Free education is most complicated subject

PUBLISHED: 12:27 30 January 2008 | UPDATED: 11:30 01 July 2010

Date: 21.01.08

St Cyprians Primary school, Greek Orthodox school 
Painting in hall area that all children sit front of for assembly
Teacher Jessica Sydney with her Year 4 children

Ref:  Pictures by  Andy Barnes

Date: 21.01.08 St Cyprians Primary school, Greek Orthodox school Painting in hall area that all children sit front of for assembly Teacher Jessica Sydney with her Year 4 children Ref: Pictures by Andy Barnes

Kentish Times

THE debate about faith schools is heating up. It s an unstable recipe, fusing a medley of universal and awkward ingredients - namely religion, education and politics. Opinions differ not just between believers and non-believers but within religions them

THE debate about faith schools is heating up. It's an unstable recipe, fusing a medley of universal and awkward ingredients - namely religion, education and politics. Opinions differ not just between believers and non-believers but within religions themselves as to whether we should really be mixing schooling with faith. Now the government must come up with a solution. Should it continue to serve children an education with a religious base or take it out altogether? Kate Nelson reports...

ATHEISTS, agnostics and humanists are only some of those who'd prefer faith schools to be outlawed, their view being that they are unnecessary, selective and promote segregation.

However staunch supporters on the other side include religious leaders, teachers and parents who argue religion and education cannot be separated and advocate a legal right to choose a school in line with their beliefs and morals.

Even the politicians seem confused and wary.

Last month, education minister Ed Balls reigned in the Blair-borne ideology to build hundreds more, stating it is "not the policy of the government or my department to promote more faith schools".

The fact is faith schools make up a third of the 21,000 schools in the state sector.

There are around 6,900 Christian schools, 37 Jewish schools and seven Muslim schools in the UK.

Meanwhile, Sikhs and Greek Orthodox children have just one state school each but to be fair, they're doing better than Hindus who currently have none at all.

This is set to change in September when the first state-run Hindu primary is due to open its doors.

In Bromley, there are 13 faith-affiliated schools, 12 are Christian and one is an independent Muslim school for boys.

So what about Jewish children?

Eva Byk, a member and former chairman of Bromley synagogue doesn't seem to mind the bias.

She said: "There is absolutely no provision made for Jewish schools in south London or Kent. However I didn't feel a need to send my children to a Jewish school and brand them by their religion. Even if there had been one in the next road to me I wouldn't have used it.

"Religion is an internal thing, it's in your soul and you live by it. But you don't need to be constantly reminded of it."

Others maintain that you do, that faith is an integral part of everyday life and that includes school.

St Cyprian's primary school in Croydon is the only state Greek Orthodox school in the country and its pupils trek across south London and Kent to attend.

The school has 366 children on the register but only 37 of them are Greek Orthodox.

Other student's religions include Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism.

Greek Orthodox ethos plays a huge part of school life, icons adorn the walls and halls, there is a chapel area and all pupils regardless of faith take daily Greek lessons from nursery.

Maria Salter, 40, a Greek Orthodox Christian from Lee Green says her two children 'feel like they belong' at St Cyprian's.

"It's not about reading, writing or maths," she said. "It's about values and reinforcing what the children learn at home. Faith is a part of life, it's intertwined and not something you can separate from education."

In Bexley and Greenwich boroughs, all 45 of the faith schools are either Catholic or Church of England.

Mrs Salter added: "I'm lucky that I can send my children to St Cyprians because it fits with my religion.

"I would have a huge problem with the school if it didn't teach the children about other religions but they do, my children come home and tell me all about it."

The school was used as a beacon of success in the government's policy document on faith schools, 'Faith in the System'.

Deputy Headteacher, Vasoula Baron believes religious schools offer something special to their students. She said: "They have their own ethos and the values permeate through the curriculum. There is something unique about that, it brings us together and is a continuation from the home.

"We tell the children that God is watching them all the time because children need that to help with discipline."

When asked why some people dislike the idea of faith schools, she said: "People think faith schools, particularly Muslim ones are divisive and non inclusive but as you can see from our school that's not true. Having been a part of the Faith in the System I can tell you it's wrong."

It is easy for the government to boast about the feats of successful religious schools but critics are concerned that independent faith-based schools segregate children and instill a prejudice against other beliefs from the outset.

Independent faith schools fund themselves completely and set their own admissions policy while maintained faith schools are normally required to take at least some children from other faiths.

