Role of religion in schools under pressure after Trojan Horse scandal

Almost 40 leading academics, peers and clerics are backing calls for a sweeping inquiry into the role of religion in British schools in the wake of the Trojan Horse scandal.

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, the signatories, ranging from prominent atheists to Christian and Jewish clergy, say parts of the education system are becoming “insular and divisive” and that clear rules about how far faith groups should influence schools are now urgently needed.

They say that despite a stream of education reforms in recent decades basic questions about the place of religion in the classroom have not been properly debated for 70 years.

The alliance is calling for a royal commission or public inquiry to re-examine issues such as compulsory worship and the place of Religious Education on the curriculum as well as deeply controversial questions such as selection rules for faith schools.

They say that unless a new “consensus” is reached, scandals along the lines of the Trojan Horse affair, involving hard-line Muslim groups attempting to take control of schools in Birmingham, could become more and more common.

It also follows a call from the Church of England’s head of education, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, for the requirement on schools to have a compulsory act of collective worship in assembly to dropped because of the decline of Christianity in Britain.

But any attempt to water down the influence of religion in schools will be fiercely resisted by churches.

Last year Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales issued an impassioned defence of religious schools as a “precious right” and accused secular campaign groups of “sow division”.

He was speaking as he opened a new Catholic school in west London which had been strongly opposed by campaigners including several who have signed the letter calling for an inquiry.

The signatories, led by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain – chairman of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns against selection on religious grounds – include prominent atheists such as AC Grayling, the philosopher, Dr Adam Rutherford, the geneticist and Prof Jim Al-Khalili the Iraqi-born British theoretical physicist.

But it also includes five Church of England priests and leading representatives of the Methodist, Unitarian and United Reform churches as well as Buddhist and Muslim figures and two former education ministers: Baroness Blackstone and Lord Howarth.

“As a society we must treat religion and belief in schools in a way that is fair, inclusive and sustainable, yet there has been no overarching review of the place of religion in schools since the 1944 Education Act, which marks its 70th anniversary this month,” they wrote.

Issuing a call for a sweeping inquiry into religion in education, they added: “Schools’ impact upon the cohesiveness of society can be profound.

“If fairness, mutual understanding and respect are important, then we must consider schools’ contribution in these areas.

“Future generations will not thank us if we do not show leadership and instead leave them with an education system that is insular and divisive.”

Dr Romain said: “The response to the Birmingham cases must not be to single out groups, or brush problems under the carpet, but for government to show leadership and re-examine the current settlement, so society can move towards an education system that is fairer, sustainable and more inclusive.”

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, who is among the signatories, said: “While we continue to have so many Christian and Jewish schools, offering up an “us vs them” mentality in education, it is not at all surprising that some others will want to have Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools.

“Either we provide them, thus causing ever increasing segregation in our education system; or we do not, thus leaving individuals to start to see certain schools as ‘theirs’ even when they are not legally designated as religious, leading to problems like those we have recently experienced.

"There is another way forward for our society. We can acknowledge that the decades-old principles governing the place of beliefs in state schools are no longer fit for contemporary society, get completely away from the whole notion of different schools belonging to different religious communities, and build a better, more inclusive future for our children."

Nick Spencer, research director at the religious think-tank Theos, said: “The idea of formally reviewing how schools engage with religious and non-religious belief systems is a good one. Much has changed in 20 years and we need to recognise that

“However, when many of the signatories calling for one are well known for their hostility to religious faith, we should be cautious.

“We wouldn’t want the Trojan Horse to become a stalking horse for the anti-faith schools brigade.”