It is ironic that Francis Beckett's article in the Guardian on 14th October claiming that faith schools generate bigotry should itself be an example of bigotry. On the basis of one statement from the London School of Islamics, his `observations' of Jewish orthodox schools, his memories of his own Catholic schooling and some general thoughts about Northern Ireland, he is ready to call for the abolition of all faith schools. If this is an example of the reasoning to be derived from the `humanist values' he champions, then God help us.
The arguments against Islamic and orthodox Jewish schools as presented by Beckett could well be interpreted as racist, based as they are upon ethnic stereotypes and almost complete ignorance of how these schools teach religious values in practice. The recollections of Catholic schooling may be of historical interest but they bear no relation to the educational cultures of contemporary Catholic schools. The conflicts of Northern Ireland have more to do with power and economic relations in that province than anything to do with faith schooling.
Critics of faith schools, such as Francis Beckett, are prepared to write such hostile articles that, in the last analysis, are nothing more than generalisations of their own prejudice. There is such a thing as evidence-based argument, which has to be applied to faith schools as well as to other social institutions. While it is perfectly legitimate to make a case against faith schools, such advocacy has to rise above the reporting of playground jokes, `what Catholic education did to me' and the `what we all know about Northern Ireland' mode of argument. Thoughtful debate about the existence of faith-based schooling must recognise that faith schools constitute a great variety of educational cultures, principles and practices. Given that all the major faiths proclaim missions of love, peace, harmony, forgiveness and reconciliation (often expressed in school mission statements) what is certainly needed is systematic research and inquiry to establish just how far these principles are realised in their contemporary practice. In other words, does the faith in educational terms lead young people to an open and caring relationship with others beyond their immediate community, or does it lead to closure and prejudice?
While we still have a long way to go in researching these questions there is significant evidence from the USA and Northern Ireland, which suggest that contemporary faith schools are realising these principles in their educational practice. There is no research evidence, which demonstrates Beckett's claim that faith schools `breed only intolerance and isolation'. What generally happens is that wider community conflicts having a basis in political, economic and race relations in a given area are blamed on the presence of faith schools. Faith schools thus become an easy scapegoat for social ills requiring more radical solutions.
To call for the abolition of faith schools is a naïve and misguided response to major social problems. It is also a totalitarian policy, which attempts to deprive parents and children of the right to be educated in a school permeated by religious values. Could it even be an example of the intolerance, which Francis Beckett seeks to remove from our society?