Has the time come to ban all religious worship and related activities from UK Schools?

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The 1944 Education Act put into place a state primary and secondary school system with an Act of Parliament introduced by a Conservative Minister, RA Butler, but implemented by the subsequent Labour Government under Clement Attlee. It was an immense leap forward. Nevertheless, as Anthony J Sargeant points out, the system introduced was ‘of its time’ with unfortunate and unforeseen consequences following subsequent developments in UK society and its school system.

RA Butler

 R.A. Butler 1902-1982 (Conservative Minister of Education 1941-1945).The Times obituary called him “the creator of the modern educational system, the key-figure in the revival of post-war Conservatism, arguably the most successful chancellor since the war and unquestionably a Home Secretary of reforming zeal.”

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The Attlee government faced immense austerity in the immediate years after World War Two. It is often forgotten that rationing of some basics such as meat continued well into the 1950s. Coal was in short supply, there were frequent power cuts, and the war effort had virtually bankrupted the country. Despite the difficulties Attlee’s government did create the NHS, and it did implement the re-organization of primary and secondary state funded education. But in relation to the latter what it could not afford to do was to take control of all education. This meant that Private schools for the rich (misleadingly called “Public” Schools) continued to exist alongside the State system (usually, and still today under the guise of “charitable” foundations with all the consequent tax benefits).

Even within the State funded system itself the Government could not afford to take over the many primary and secondary schools which belonged to the Churches, many of which had been established in the 19th Century when State provision was at best rudimentary. The majority of these schools were Church of England foundations with a somewhat smaller number of Roman Catholic Schools (though there were a few others, such as The Jewish Free Schools).

At the time it was recognised that such fragmentation of the school system was less than ideal. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Northern Ireland with tragic consequences and where the division of that Society between Protestant and Roman Catholic is still perpetuated within the School system.

Starting in the 1990s there has been an increasing fragmentation of the school system outside of Local Education Authority Control with so-called ‘Free’ Schools and sponsored ‘Academies’ as well as the twilight area of ‘home education’.

The 1944 Education Act created an unfortunate precedent in allowing Church Schools to be funded within the State system. But in the 1940s those schools were predominantly from two Christian denominations in a country and society based on Western Christian culture. As pointed out this was not a major problem except in Northern Ireland, where it remains divisive (and perhaps some mainland cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow. In relation to the latter think of the tribal divide between Celtic and Rangers supporters on a Saturday night in the 1960s).

Now, however, there are a multitude of religious groups in the UK, some more bizarre, antipathetic and repugnant to the host society than others: for example, those promoting Female Genital Mutilation of young girls.  Unfortunately, given the 1944 precedent, it now seems impossible in the fragmented school system  to refuse permission to any religious group, to set up schools promoting their beliefs. Christian Academies in the North East teaching  ‘Creationism’ in place of evolutionary theory is one example, another is, Islamic Schools promoting Sharia Courts as an alternative to UK law.

Allowing Church Schools to continue within the State system after 1944 has proven to be an unforeseen Trojan Horse contributing to a ghetto-isation of children on the basis of their parents religious or cultural beliefs.

The consequence is further fracturing of the core values and moral code of UK society.  It may now be too late to undo the damage. The genie is out of the bottle. Nevertheless if one wants a society that holds together into the years ahead it desperately needs to avoid the creation of cultural and religious ghettos.

Something could be done to repair the damage created by the Trojan Horse as suggested below but it would require immense courage (or foolhardiness) for any politician to propose the following :

(1) Only authorise new state funded schools which do not include any religious worship or teaching in their activities.

(2) In relation to existing private fee-paying schools: Charitable status should be removed from all privately funded schools.

(3) Perhaps most importantly State funding should be progressively reduced from any school over a period of 5 years unless there is concomitant plan to remove religious content from the school’s activities such that no such content exists after that 5 year period. 

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Anthony J Sargeant – 20th March 2018

 

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