Monday, October 04, 2010

Unitarians join the Accord Coalition

Via Ekklesia:

The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches has announced that it is joining the Accord Coalition on inclusive schooling.

The body is the umbrella organisation for Unitarian and Free Christian congregations in the United Kingdom.

The Accord Coalition, a broad campaign network, encompasses a wide range of different religious and non-religious groups and individuals concerned at the way that faith schools currently operate.

Launched in 2008, Accord already includes among its members the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, the Hindu Academy, Muslim group BMSD, and the British Humanist Association, among others.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of the Accord Coalition, welcomed the Unitarians' decision to join the organisation. He said: "The Unitarians' decision to join Accord and support our objectives not only broadens the wide range of our membership, but further demonstrates that concern about faith schools is not limited to secular groups, but also encompasses those with committed religious faith."

President of the Unitarians, Neville Kenyon, declared: "We believe that state schools should be open to children of every background, while jobs in schools should be open to all teachers who are qualified to do them."

He continued: "Schools should also teach pupils about the wide range of different religions and beliefs, helping to better prepare them for life in our increasingly diverse society. We are delighted to have become members of the Accord Coalition, which successfully addresses issues of religious liberty and is entirely in tune with the Unitarian ethos."

Unitarianism describes itself as "an open-minded and individualistic approach to faith that gives scope for a very wide range of beliefs and doubts. Religious freedom for each individual is at the heart of Unitarianism."

There are 170 congregations and fellowships within the denomination in the UK.


Blogger Joseph said...

It is only correct that Unitarians support inclusive and multi-faith education for themselves and for those who want it. But to assume that all other faith groups should do the same, and to try and prevent them from maintaining the single-faith education that they feel is important and vital, is a very illiberal move. I can only hope that the Con/Lib government is committed to true Liberal values.

9:03 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Joseph, the point is these are state-funded schools. All citizens pay for these schools, but they are only available to people of certain faiths. That is fundamentally unfair and creates a system where familes of certain faiths (or no faith) are at a disadvantage.

If faith groups wanted to start their own schools (and fund them themselves) then there should be nothing to stop them. To ban them from doing so would be illiberal, I agree. But that doesn't mean that it should be government policy to fund such schools that are exclusively for one faith.

We are not saying we want to abolish faith schools. We are saying if faith schools are state-funded they should not discriminate.

9:15 am  
Blogger Joseph said...

I understand the argument regarding state-funding, but why single out faith schools? Many single-sex and special-need schools are state funded and are also only available to certain segments of the community. Religious parents like everyone else have to pay tax, and they too deserve to have educational opportunities which meet their needs. I for one don't begrudge them that. There are many many non-religious or mixed schools available. However to deny funding for voluntary aided schools, is to deny whole groups of citizenry from the education they need. Will they have their tax burden lowered as a result? Of course not. And if funding is removed then many parents will be plunged into poverty as they struggle to pay school fees. In addition the faith schools in the private sector will not be regulated to ensure that their ethos and teaching does not damage the social fabric of our society. So I say leave these schools alone, and work at raising the standards of non-faith schools instead.

1:37 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

I don't think such schools should have their funding removed, I think such schools should reform and cease to discriminate.

I don't think a comparison to special needs and single sex schools really makes sense. I pay tax that pays for hospitals. Those hospitals are used only by sick people. That happens not to be me (right now). But I don't begrudge that. What I would object to is for my local hospital to be only available to Christians.

Religious parents (and all parents) have the right for their children to be provided with local, good quality education. They don't have the right for the education to any kind of education of their own personal choosing. They don't have the right to insist their children are not taught beside children of other religions (notwithstanding Dawkins' point about children not having a religion).

If religious parents "deserve to have educational opportunities which meet their needs" that surely that needs to apply to ALL religious parents and all parents. If that is true then each local authority would need to provide as many schools as there are local religions. Every local authority WOULD HAVE TO provide an Anglican school, a Methodist schoool, a URC school, a Liberal Jewish school, a Reform Jewish School, a Conservative Jewish School, an Orthodox Jewish school, an atheist school, an agnostic school, a Quaker school, a Unitarian school, a Catholic school, a Mormon school, a Jehovah's Witness school, a Shi'a school, a Sunni school, etc etc etc. If it doesn't do this then some religions are being discriminated against.

Or you could just let people of any faith go to their local school, and not discrimate against them. That would also be fair.

9:36 am  
Blogger Joseph said...

You make some very good points Stephen which are most certainly worthy of consideration, however I think you are falling into a category confusion when you compare hospitals to voluntary-aided schools. The purpose of any hospital is to care for the sick. Every human being can fall sick, and as such the hospital must treat all people without discrimination. A Christian, Jew or Muslim share the same physical nature and have the same physical needs after all. Education is about providing the tools for people to function in society and learn the knowledge that will help them and the wider society. Not everybody has the same needs in this regard! Some people have special needs which require specialist education. Some people believe the interests of their sons and daughters are best catered by single-sex education. Orthodox Jewish parents feel their children require an education that teaches them how to live as educated Orthodox Jews in modern Britain.

