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Politics

Published on July 23rd, 2014 | by Laura Collings
Image © Muffet @2009

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The Trojan horse effect: What role should religion play in British Schools?

The trustees at the center of the Trojan horse school controversy in Birmingham have resigned en masse in protest of the treatment of themselves and the school by the outgoing education secretary Michael Gove. Despite what appears a calming in the saga, debate surrounding the supposed Islamification of State schools rolls on, with an OFSTED report last week claiming that students at Carlton Bolling College in Bradford are at possible risk of extremism. Meanwhile, Birmingham city council’s own independently commissioned report recently found that there existed a determined effort to change schools often by unacceptable practices in order to influence educational and religious provision for students within some schools in the area.

There appears to be agreement that something has gone wrong in some Birmingham schools and possibly others across the country, exactly what and the extent of which remains contested. What is most intriguing about Birmingham City Councils report is that it found no evidence of extremism or anti-British intentions, in fact efforts to influence schools were apparently born from a genuine desire to improve education standards for ethnic minorities. A belief that religious direction can generate a greater standard of learning is nothing new to the British education system. We have state funded faith schools across various religious backgrounds and denominations.

Speaking in the Guardian, Sir Tim Brighouse former schools commissioner for London noted, that in light of our long tradition of aided faith schools and in the name of equity, that perhaps in areas where over 90% of pupils are Muslim, parents should be asked whether they would like to become an overtly faith school. Discussion surrounding the Trojan horse case has focused primarily upon the identification of ‘extremism’, while failing to address the elephant in the room. That is addressing the place of religious bodies and organised faiths within British state schools.

Arguments have been placed that British schools should be entirely secular, with a focus upon providing a religious education, which is comparative and does not seek to promote the beliefs of one over another. It is the balance of perspectives offered by faith schools, which appear at the centre of concern about their role in education. Most prominently we see a regular resurgence of the issues surrounding the teaching of creationism in some faith schools. Exam boards have recently been accused of colluding with faith schools to censor exam papers containing questions on evolution and human reproduction. While Islam has been at the forefront of the Trojan horse case it is important to remember that it is not the only religion to be embroiled in controversy when it comes to education.

In a country seeking to develop a prosperous multicultural society the continued social segregation of children along religious lines should be reviewed. Through offering such a service do we simply perpetuate any already existing divisions, while also removing the opportunity for greater interaction between children of different religious backgrounds? When children leave compulsory schooling and move into the world of university or work they do not enter one dominated by a single religion, therefore separating children in such a way may be counterproductive.

Of course the Trojan horse case is somewhat of an anomaly, these are not aided faith schools, they are by all administrative accounts secular schools, which appear to have been co opted into promoting one particular religion.  Nonetheless at the centre of the case is the role of religion and to what extent it should be evident within our schools. Future discussion should move away from a sole focus on the developments in Birmingham to consider education and religion in a much broader national context.

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