Religious Crackpot of the Month, July 2008

Almost exactly a month ago (yeah, yeah), the Centre for Policy Studies publishedIn Bad Faith’, rallying against… well, let’s let the author, Christina Odone, explain…

The witch hunt is on. A Government obsessed with phoney egalitarianism and control freakery is aligning itself with the strident secularist lobby to threaten the future of faith schools in Britain.

I shall defer responding to this to the rather brilliantly ranty article published by Andrew Copson in the Guardian:

Few apart from than Odone can have noticed this dangerous development. Under Labour governments since 1997 more new state-funded faith schools have opened than under any other government, and there is no sign that this increase is being stemmed or about to be. Certainly no evidence for such a change of direction is presented in today's pamphlet, a mish-mash of anecdote, selective factoids and non-sequiturs ("The schools are not divisive. Not one of the 72 British citizens convicted under the Terrorism Act of 2000 attended a faith school.").

So what’s the problem?

[Faith schools] are out with Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister may acknowledge that his faith is important to him. But so is his standing with the Labour party ’“ all the more so given his record-low popularity with the voters. Gordon Brown knows that for the ’˜Old Labour’ rump of the party, equally committed to secularism and comprehensive education, faith schools are anathema. Tony Blair and ’˜New Labour’ were ready to ignore this constituency, but Gordon Brown cannot afford to.

It occurs to me that what people voted for in the last election was not faith schools, not Blair, nor Brown, but it was Labour. If Labour are largely against faith schools then surely Odone is accusing Brown of nothing more than keeping the promise Blair reneged on?

Here is her example of a faith school that’s good:

In contrast to the graffiti that covers the neighbouring buildings, and the litter on the streets and pavements, the Sir John Cass complex is impressively tidy and clean. Youngsters (the school is co-ed) in navy blue uniforms walk briskly but quietly in the corridors, greeting teachers with ’˜Hello Sir’ or ’˜Hello Miss’. When they spot the head, Haydn Evans, they fall silent to attention. It is easy to understand their awe: when one boy arrives with his tie askew, Evans, eyebrow raised, picks him up on it: ’˜Where’s your uniform?’

He sounds like a dick who rules by fear to me. I mean, I’d hate to generalise just from that, but it’s hardly convincing me that faith schools are worth the rampant discrimination and segregation required to sustain them. In any case, this is a Church of England school with 60% Muslim students (just like most faith schools, I’m unwilling to bet), and yet they persist in the pointless and rather silly charade of having a little prayer that most of the students don’t believe in. If this school, with students from a broad mix of (parents’) faiths, is the best example in favour of faith schools you can find, surely that’s an argument against them? At least it’s an argument against the aribtrary suspension of discrimination laws for their special case?

After this she bangs on for a while about the good results faith schools get in league tables. Now I don’t know a lot about schools, but I do know a bit about science. I know that you can’t just say they’re good because “they account for a third of all primary schools but make up almost two-thirds of the top 209 primaries”. That could mean anything. It could mean that selection works. It could mean they’re largely in areas where people get good results. You have to compare them with a matched control group, not just every other school. That’s a meaningless comparison.

In any case, to be frank I’d not be at all surprised if faith schools gave good exam results. I just think that those good exam results will be on the CVs of fucked up children. That, to me, isn’t progress. I for one would rather my children, should I ever have any, grew up to be well-balanced people with poor grades than unlikeable conservative nerds. Obviously I’m exaggerating, but it’s the children of ultra-religious people who need secular education most, and saying “if you don’t like it, pick another school” is like saying “let’s legalise murder, and if you don’t like it, don’t kill anyone”: it very much misses the point. Faith schools are a Catch-22: the people who want them are the people it is most important shouldn’t get them.

She also makes an appeal to populatity, saying

Among Christian parents, faith schools are so popular that they are allegedly pushing their children into late baptisms to secure places at these schools. Meanwhile, parents who were turned away from over-subscribed faith schools refuse to accept the alternative: about 70,000 appeals are launched each year.

But this is also misleading: the public in general are against faith schools. Parents want their kids to go to good schools. They don’t care what religion that school is.

In chapter two, Odone makes a poor attempt to address the idea that selection may be responsible for the better results:

Critics maintain that faith schools use the admissions procedure to usher in a better-off intake. As evidence, they point to the schools’ under-representation of children on Free School Meals (FSM)... But the National Audit Office warns that FSM do not necessarily serve as the best proxy for poor income. Its reservations were corroborated by research carried out last year for the Centre for the Economics of Education.

