According to a pamphlet published today by the Centre for Policy Studies, penned by Cristina Odone, they [faith schools] are under threat as never before from "a government … aligning itself with a stridently secularist lobby".
Here's my comment [further developed 3/7/08] on Copson's excellent piece, which I just posted at comment is free.
The UK has seen a huge increase in the number of religious schools over the last decade. Having looked into how they are monitored, I was shocked to discover just how little monitoring there is. There are no national statutory requirements, not even for state funded schools; there are some non-statutory guidelines for state funded schools but they are toothless waffle (focused mainly on providing kids with knowledge of some other faiths). State funded schools are guided by the local Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education (SACRE) made up mainly of local teachers, religious folk and some council people. These SACREs set up an RE curriculum for schools in their area. This local curriculum typically reflects the waffly, non-statutory guidelines.
See here for those guidelines.
So state-funded schools have a "curriculum" set by the local SACRE, based on these guidelines. Generally, the SACRE requires schools teach kids about some other faiths (as the guidelines recommend). But there's invariably no requirement that e.g. children be encouraged to think critically about religion, etc. etc.
Independent schools are not even answerable to a local SACRE. Indeed, they cannot be faulted at all, whatever they do. Not even if they refuse to teach children about other faiths, as the guidelines recommend.
As a result of all this, even a state-funded school run as a religious brainwashing factory (perhaps chucking in, "Oh, and by the way, this is what Muslims and Jews mistakenly believe.") can often point to its glowing OFSTED report and say "But look at our wonderful inspection report!"
When I expressed concern on the R4 Today prog about the lack of standards and monitoring of what goes on in religious schools, a member of one of the Standing Advisory Comms. on Religious Education contacted me to say thank goodness I was bringing this issue up - and he was himself religious. On his, view, a significant proportion of religious schools are, so far as religion is concerned, functioning as little more than factories of indoctrination. He was particularly concerned about some Jewish, some Catholic, and many Islamic schools.
I speak regularly at schools, and have noticed that over the past decade or so there has been a shift towards more extreme religious views being expressed by pupils. And even by some staff. Most schools now seem to have at least a handful of children who believe that the entire universe is six thousand years old. Many schools have teachers who believe that too (I recently discovered that the supply science teacher at a very famous public school is such a creationist).
I don't deny there are some excellent religious schools. The problem is, we know far too little about what's going on in most of them. Many seem not to be fostering the kind of clear-headed independence of thought and robust critical defences that kids are going to need when they step outside the school gates and encounter people with wicked and dangerous belief systems. All children, whether in a religious school or not, need those kind of defences, and unfortunately many religious schools go about deliberately suppressing them. That, I think, is perhaps the most serious danger such schools present, no matter how well-intention such schools are, and no matter how noble the values they're promoting.
I think there should be robust minimum standards all schools should meet when it comes to RE, whether they be religious schools or not, state funded or not. The IPPR a few years ago recommended that all children should be encouraged to think critically about the religious views they bring with them into the classroom. The Telegraph and Melanie Phillips went ballistic. But the IPPR, it seems to me, is right.If you think traditional religious education is still acceptable, try taking my faith school challenge.
[POSTSCRIPT: A couple of anecdotes.
A state funded school just down the road had until recently, a Muslim school within its grounds. The Muslim school was for girls only, and was based in the cricket pavilion. The Muslim school was organized so that the pupils never mixed with non-Muslims. Indeed, they had different start and finish times to ensure this. To what extent would these girls grow up feeling integrated into British society, I wonder?
A recent poll revealed that 36% of young British Muslims think that any Muslim who leaves the faith should be killed. Clearly, their schools, religious or not, did not do a very good job of explaining the importance of the value of freedom of thought and expression, and that it is the right of every individual to accept, or reject, the religion in which they are raised. This is the sort of value all schools should be promoting in religious ed., surely. Indeed, shouldn't promotion of this value be mandatory?]