What when ‘faith schools’ serve the public good?

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I’ve tried to set out some of the issues posed by faith schools and their impact on the church school. It’s now time to hear from someone who sees good practice and believes such schools actually serve the public good. So over to a friend of mine – Canon Dr Andrew Smith, Director of Interfaith Relations for the Bishop of Birmingham.

The place of faith schools within the education sector is on the agenda for the government and, as always, creates both positive and negative responses. Steve’s blog has highlighted some of the concerns people have about the development of faith schools and has also mentioned some of the issues schools have faced in Birmingham. I’ve been involved in schools in Birmingham in one way or another since 1994 (governor, Scripture Union Schools Worker, parent, member of SACRE, husband of head teacher …) and have seen good and bad practice in different types of faith schools as well as community schools.

Since 1994 there have been many changes in education and also in the types o f provision available. Back then faith schools were either CofE, Catholic or Methodist, defined as Church schools rather than faith schools, or private faith schools mostly run by Christians, Jews or Muslims; whereas now alongside these there are faith based academies and free schools run by a variety of different faiths. Not only that but all faith schools are now inspected by Ofsted and have a requirement to teach ‘British Values’ defined as being democracy, equality and the rule of law. They are also under pressure to ensure that pupils succeed academically especially in the core subjects of English, Maths and IT.

Engaging with faith schools means getting to know the schools in our area and understanding their ethos and values. Some private faith schools and academies have a specific agenda to teach pupils, primarily of one faith, and within the ethos of that faith, for example the Al Hijra Islamic School in Birmingham. Others, such as the Islamic Eden Boys School also in Birmingham, aim to provide high quality Islamic ethos education for pupils of all faiths and are involved with the Christian – Muslim encounters run by The Feast. Similarly the Nishkam schools have a Sikh ethos but want to provide education for pupils of all faiths and both schools have taken pupils to carol services at the local churches.

Faith schools can become mono-faith and mono-cultural, but that is not exclusive to them. Many of the schools on the estates ringing Birmingham are equally mono-cultural. The best schools are working to cross boundaries and introduce pupils to people from different faiths and cultures; again we can see good and weak practice in church, faith and community schools.

The ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal highlighted how people can unduly influence a school. The issue was very complex and controversial and many people are still hurting as a result. However, none of the schools involved were faith or church schools; one of the criticisms made was that some governors were trying to impose practices only appropriate in a faith school.

There is a huge opportunity for Christians to be salt and light in all schools, to support teachers in the academic and social aspirations of the school. We can help them develop religious literacy so that they have a greater understanding of the complex nature of faith in Britain, which would have helped us all navigate the way through crises such as the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair. We need to become educationally literate in order to understanding the complex and changing nature of schools in our areas.

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