Thursday, 19 April 2007

Integration - or segregation?

The latest report on faith schools tries to play down their divisive effect by Terry Sanderson


April 11, 2007 9:00 AM | Printable version

The enquiry set up by Communities minister Ruth Kelly aimed at finding ways to challenge "barriers to integration and cohesion" has published an interim report, that can only be described as contradictory and counterproductive.

The Commission on Integration and Cohesion's report suggests that "faith schools" play no part in segregation while at the same time admitting that school is probably the best way to break down barriers between communities.

The report dismisses those who oppose faith schools on the grounds that they are divisive as being "obsessed", and accuses them of using religious schools as a "red herring". Yet, at the same time, an opinion poll commissioned to go with the report concludes that "going to school or college together emerged as the top way of encouraging interaction". It cites as evidence 47% of people "identifying using shared education resources as a motivation towards mixing together".

The report notes that the poll results also suggest that "improving the value of these everyday education and employment interactions would have a significant result on cohesion".

Then, on the following page it complains:

Some people have told us that they see faith schools as a significant barrier to integration and cohesion. Others, especially from faith communities have said faith schools are vital to helping their young people develop as strong and confident British citizens. Our initial thinking is to put faith schools in the same category as residential segregation, almost as a "red herring" in the debate - there is no problem as long as there is social interaction outside the faith school ...

But the report's poll identified that there is a major problem. As few as 42% of respondents had mixed with people from other ethnic groups in the past year. The report says:
Given what we understand so far about the need for interactions to be meaningful in order to promote integration and cohesion, it is worrying that more sustained encounters are not being developed. But our work has uncovered positive signs about the sorts of areas that might help us influence interactions in our four key areas: schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods and arts/cultural.

Can anyone make head or tail of this? To identify school as the best place to break down barriers and then announce that those who oppose separation of children on the grounds of religion are throwing in a red herring is illogical. It is clear that the authors of this report are listening only to those they want to hear. They say that the "faith communities" have told them that faith schools are a good idea. Of course they have. "Faith schools" are the last hope of survival for "faith communities".

This enquiry will achieve nothing - indeed, will make things worse if it is to continue to be conducted in this blinkered way. If it uncovers evidence and then dismisses it because it doesn't fit in with the government's policy of promoting faith schools, then it is downright dangerous.

The government must listen to those who are telling it that the proliferation of faith schools is a threat for the future. A recent report from Professor Irene Bruegel of the South Bank University was emphatic that the government's idea of "twinning" faith schools achieved precisely the opposite of what was intended. It simply increases the sense of "us" and "them" that "faith schools" engender. Sending children on occasional visits to other schools simply increased tension and suspicion between them.

Crucially, Professor Bruegel's research showed that children from different ethnic groups and religions must mix on a daily basis in primary schools in order for ethnically diverse friendships to flourish into adult life, and indeed for the parents of school children to become better integrated. This is what the cohesion report should have recommended. Sadly, it has been hijacked by religious protagonists both inside and outside government who are more interested in fostering faith than in solving the very real problems that religiously - and increasingly, ethnically - segregated schools will create. Its real purpose is to open the door for the most disastrously counter-productive government policy on cohesion imaginable: a massive increase in minority faith schools.

Let's hope that by the time the government publishes the final version of the report, in June, it will have changed its tune.

reposted from: CIF
my: highlights / emphasis / key points / comments

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