The Department for Education has published proposals calling for “British values” such as “mutual respect and tolerance” to be promoted among independent schools and academies. The Government intervention follows a July report into Birmingham schools that found a concerted effort to introduce “an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools in Birmingham”.
In response to the controversy in Birmingham, the Government wants schools actively to promote “fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs”. Some school heads among others are warning that there could be unintended consequences.
But this is potentially a good opportunity for the expertise of mature religious believers to be shared widely. It could mark the beginning of an important dialogue. It is questionable to what extent the state can and should be the arbiter of British values. Values are the wellspring of a society rich in traditions, including mature religious belief, which is at the forefront of the fight against extremism. Faith schools which reflect that mature religion are not the problem, and should be a major part of the solution.
Religious schools are popular and generally offer a high-quality education. They support the freedom of parents to choose where their children are educated, and because they are rooted in particular communities foster the dialogue of cultures in pluralist society. Religious traditions build up not only children and their families, but the common good; they foster good citizenship. To confuse the public profession of faith, per se, with sectarianism, as some contributions to the debate such as the National Secular Society have done, is a basic category error. Almost all faith schools are forces of integration, not exclusion; they are the strongest vaccine against fundamentalism of all kinds – religious or ideological.
The Church has long argued that parents, not the state, are the primary educators of children. The state can and should facilitate and regulate education as a matter for the common good, ensuring access for all and minimum standards; but the state cannot be the source of the values taught in schools – an idea which belongs to totalitarian regimes. The Department of Education proposes that it have increased powers to intervene when it is thought that a school does not promote British values – an idea which assigns a definition of the “right” values to the government of the day. State support for a variety of educational approaches within a pluralist civil society allows parents to choose the parameters of the schooling they seek for their children, on the basis not just of academic results but of spiritual, moral and social factors.
For religious believers, ties with their own religion are necessary and vital. Religion presents itself as the meaningful answer to the fundamental questions posed by men and women; provided it is shared with respect for consciences, it plays a vital role in a society where young people especially struggle to find their role and identity in life. In my own native Scotland, Catholic schools have a strong ethos which regards the whole person, an ethos that attracts both Catholic and non-Catholic parents. They were set up because the state did not provide this kind of education.
Faith schools offer children the possibility of knowing their religious inheritance. No child should ever feel compelled to believe. Compulsion plays no role in genuine conversion. When children are exposed to radicalisation and compulsion in matters of conscience, therefore, a key principle of faith schools is undermined. The right and freedom of a religious community to educate the offspring of its adherents must always be balanced against other rights, and the common good of society.
Religious and secular figures need to work together to build a culture supporting pluralism, good citizenship and against extremism. In this dialogue the Catholic Church presents a blueprint for the social question of religious tolerance and cohesion. Its teaching on education has moved closer to the vision of the Catholic school as a place for cultural dialogue. The recent document of the Holy See on Catholic education, “Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools: Living in Harmony for a Civilisation in Love”, published in October 2013, recognises the theological principle of unity in the Catholic faith as a basis for a practical philosophical contribution to encounters between different cultures, in order to bring about a more peaceful society.
The answer to extremism and sectarianism is not secularism, which is a state-imposed attempt to flatten society and shape it in the image of a minority belief. The national educational vision needs to challenge and sift faith traditions; intolerance and violence are distortions and perversions of true religion. This endeavour eschews “top down” solutions to defining the correct values. The challenge requires hard work, listening, and crucially the expertise held within religious traditions. Our values are important, but values do not proceed from the state – they are supported by the state as manifestations of a pluralistic society. Where extremism is an issue, the criticism of a religion lived in a pluralist society is the best, and only coherent, response.