Education Notes: The Labour Party at prayer

This Labour government has attacked state education since 1997. It has accelerated the privatisation of every school support service possible: supply staff, payrolls, examinations, cleaning, meals, transport, sports facilities and special needs support. It has diluted local education authority control of secondary schools by introducing competition through league tables and rebranding schools as ‘specialist’, ‘beacon’, ‘city technology’ and ‘education action zones’. Labour is now flogging schools to assorted businesses and interest groups as Academy schools for the promise of a few thousand pounds’ payment.

Then they discovered the jewel in the crown which had been under their noses all the time: church schools. Though established in the state education system, their distinctiveness had vanished with the decline of church attendance in Britain. Pupils from across the range attended church schools; if they were seen to be ‘better’ it was only because of local factors. The sudden discovery of ‘faith communities’ complimented Labour’s agenda of curbing the powers of local education authorities and cultivating respect for hierarchy and religious humility in working class pupils. With encouragement, Church of England and Catholic schools immediately became selective. Parents took to attending church to get their child into anything other than what was contemptuously termed a ‘bog standard’ comprehensive.

The Conservative Party at prayer
In 1902 the Conservative government introduced an Education Bill to extend secondary education because it was feared that Britain ‘was falling behind all its continental and American rivals in the matter of education’. However, Prime Minister Balfour was antagonistic to the county borough council school boards because they were influenced by socialists and supported by the rates of local taxpayers whose votes he wanted. The Conservatives therefore entered a coalition with the Church of England to increase the public funding of church schools from 77% to 100%. Although all Christian denominations could ‘have’ their own schools, there was great hostility between Catholics and Protestants – who complained about ‘putting Rome on the rates’.

The National Union of Teachers campaigned against the 1902 Bill ‘because it destroys the present system of undenominational teaching – why should this system be destroyed to allow one particular religious body to “capture the schools”?’.

The 1902 Education Bill was passed and the Church of England became and has remained the largest religious group to receive state funding for schools. One hundred years later a new Education Bill, introduced this time by the Labour Party, attempts to revive the flagging influence of church schools and legislates for them to ‘capture the schools’ again. The 2005 Education Bill will even give new powers to faith schools to discriminate on religious grounds in hiring thousands of support staff.

Critics of the faith school agenda include individual Conservative and Labour MPs as well as the GMB union and the National Secular Society. Education Secretary Alan Johnson tried to deflect criticism of new faith schools by making it compulsory to take in 25% of pupils from other backgrounds, but the Catholic and Jewish schools refused. Like overnight celebrities, religious leaders have sensed that they can punch above their weight and grab a bigger share of public finances. In England and Wales 74% of the population describe themselves as Christian but only 7% of Christians in the UK attend church. Out of a total of 31,400 state schools there are 7,000 denominational, or faith, schools: 600 secondary and 6,400 primaries. Of these 6,955 are Christian (2,000 of which are Catholic), 36 are Jewish, five are Muslim and two are Sikh.

A recipe for intolerance?
Faith schools in the private sector, including 120 Islamic schools, now plan to join the state sector when the new bill is passed. Though Muslims make up only 3% of the population in England and Wales, Islam is the second biggest religion after Christianity. This was overlooked in Education Minister David Blunkett’s original enthusiasm for faith schools and has caused something of a rethink by sections of the Labour government. Surveys show that 82% of people do not think that any religious school should be subsidised by the state. In the north of Ireland the separation of pupils into Catholic and Protestant schools reflects and perpetuates the sectarian divide. Once again yet another Labour flagship initiative is plunged into chaos while parents, teachers and pupils are left to pick up the pieces.

Who are the criminals?
All senior members of Labour’s election cabinet are currently being questioned by the police to explain what they know about the cash for honours scandal which involves about £14 million in undeclared loans. Meanwhile the government’s £10 million Safer Schools scheme that uses police officers to stem violence and bad behaviour in schools has led to sharp rise in juvenile arrests. Minor offences for which children were previously disciplined by schools are now more likely to lead to a criminal record, with 210,000 young people prosecuted last year, an increase of 27% in three years. The ever-expanding database of DNA records now holds the details of 51,000 children arrested and freed without charge.
Susan Davidson
FRFI 194 December 2006 / January 2007


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