‘Faith schools’: religious communities’ agency in action

X pertinent example of how religious freedom is exercised through public education is to be found in the expansion of ‘faith schools’. Schools with a distinct religious ethos flourish, reflecting the willingness of religious communities to educate their children according to their religious beliefs, with the support of international human rights law.

‘Faith schools’ arc increasing their share of the educational market, as previously noted.[1] The reasons and rationale behind the increase are largely attributed to academic standards and quality of teaching but also to the values upheld by each respective school. Their increase is also not completely detached from a personalized approach of learners to religious education which is individualistic, with the notable exception, however, of learners coming from conservative religious backgrounds where religion is adopted in its entirety.

Miedema identifies three types of religious (denominational) schools: the ‘segregated’ ones that cultivate an absolute and homogenous kind of belief combined with a missionary message; the ‘programme’ ones, where it belongs to the discretion of the teachers to define the religious position of the school through an educationally justifiable programme; and finally, the ‘encounter’ schools, where the school is more open to religions, including when recruiting teachers and learners not adhering to the specific faith to which the school belongs.

Parckh summarized well a number of advantages of this type of education by finding that ‘faith schools’ “instill a distinct set of moral and cultural sensibilities, increase the available range of educational options, add to the variety of collective life by producing citizens with different characters and perspectives on life, respect the wishes of parents, prevent the State from acquiring a monopoly of education and exercising total control over its content”. The reverse arguments link ‘faith schools’ with concerns over “social segregation, reported ‘parallel lives’ between different ethnic and faith groups, violent terrorism carried out in the name of religion, and ongoing discussion about the proper relationship between religion and the state”, with clear implications for increased social conflict and division.

Ultimately, the terms of the debate on ‘faith schools’ pose real questions on the role of the State, on the aims of faith education, on the nature and distinction between education and indoctrination and, more broadly, on their compatibility with liberal values.[2] At the center of this debate one finds the questioning of the need and realistic potential for education towards ‘good liberal’ citizenry, linked to autonomy. Autonomy is understood here as ‘self-knowledge, independence of thought, self-sufficiency, as responsibility for one’s own actions, individual freedom and the worth of the individual as an individual’. This type of consideration is typically, however, one premised on the Western state-focused approach to education. It can be contrasted with the end of education in Islam, for example, which is to produce a ‘good man’, not a ‘good citizen’.

But how can the expansion of these schools then be explained in diverse geographical settings? The success of ‘faith schools’ is the result of multiple factors, including institutional goals and ethos, historical context, status of the school, as well as selection processes. Research on the reasons leading to the establishment of such schools, in particular the recent and very controversial wave of Muslim schools’ creation in Europe, suggests that these schools provide a culturally safe and familiar environment for their learners, especially when operating on the basis of minority faiths, and aim to improve the academic achievement and performance of their pupils. From the perspective of parents who choose to send their children to such schools, the motivation is similar and multi-layered: concerns over academic results, over differing or even clashing values with the dominant state education approach, or over discrimination or issues of identity and belonging. Based on claims of equality of opportunities in and through education combined with the wish to exercise the right to identity and religious freedom, the normative connection with culturally relevant education is hard to miss.

One of the most controversial aspects of faith school education concerns sexsegregation in these schools: single-sex schooling is a growing trend[3] and is often a conscious, religiously inspired choice. Along with this trend, however, a growing number of questions on this type of schooling have emerged. Does single-sex education affect learners’ achievements? Do single-sex religious schools make a difference in attitude and/or attainment of learners? There is presently no firm evidence that single-sex schooling impacts directly on educational attainment. Nor is there, incidentally, a clear causal link between attendance of religious schools and learners’ degree of autonomy in thinking capabilities.

Overall, ‘faith schools’ appear to be sought after by parents as establishments of academic excellence as much as, in certain contexts, protection mechanisms of religious identity and against discrimination. The complex balancing acts that individuals as learners, parents and educators are called to make between ethnic, religious and mainstream worldviews and ideologies justify the crucial dimensions of religious education in public schooling. At the same time, there is already a process underway where young religious individuals are encouraged to adjust their ‘take’ on religious self-identification, putting aside traditional affiliation in favor of positionality in civil society terms and more selective approaches to belief. In that sense, the expectation from believers to adopt more critical approaches towards their own faith may indeed be moving the debate towards the replacement of multiculturalism with a social cohesion approach.