Fair enough perhaps, but let’s not forget you’re happy to use league tables against a hopelessly unmatched control as a proxy for efficacy. Besides, she’s in favour of selection:

To the Government, as Ed Balls’s attack revealed, a request for a marriage certificate as part of an application form is an ignominious attempt to flush out single mothers. To the Orthodox Jewish school, it is the only way to verify that both parents are born Jews.

Yes, but here in Britain we don’t stand for that kind of shit. Born Jews? That’s not “maintaining the religious ethos of the school”, that’s racism. I’d think Jews, of all people, would know better than that. She lists other, similar examples, which yes, do ensure that the school’s religious makeup is controlled, but plainly also act as proxies for performance selection.

Chapter four (chapter three saying nothing of any consequence) again opens with what Odone wrongly considers a lovely story about what she hopefully-wrongly perceives to be one of the better faith schools. Since the schools featured are her choice from the minority of ones that responded, from the minority of ones she contacted, I dismissed it out of hand. After that she starts explaining the idea that Muslim students or their parents might be offended by many aspects of what she quite wrongly describes as our “secular” state school system. These include “gym where their modesty is affronted” – believe me, at secondary school I would have liked little more than a decent affront to modesty in gym class and it really doesn’t happen – and “the school trip to a farm where they might come into contact with a pig” – which did happen. It was a Gloucester Old Spot. It wasn’t scary or offensive in the least. Of course, I’m not a Muslim, but screw them; if they want to complain about the prospect of their child maybe meeting a pig then they should have a better reason than “oh, we just don’t like pigs”. But Odone says that “feeling misunderstood or rejected by their peers at school, and frustrated in their ambitions beyond it, these youngsters are likely to be receptive to radical messages.” People will blow up trains because they met a pig? Are you serious?

Next is her observation, if you can call it that, that “not one of the 77 convicted on terrorism charges since the Terrorism Act 2000 attended a Muslim school”. What the Guardian article didn’t tell me was the comedy gem hiding after the semicolon: “one, Ader Ahmed, was home-schooled.” So basically he went to a really small faith school? I’m against home-schooling too. That plays right into my existing prejudice. (I realise the pamphlet isn’t aimed just at me, but then, I tend to think that people who share one opinion with me probably share other related ones too.)

Next, she starts implying that the alternative to proper Muslim schooling is little girls being packaged off to Pakistan to marry close relatives:

‘The Drugs sex and rock and roll scene is not an option for Muslim girls,’ Humeira Khan points out, ‘or if it is, it sparks huge conflict. So suddenly marrying them early or sending them home [to Pakistan or Bangladesh] becomes a huge pressure.’

Trust me, it’s not an option for anyone at school. Did you never even watch The Inbetweeners? Unless you’ve been sitting up all night watching Skins, which frankly raises even more worrying questions, there’s no reason to be afraid of what happens in the average British school. I’d be far more concerned about the effects of a Muslim education on a young girl. If that results in some people sending their children to more illiberal countries, I think we have to accept that as a consequence of being ahead of the rest of the world. Lead by example. You know or “liberate” Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The fifth chapter (by which point I was skipping the “example” schools entirely) points out that far from “educational ghettos where Christian children learn about Creationism and Muslim children about jihad, while Jewish children are taught they alone are Chosen People” (an accusation I would never make – they’re not educational! Ho ho!), “faith schools in the state system must follow the National Curriculum, including Citizenship education.” Well that’s swell and all, but – and again I don’t know a lot about schools so this may be totally wrong – surely a school which actually is pluralistic, multicultural and inclusive is going to be more effective than a school which is monoreligious, monocultural and exclusive, with a lesson (eating up an hour a week of expensive teaching time) in place to teach students tolerance as if it’s something that can be examined? Odone points out that “all maintained schools are under an ’˜obligation’ to promote community cohesion,” but that doesn’t mean they actually do it. The government could mandate that all bank clerks must fly to work on jetpacks, it wouldn’t make it so.

Chapter six, ‘Smears’, mentions creationism. Odone claims that creationism in Britain is basically a myth:

Creationism, then, is not a wild fire sweeping the country’s schools; it is not taught in science classes in place of, or as an alternative to, evolution. Instead, Creationism is taught, in a handful of schools, as part of their study of the Bible in RE. Those Christian students who subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible will believe that God made the world, and man, in seven days; but thanks to the National Curriculum they will also know that science has proved otherwise. In this way their Christianity has to accommodate their learning.

Channel 4 say otherwise. And so does the scary Jewish headmaster in their film.

After that there is a summary saying “as we have seen, the charges against faith schools can be dismissed one by one” which as I think we have seen, she didn’t actually do with any kind of success.

And that’s why she’s awarded this month’s Crackpot title.