Friday, 5 September 2008

Accord out of tune

A new coalition called Accord, which was launched officially on Monday 1 September 2008, is calling on Children, Schools and Families Secretary of State Ed Balls to stop publicly-funded faith schools from discriminating against students and teachers on the grounds of their beliefs.

Accord has been established by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, the British Humanist Association (BHA) and a range of other organisations and individuals - including clergy, academics and public figures - to seek to build a new consensus for fairness and equality in schooling and schools policy.

The coalition has received the support of Polly Toynbee in her latest rant against faith schools published by The Guardian. Her piece is either knowingly dishonest or wilfully ignorant. For example, she completely ignores the role that the church and other religious institutions have played in the development of education provision over the centuries in Britain and the presence of church schools serving communities abandoned by just about every other institution. Toynbee also refers to Ed Balls' attack on faith schools in April this year but fails to mention that he was unable to stand up many of his original accusations upon further investigation. Some have suggested Balls’ accusations were a cynical appeal to part of the Labour Party to strengthen his political base.

Toynbee suggests that the support of faith schools has been one of Tony Blair’s most damaging legacies. Personally I believe it was just one of a number of policies for which he has never been given sufficient credit by those (including some of our own bishops) who are always claiming that the government fails to involve the church in public policy.

Why does Toynbee's undoubted intelligence and capacity for reasoned argument seem to disappear whenever she gets anywhere near an issue of faith, making her appear the most irrational of fundamentalists?

Here is a response to Toynbee by Henry Grunwald also published in The Guardian.

Anyway, back to Accord. I have been a chair or vice chair of governors of a wide range of both church and state schools for nearly twenty years. None of these schools operated a discriminatory selection process and they reflected a real desire to give the best to the children and communities where they were based. I was saddened to see Ekklesia had signed up to Accord alongside The British Humanist Association, of which Toynbee is the Chair. Accord would better serve the children of our communities by addressing the very challenging problems facing many of our failing schools, rather than by attacking those schools which have been part of the solution.

I am not in favour of discrimination in admission to schools or employment in schools and it should be challenged where it occurs. However, the idea that faith schools are the root of all the evils in our education system is just pernicious nonsense based on prejudice and ignorance.

Update 8/9/08: Here is an excellent comment piece by Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian entitled Faith schools can best generate the common purpose that pupils need.
Bunting's article is a balanced reflection on the contribution of faith schools prompted by the setting up of six academies by Steve Chalke's Oasis Trust.

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