Many independents follow the national curriculum, others dip in and out and some deviate from it completely.

While Darul Uloom, an independent Muslim boys' school in Chislehurst entered their entire Year 10 - just 16 boys - for GCSEs last year, only just over a quarter of them managed to achieve grades A* to C.

This included English and Maths, two of the most basic requirements set by employers.

Perhaps then, it is not surprising that the school came second to bottom out of all the schools in the borough when pupils only spent three hours a day studying the national curriculum, devoting the rest of the time to Islamic studies.

The school website reads: "The principal purpose and activity of the school is the education of children in accordance with Islamic principles based on the Holy Quran and Sunnah."

Farida Usman, a retired teacher and a member of the Gravesend Muslim Women's Association, criticised the school's narrow outlook on education and lack of basic schooling.

She said: "It doesn't let women on the campus which is against the teachings of Islam, their GCSE results are not good and they restrict the types of profession their pupils can go in to by not teaching the national curriculum enough.

"I'm not a hundred per cent for faith schools. I support them as long as they let children of other religions in but I have my reservations. It is not good to have segregated schools because children need to learn from one another."

While a spokesperson for the school declined to comment, Iftikhar Ahmad, who claims to have set up the first Islamic school in London, is a fierce advocate of faith schools.

He said: Muslim schools are crucial for Muslim children because western education makes men and women stupid.

"The silent majority of Muslim parents would like to send their children to Muslim schools but there are not enough schools to go by. The only alternatives are either for the government to introduce a voucher system for parents to choose the school they wish or designate state schools where Muslims are in the majority as official Muslim schools."

An illustrative act of parent's willingness to fight for their child's education is the so-called 'year-five-epiphany,' an epidemic sweeping Britain's churches.

Faith schools have a reputation for high attainment levels which makes them popular and over subscribed.

Parents are aware of this and in a bid to secure little Tommy's place they conveniently baptise him when he's about to start school.

Last week, leader of the opposition, David Cameron was chastised by some while receiving a pat on the back from others for sympathising with the tricksters who will do anything in the name of their child's education.

He said: "I think it's good for parents who want the best for their kids. I don't blame anyone who tries to get their children into a good school. Most people are doing so because it has an ethos and culture. I believe in active citizens."

Unsurprisingly, priests took a somewhat dimmer view.

Father William Scanlan at St Anselm's Roman Catholic Church, West Hill, Dartford, explained that he has experienced this ambitious deceit first hand.

He said: "It's not a problem here in Dartford but I've witnessed it in other parishes. In my experience it's been Nigerians who are actually Muslims.

"Members of community tell us when they suspect somebody is not really Catholic and if we think it is a rouse, we insist on seeing the baptism certificate of at least one of the parents.

"It's not right and it's not fair on the children. We ask parents to reflect on whether baptising their child will be in their interests if they do not believe it themselves."

There are no maintained faith schools in Dartford, something Dev Sharma, from North West Kent Race Equality Council doesn't see as a bad thing.

"I'm happy there are no faith schools in the Dartford area. I'm sure if people want one they will shout about it," he said.

"In an ideal world there would be no faith schools at all. But we have to look at the situation we have today which is not working or fair.

"The majority of faith schools are Catholic so you can see why believers of other faiths don't want to send their child there. If schools had more comprehensive religious education there would be no need for faith schools and people wouldn't have to send their children to an extra school at the weekend which puts a big burden on the child."

Makhan Singh, councillor for Gravesham where there are 10 maintained faith schools, believes it's possible to find harmony between faith and education.

He said: "There is a diabolical situation in France where nobody is allowed to have a religious identity within school. It's an attack and a defamation of people's culture and I could never forgive that. Faith is something to be celebrated. I would like to see multi-faith schools which treat everybody the same and nobody has a superiority complex."

From September, schools watchdog OfSted will be inspecting faith schools to ensure they are promoting community cohesion.

Last month, The Board of Deputies of British Jews set a precedent by advertising for a Muslim adviser as part of a scheme to link religious schools.

The adviser will help develop religious and culturally sensitive activities and projects for Jewish and Muslim schools taking part in its Shared Futures project, which aims to foster respect between pupils from the two faith communities.

This seems like a compromise but will it work with such diverse opinion and hugely biased distribution?

It's important to remember that the reason faith schools existed in the first place was because churches were the only establishments willing to provide free education for the poor.

Now that's not the case, perhaps it would be fairest to finally take it off the educational menu?

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