Regardless of the specific national context, all of the different types of ‘faith schools’ carry a dual connection: one to the religious community to which they belong and one towards a wider system of education. Depending on their degree of affiliation with the community in question, oversight from religious authorities varies, as the three case studies explored show. The type of teachers and learners, along with the kind of school governance, the content of education and the school’s values will be affected by this side of the connection. At the same time,

Legal empowerment and religious diversity 213 as part of a broader school system, these schools are also expected to subscribe to regulations, principles and values that govern the state system to the extent that they are mostly supported financially by the State. Constraints on staff qualifications, curriculum, educational and professional standards or equal opportunities are linked to this other side of the connection.[4]

  • [1] Apart from the cases mentioned in this book, see, for instance, the case of Australia as discussed in Philip Hughes, ‘The Future of Religious Education in the Context of Postmodernity’, in M. de Souza et al. (eds.), International Handbook of the Religious, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions in Education, 349-362, Springer, 2009. 2 Hughes (2009) at 351. 3 Siebren Miedema, ‘Education for Religious Citizenship: Religious Education as Identity Formation*, in M. de Souza et al. (eds.), International Handbook of the Religious, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions in Education, Springer, 2009, 967-976 at 971-972. 4 Bhikhu Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism, Cultural Diversity and Political Theory, Macmillan, 2000, at 333. 5 R. Berkeley and S. Vij, ‘Right to Divide? Faith Schools and Community Cohesion’, The Runnymede Trust, London, 2008, 176, at 3. See also Will Kymlicka, ‘Education for Citizenship’, in M. Halstead and McLaughlin (eds.), Education in Morality, Routledge, 1999, 79-102 at 88, arguing that learners in ‘faith schools’ miss the opportunity to co-exist with those of different cultures and religions to their own.
  • [2] The division between education and indoctrination is difficult to establish, as the aim of education is to inform and introduce a child into the beliefs and doctrines of his/her social environment. [Cf. R. Ameen and N. Hassan, ‘Are Faith Schools Educationally Defensible?’ Teacher Education, 3(1), 2013, 11-17, at 13.) Indoctrination, however, is based on a structured, hierarchical relation between ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ resulting in a closed-minded belief. [Cf. R.M. Taylor, ‘Indoctrination: A Renewed Threat to Autonomy in Today’s Educational Environment’, Stanford University, 2012, available at www.philosophy-of-education. org/uploads/papers/Taylor.pdf). The setting and planning of the curriculum remains in principle within the competence of the State. In the European context, for example, Article 2 of Protocol 1 does not prevent states from including knowledge of a religious kind in their programmes of education. Parents may not object to such integration in the school curriculum on the basis that all teaching would be potentially indoctrinating. The State retains the obligation, however, to impart information in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner and not disrespect parents’ religious and philosophical convictions. [Cf. Regina Valutyte and Dovile Gailute, ‘The Exercise of Religious Freedom in Educational Institutions in the Light of ECtHR Jurisprudence’, Wroclaw Review of Law, Administration and Economics, 2(2), 2012,45-62, at 47-48. 2 Ameen and Hassan (2013). 3 C. Hewer, ‘Schools for Muslims’, Oxford Review of Education, 27(4), 2001, 515-527. 4 For the UK, see indicatively also the policy of the New Labour Governments (1997-2010) that facilitated the creation of Muslim state schools in the interest of higher levels of academic achievement.
  • [3] In the UK, ‘faith schools’ in the independent school sector amount for 20.9 per cent of the total number of schools and are becoming a more common arrangement for children between 7-11 years old. [Cf. Independent School Council, ‘ISC Census 2013’, available at www.isc.co.uk] 2 S. Shah and C. Conchar, ‘Why Single-Sex Schools? Discourses of Culture/Faith and Achievement’, Cambridge Journal of Education, 39(2), 2009,191-204 at 199. See also A. Smithers and P. Robinson, Co-education and Single-Sex Schooling-Revisited, Brunel University', 1997, at 46-47. 3 Ansari in 2004 finds that schooling is “a major area of struggle for equality' of opportunity' and assertion of identity”. [Cf. H. Ansari, The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain Since 1800, London: C. Hurst and Co., 2004, at 298.] 4 For an example in the UK, see P. Thomas and P. Sanderson, ‘Unwilling Citizens? Muslim Young People and National Identity'’, Sociology, 45(6), 2011, 1028-1044; or tor an example in Central and Eastern Europe, see also K. Topidi, ‘Religious Freedom, National Identity', and the Polish Catholic Church: Converging Visions of Nation and God’, Religions, 10, 2019,293, available at www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/10/5/293. 5 N. Meer and T. Modood, ‘The Multicultural State We’re in: Muslims, “Multiculture” and the “Civic Re-balancing” of British Multiculturalism’, Political Studies, 57, 2009,473-497.
  • [4] For more on this point, see John Sullivan, 'Faith Schools: A Culture Within a Culture in a Changing World’, in M. de Souza et al. (eds.), International Handbook of the Religious, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions in Education, Springer, 2009, 937-947, in particular 938-939. 2 Accepting at the same time that any notion of full capability equality is less realistic (M. Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, The Seeley Lectures, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, at 12). 3 Nussbaum (2000) at 54. 4 Nussbaum (2000) at 90. 5 Nussbaum (2000) at 246.
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