If one believes in state funding for education then one will have to make a choice between a system with a "one size fits all" approach, or an educational system that caterers to the specific needs people have. Sometimes these needs can be catered for in an inclusive environment, other times they require specialist education that is more exclusive.

I don't think there is any reason to worry that every single religious group would want its own school,and that such schools would be closed or prioritised for pupils who do not share that faith. Liberal, Reform and Conservative Jews would not, neither would Quakers or agnostics, Unitarians or other liberal Christians and many other groups. This is primarily because their faiths do not require or create a need for specialist exclusive education. The majority of faith schools in any event, do allow children from other faiths to attend, this is most certainly the case in the Catholic school I attended and in all our local Anglican schools. It is a very tiny proportion that totally restrict their catchment to children of the same faith.In addition there are some faith-schools in which the majority of children come from a faith background other than that of the school.

The issue is so peripheral, considering the genuine unfairness that takes place in every town and city, were good secular schools are off limits to everybody who can't afford to live in expensive catchment areas, not to mention the many schools failing to provide even a basic education to their pupils, that I am suspicious of the motivations behind calls to remove faith-school funding or calls to force them to change their admissions criteria.

I just don't think an ideological attack on voluntary-aided schools is justified or proportionate with the genuine educational needs of our country.

And as I said before I would be loathed to begrudge any parent the ability to send their child to a school that they feel is necessary to them and their family. And I am much happier that such schools are in the state sector in as much as they can be better regulated.

To demand that some schools reform in the way you suggest, with the coercive threat of removing funding if they do not, would force the schools out of the state sector and into the private, this would lead to great hardships and I feel would damage the delicate balance of tolerance in our society and ultimately be unfair.

For those who are still left with a bad taste in the mouth about voluntary-aided schools, perhaps they may consider a system that uses education vouchers to opt out of the state sector.

12:43 pm  
Anonymous NUFer said...

I've only just caught up with Dawkins' programme 'Faith School Menace'; the representative of Catholic schools in Northern Ireland made exactly the same point as Joseph and (almost) had the good professor lost for words ! Revealing also was his interview with Charles Clarke,who revealed he was ideologically opposed to faith schools but when in government extended the net to include state funded Muslim schools and admitted that it was political pressures that obliged him to change his view. I think that the religious card on admission only gets played when the school is oversubscribed - there are state funded faith schools that are undersubscribed,where the school is happy to take the pupils it can get regardless of parental affiliation - there was a Catholic secondary on this position in John Humphreys recent programme on the divide in education.

1:03 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

I still think we're disagreeing about what is a genuine educational "need."

Joseph, you say, "the majority of faith schools in any event, do allow children from other faiths to attend...In addition there are some faith-schools in which the majority of children come from a faith background." That is exactly the kind of school I attended, a state-funded Christian school where the majority of pupils were Muslim. The point is this good, hospitable practice should be true of all schools.

Please be very clear about what the Accord Coalition wants. We are NOT saying we want to abolish faith schools, we do NOT want to remove funding from faith schools. Accord has five very specific reforms that it is calling for, the first of which being an end to faith-based discrimination in admissions.

5:22 pm  
Blogger Joseph said...

We may indeed disagree as to what defines an educational need. I think, however, we are both agreed that within the Unitarian community we would not pursue exclusive or semi-exclusive schools for ourselves. But I do not think it is my place to define the needs of others. If they claim they have a need (and in some cases I can certainly see their logic) then I respect that.

You say the hospitable standards of the faith-school you attended should be true of all schools. While I agree that in the majority of cases that is true (and it is in fact the reality in a very large segment of voluntary-aided schools anyhow) I don't think that it is true for all schools. And it is important for us not to imply that the faith groups behind those exclusive schools,the parents who send their children there or the students themselves, are lacking in hospitality or regard for the wider community. In my experience the opposite is true.

Demanding a change in the admissions of faith-schools, would without doubt bring an end to some of them existing in the state sector. (As well as being unfair) Thereby creating all the disadvantages to the parents and communities involved that I referred to previously. And it is clear to me that some of those involved with Accord are against religion having any significant role in society at all, and attack faith-schools not because they can be shown to be damaging but simply for ideological reasons and to further their own agenda.

9:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are very vocal about allegedly exclusive Christian schools - but not so about Muslim and Jewish schools?

Why so?

7:04 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Because the vast majority of faith schools in the country are Anglican and Catholic. And because I'm a Christian. And because I went to a Christian state school.

But Accord is clear in calling for reform of all faith schools.

9:19 am  

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