers and surrounded by children who don't share those values, they may end up with different values. To my mind, even though I'm not religious, that's a perfectly legitimate concern. There are plenty of secular schools that non-religious parents can send their children to, so why do so many of them want to get rid of faith schools? In effect, non-religious parents want to impose their values on people of faith by forcing them to send their chidden to secular schools. That's every bit as illiberal as people of faith trying to force secular parents to send their children to faith schools.
Another frequently-made objection to faith schools is that they contribute to religious segregation and, by extension, promote fragmentation and social disintegration. If we want the British people to share a common culture, they should all be educated at similar schools with similar values. That, too, was a point made by Ellie Levenson.
The difficulty I have with that argument is it smacks of social engineering. If the British people don't share a common culture, it's not the job of the state to try and impose one. In any case, who will decide what that common culture should be? The majority? One
of the cardinal principles of liberal democracy is that the rights of minorities should be sacrosanct. That is, their rights should be protected regardless of how a majority of people feel about them. Those rights include the right to send your child to a school that shares your religious faith and that's not a right that only those rich enough to educate their children privately should enjoy.
I also think the social risks associated with faith schools are exaggerated. In fact, British people of all faiths and none do share a common culture – a commitment to decency and fair play, of mutual respect and tolerance – that isn't undermined by faith
schools. On the contrary, it's reinforced by them. I don't know of any taxpayer-funded faith school where children are taught that people who don't share their faith are inferior to them or undeserving of their respect. They're taught exactly the opposite, not least because man's equality before God is a fundamental principle of nearly all faiths.
Apart from these theoretical arguments, there's also a good practical reason for not dismantling faith schools, namely, that they're among the best state schools in the country. One of the reasons faith schools get a bad press is because secular parents can't get their children into them, something that wouldn't be a problem if those schools weren't any good. The solution is not to do away faith schools – that's the politics of envy. Rather, we need to raise standards in secular schools. That's where Ellie Levenson's energies should be directed, not in attacking these beacons of excellence.
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