Tuesday 9 September 2008

Bunting and Odone on faith schools

After last week's launch of a new campaign to outlaw educational segregation by faith and its vigorous welcome by Polly Toynbee, her Guardian colleague Madeleine Bunting responded yesterday with a lengthy defence of the 'strong ethos' provided by religious schools. Bunting's article was more even-handed and considered than many of her past outpourings, though it was shot through with her usual disillusionment with the modern world, as she bemoaned the 'desperate dearth of alternative narratives of transformation' in contemporary secular society.

Bunting's advocacy of faith schools clearly wasn't full-throated enough for her fellow liberal-Catholic-turned-Islamophile Cristina Odone, whose letter in today's paper contends that Bunting 'overlooks the impact these schools have on the Muslim community and in particular on Muslim girls'. Drawing on research appearing to show that state-sponsored faith schools 'increase the chances that low-income Muslim parents keep their daughters in schools', Odone argues that the alternative is parents withdrawing girls 'once they reach puberty, from what they regard as the dangerous playground culture of sex and violence found in secular state schools'. 

This is the kind of argument that looks conclusive on a first reading, but on reflection demands some serious unpacking. You'd need to look at the original research report to confirm whether these are the reasons that Muslim parents are actually giving for taking their teenage daughters out of school (rather than Odone's colourful interpretation of them). And even if this is the case, you'd need to ask whether their stated reasons correspond to their real reasons, or act as a convenient cover for them. Isn't it possible that there are other reasons (the kind you wouldn't necessarily share with a researcher), such as a belief in the segregation of the sexes at puberty, or a cultural prejudice against providing equal educational opportunities for girls? And if so, should the state bow to those beliefs and prejudices by funding religiously segregated schooling? Moreover, shouldn't the state both challenge misinformed generalisations about a 'dangerous playground culture' in state schools, and at the same time work to transform that culture so as to make it welcoming to all cultural groups, rather than simply giving in and accepting their self-exclusion?

Odone goes on to suggest that 'for young people who cherish Islam, the secular culture they experience in state schools can prove profoundly alienating.' But like it or not, it's a secular culture (meaning plural, multi-faith, open to a range of ideas) that we live in, and school is a key site for learning to flourish within it. And the roots of alienation may lie as much in the attitudes to secular society being inculcated at home or mosque as in the experience of school. Being schooled only with people from your own faith will surely increase rather than overcome that sense of alienation. 

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