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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Faith schools and social cohesion

From a letter in the Times:-

'Sir, If the community providing a faith school is already well integrated into the host society it should facilitate the integration of its pupils and their parents — immigrants in particular. But faith schools are likely to be damaging to social cohesion in two circumstances. The first is when the faith community is itself badly integrated into the host society.

'The second is when the host society is itself deeply segregated, as in Northern Ireland. There, the solution that I and others first proposed was the establishment of a network (now of 57 schools) where the children of Catholics and Protestants would be educated together on a footing of equality, receiving a religious education that satisfies their parents.'

I agree with the analysis, which makes a refreshing change from the hysterical across-the-board denunciation of faith schools which you're all too likely to read in certain other papers. And I salute the work done in Northern Ireland. The writer goes on to make another good point that is rarely heard:-

'Catholic schools have had an important part to play in integrating into British society the immigrants who have for many years been coming from Italy, Spain and Portugal. And they are now doing the same for Polish, Lithuanian, Slovakian and Ukrainian immigrants. Hampering them would be incredibly foolish.'

Then comes the pay-off: an ambitious proposal for extending the principle developed in Northern Ireland:-

'Helping the Muslim community to integrate is another matter, and the leaders of the Catholic and Islamic communities should discuss the creation of joint or shared schools where the children of Christians and Muslims could be educated on a footing of equality and receive a religious education that satisfies their parents.'

This seems to me to be a tall order. There's no harm in talking, for sure, but I fear he underestimates the differences between the Northern Ireland case and this one. For all the sectarian poison in NI, the people it divides are members of the same faith. Of course there are doctrinal differences, but none of them are anywhere near as fundamental as the Christian values which the sectarian conflict betrays, and therefore none of them are valid arguments for refusing to try to dismantle the barriers.

But how would a joint Christian-Muslim school work? A collective ethos is the whole point of a faith school, as opposed to providing individual pupils with faith experiences tailored to their parents' expectations. Christians worship God incarnate in Christ - that is the irreducible core of our faith. When we do so we blaspheme in Muslim eyes. How do you arrive at a shared ethos without excluding religion altogether? What kind of assemblies would such a school have?

It's good to talk and it's good to find better ways of living together. Pretending we believe the same things when in fact we don't is not a solid foundation for anything.

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