Thirty-odd years ago I was interviewed for a teaching post at the Church of England school where (over a decade later) I became the Headteacher. The Chair of Governors who was also the parish priest asked me if I had any religious faith. In my answer I explained I was not a “communicant member of the Church of England” but I was a person of religious faith and went on to refer to the school as a “Christian school” – at which point he interrupted me: “This is not a Christian school,” he said. “We are a community school. Our trust deeds of 1886 constitute it as such and we are here to serve all the community – people of all faiths and of none are welcome here. The ethos of the school is Christian, but we do not proselytise Christianity here.”
The school’s admissions policy reflected that ethos too. Its criteria was based the following priorities: first -whether existing pupils had siblings already in the school; secondly – residential proximity to the school; thirdly – if the family were practicing members of the Church of England or any other World faith; finally – if the family were sympathetic to the ethos of a Church of England voluntary aided school.
I was very comfortable with that policy. It meant the school reflected the community it served – which was Hackney – so we had Christians of all denominations, Muslims, Hindus and Jews in the school as well as (quite a lot of) non-believers. While Christian celebrations took prominence, other main faith events were celebrated and all the children and families learned something of each others’ beliefs in an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance.
Not all ‘church schools’ – as we called them in those days – had the same liberal and tolerant policy of course. Many practiced a much more selective admissions criteria which meant that some schools were an exclusive ‘club’ for a denominational section of the community – in those days this was particularly true of Catholics – though in certain areas of the country it could be just as true of others.
As a teacher, none of this bothered me very much. Even as the Headteacher of a Church of England school I thought the whole idea of ‘church schools’ was a generally benign but historical anomaly. As the parish priest explained to me: “The church provided education to the poor long before any government even considered it.”
Then along came Estelle Morris as the Labour Secretary of State for Education in 2001. She said that it made no logical sense for there to be Christian and Jewish ‘faith’ schools in a multi-faith society where there were Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who might want the same. So she liberalised the requirements to create ‘faith’ schools in the state sector.
I remember at the time thinking this was a mistake – not because I didn’t think other faith communities should have the right to set up ‘faith’ schools – but because she had missed the point. The reason we have Church of England, Catholic and even Jewish schools was, as my parish priest chair of governors pointed out, because they were providing education to the poor before the state thought it was its responsibility to do so.
Nowadays we all accept it is the responsibility of the state to provide education to all children. If we were setting up a state education system from scratch today, I do not think most of us – even those of devout religious faith – would start by setting up faith schools. I respect the right of people who want to send their children to a faith school, but I don’t think the state should be endorsing new ones with taxpayers funding. The old ones – as excellent as many of them are – are an historical anomaly. If people want new ones, let them fund them independently.
Now we have a situation where the state is endorsing the gradual increase – and in some cities, the rapid increase – in the separation, sectionalisation and segregation of society on religious grounds. Children are not being given the opportunity to mix and learn from each other in the way they once were. I don’t think that is any good for promoting community cohesion, let alone mutual respect and tolerance. Just look at the history of Northern Ireland.
As teachers, our professional values require us to promote mutual respect and tolerance of all faiths and of none. Teachers have a responsibility to promote and protect the values that underpin community cohesion. Even the clumsy Teachers’ Standards require us not to undermine fundamental British values.
We are not a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Jewish country. But we are a society – and the many communities that make up our society share fundamental values and many of them are fundamentally and in some cases uniquely British. Teachers play an enormous part in not only purveying those values from generation to generation – but also in defining them.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.