31 July

Politics, Religion and the Trojan Horse Inquiry

As details of the Trojan Horse inquiry make their way into the mainstream press, and as it becomes apparent that there really was something very troubling going on in certain state-funded schools in Birmingham, it is to be expected that questions be asked about the place of religion in schools. But while the ‘hardline and politicised strain of Sunni Islam’ promoted at schools run by the Park View Educational Trust may not be of a kind that is tolerable in Britain it would be premature to suggest that this in particular should occasion a re-think of the place of all religion in UK schools.

The British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society have both campaigned for an end to government support for schools with a religious character, or ‘faith schools’. The findings of the Trojan Horse inquiry unsurprisingly appear go some way to supporting this position, but it would be a serious mistake to conflate the 30% or so of British schools that have a religious character with three state-funded schools in Birmingham that have been promoting Islamic extremism. Moreover, the schools administered by the Park View Educational Trust have, in principle, no religious character at all beyond profession of Islam by many pupils and teachers. Formally, in fact, these are not ‘faith schools’ at all but secular schools.

Furthermore, there is more than a little confusion about whether what was being taught in Park View’s schools was religion or political extremism with religious inspiration. By comparison with the kind of religion taught at most schools in Britain one would be inclined to say the latter, since the ‘religious’ values fostered by Church of England, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, and Islamic schools around the country lean strongly towards tolerance and charity, rather than establishment of a global theocracy. The extremism plaguing Park View schools is utterly unlike what is to be found in almost all other faith schools in the UK. Indeed, it is difficult to envisage guidelines for teaching religion based on findings of the Trojan Horse Inquiry that could reach beyond what is already the good practice of the vast majority of such schools.

While we might reasonably assert that such regrettable events should have little or no impact on teaching of religion, or on the establishment of more faith schools, it is clear that they do draw attention to the deeper issue of the relationship pertaining between religion and politics. In this regard it is worth observing that Britain remains constitutionally a Christian country. Unlike the USA there is in Britain no separation between Church and State. Indeed, in the Church of England’s recent debate about women bishops, the Prime Minister felt able to threaten that Parliament might intervene in the Church’s affairs if the measure were not passed. Meanwhile, on the passing of same-sex marriage into law the possibility of disestablishment was raised since there was (not for the first time) a divergence between Church doctrine and law. Given the long-standing existence of such a union between Church and State it should hardly be surprising that there are so many schools in Britain with a religious character, the vast majority of which are Church of England schools. Indeed, it is a testament to its benign influence that there should be so many Roman Catholic and Jewish schools likewise supported by the State when in a less tolerant country it might be Church of England schools alone that could receive such funding. As for the 70% of schools that have no religious affiliation (and which include the Park View Schools) one really does wonder what the BHA and NSS are complaining about when it seems that it is rather they who are over-represented and indeed problematic.


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