"For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of the Lord, doing charity and justice.."(Genesis 18:19)
What are the rights and wrongs of state funded religious schools? Are they a good idea? Is there something fundamentally wrong with admission policies that favour children of particular faiths? Clearly there are many opinions on this issue, and some of these views are held passionately if not vehemently. Anyone who thinks deeply on this issue, must not loose sight of the fact that faith schools vary considerably from place to place, and certainly from one religious group to another.
I feel somewhat qualified to comment on this issue, as I myself was educated in a state supported Catholic faith school. Both at primary and secondary level. And subsequently have involved myself in learning about Jewish religious schools.
The principle reason for addressing this subject was a sermon I saw on YouTube, given by Stephen Lingwood, the Minister of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel Bolton. This thoughtful and intelligent man exposed many of the flaws present in the faith school system and asked some very pointed questions. I would, however, have to disagree with some of what he said.
Are faith schools fundamentally unjust? Is an admissions policy that favours children of one faith, unjust? I would say no. It is true that we all, as tax payers, have money taken from us by the state to fund education and so, the argument goes, it is unfair that some of the schools we are funding are unavailable to our children. But this is not unique to faith schools. There are single sex comprehensives that are unavailable to one gender or other. There are special needs schools that are unavailable to children who do not have those specific needs. Why is it wrong to assume that children of one faith or another have needs that only schools that cater for them can provide? And should we not all strive to be generous with how our tax money is used, even if we don't personally benefit from it, let us be glad if it is used to help others to maximise their unique contribution to society.
I give the example of a typical Jewish school. The aims of these schools are simple. To educate young Jews in their religious heritage, and to show them and guide them in how to live as successful observant Jews in the wider British society. Would a Gentile child require an education in how to be a good British Jew? No, so why should Jewish children who do need this, loose a place in oversubscribed schools to provide a place for Gentile children? This may seem "ungenerous" or "inhospitable". However it is not either. One only need be acquainted with the products of many of these schools to see how generous of heart and how hospitable they are.
It should be the hope of us all, that the money that is taken from us to fund education, should assist families in educating their children to the best possible standard, and to cater to the particular needs of our varied population, to the betterment of us all.
Segregation is not desirable, it is a curse that divides and destroys society. The Government must ensure that schools in receipt of communal money, who have a faith identity, engage in cross-community work, to help build bonds of trust care and respect. Most faith schools already do this, and can testify to many such projects. But we should not seek to deny our differences.
Chief Rabbi Sacks, in his eloquent style has said "If we all were completely different, we could not speak to each other. But if we were all the same, we would have nothing to say". This to me gets to the heart of the faith school argument.
Mr Lingwood's example of a hospital, used to show the unfairness of faith schools, is I feel, slightly wrong. The point of a hospital is to heal the body or mind of the patient coming through the door. To care for them. All of us, Christian, Jewish, Atheist, Black or White need love, care and healing in times of distress. To reject someone in need is always wrong. All children need a good education, and we must all strive to ensure that every child has access to one. Sometimes children have specific needs, that others do not have, and schools should be created to address those needs. As King Solomon said "Train the child according to his way".
Anyone with any sort of sense, must listen to the concerns that Mr Lingwood raises. There are faith schools that do encourage dishonesty, and punish integrity. There is an issue regarding the freedom of children not to be forced into worship that they do not wish to take part in. And there are on occasion issues of segregation that must not be ignored. Those of us who support the freedom of parents to educate their children in faith-schools, should be the first to seek remedies to the negatives found in these educational models.
Unitarians can rightly be proud of the non-sectarian schools that were founded by various churches and chapels. There is a great need for such schools, that while maintaining a specific ethos, are open to all. Unitarianism itself allows for this. But we must not assume that what is right for us, is right for all communities, or that ours is the only way.
And finally all of us must focus the majority of our striving to bettering the non-faith education sector which is suffering from many, many problems, and where the true injustice of selection based on the ability to purchase a house in expensive neighbourhoods, is so prevalent.
Let us not forget, that as Jesus said, God's Kingdom belongs to children, and from them we can learn how we can also enter it.