Flow of Ideas
Multiculturalism and Faith Schools

Glenn Rikowski, London, 2nd December 2007

Multiculturalism under Siege

In recent years, multiculturalism has been subjected to sustained critique. Of course, it is no surprise when articles in the Daily Mail warn of the ‘dangers’ to ‘British values’ posed by multiculturalism. A couple of months after the 7/7 bombings in London, The Daily Telegraph argued that:

“Rather than caving in to those Muslim leaders who have been clamouring for an inquiry into the bombings in order to air their grievances over British foreign policy, the Government might take a simpler, bolder step, and ensure that the values of the British domestic state (the rule of law, the sovereignty of Parliament, the secular polity, national loyalty) are actively taught in our schools” (Daily Telegraph, 2005, p.1).

The Telegraph’s argument that it is in the school classroom where a national identity could be forged was given succour by Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), who argued that “multiculturalism” in schools and increasing segregation in housing by ethnic group were ‘driving communities apart’ (in Johnston, 2005). Lee Jasper’s (2005) response to Phillips’ perspective was to argue that the CRE Chairman comes close to ‘blaming black and Asian communities for the problems that many face’ (p.1). Jasper argued that:

“Culturally distinct communities can be hugely positive and beneficial … But opponents of multiculturalism have used the post-9/11, post-London bombings climate to push their agenda. Multiculturalism, it is argued, elevates difference and therefore enhances segregation. The Trojan horse for this argument is the debate about Britain’s Muslim communities, much of which is simply Islamophobic” (Ibid.).

Jasper asserts that multiculturalism ‘is a fact of life’ in the UK and that all are ‘entitled to celebrate their own culture as long as they do not prevent others from doing so’ (p.2). This liberal multiculturalism, at one with John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’ in his On Liberty (1859), is particularly challenged when faced with the phenomenon of faith schools, which by definition and practice, are exclusionary and segregationist.

A recent report by Polly Curtis (2007) in The Guardian noted that the UK’s first Hindu state school has drawn up a ‘strict admissions code, which critics say favours followers of the Hare Krishna tradition over mainstream Hinduism’ and will be the first school in Britain ‘to make vegetarianism a condition of entry’ (p.1). Parents will be expected not to drink alcohol. The school will open in September 2008. Segregationist and exclusionary perhaps, but as Madeleine Bunting has noted:

“…all schools exclude by one criterion or another, most commonly, proximity – and as places such as Bradford know full well, the criterion of proximity can prove a terrible challenge for integration … [Yet] … lurking behind the criticism of faith schools is the deep contempt of the liberal left for religion and an old-fashioned statist dream of a one-size-fits-all educational system” (Bunting, 2007).

Thus, for Bunting the New Labour policy of encouraging faith schools is inseparable from the policy to end comprehensive schools; and she appears to be for the latter. Based on visits to Catholic and Muslim schools, Bunting argues that the internationalism, global humanism and social cohesion liberal leftists castigate faith schools for undermining, were actually being nurtured in what she witnessed in those classrooms.

Multiculturalism and the Faith Schools Debate

Faith schools received a huge boost through the Education and Inspections Act of 2006. However, their effects for community cohesion have been discussed and questioned at length in the national and educational press at a time when an ICM poll reported that ‘82% say faith causes tension’ in a Britain where two-thirds are not religious (Glover, 2006). A third of schools in the UK were faith schools in 2004, and the number has risen since then, with plans to have another 100 from 2004-2009 despite falling rolls (Berliner, 2004, p.1). Forty non-religious schools converted to the Church of England from 2001-2005 (Paton and Seth, 2005). The Church of England had 4,500 primaries and 200 secondaries, and the Roman Catholic had 1,760 primaries and 363 secondaries in 2004 (Berliner, 2004, p.1). In 2001, the House of Commons examined the issue of school diversity and warned New Labour to be cautious about expanding faith schools. The Cantle Report into the riots in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley noted that ethnic segregation through schooling was a contributory factor in generating the polarisation of communities in these towns, and it recommended that 25% of schools’ intakes should be ‘available to children of other faiths or none’ (Berliner, 2004, p.1). When the government tried to get this through Parliament it was defeated in the House of Lords.

Graeme Paton (2005) has reported on research that indicates pupils at ‘faith-based primary schools are a year ahead of children at other schools’, according to a 2002 study by the National Foundation for Educational Research. However, as Gargi Bhattacharyya (2006) has argued, ‘the claims made for faith schooling are highly dubious’ (p.2). Yet she acknowledges that:

“Faith schools provide a moral framework and educational excellence and are an important means of enhancing parental choice …” (Ibid.).

She notes the double standards where schools linked to ‘established’ faiths (Church of England, Catholic and Jewish schools in particular) are seen to provide these benefits, yet schools of other faiths (Muslim ones in particular) it is the disadvantages for social cohesion that come to the fore in media debates. Terry Sanderson from the National Secular Society has argued that faith schools get better results than others because of the nature of their intakes, as:

“Parents have to jump through hoops just to get their children into a church school – [so] it means that these children are well ahead of their peers before they go to school, never mind when they leave” (in Paton, 2005).

Thus, faith schools may have more than the average share of middle-class pupils boosting their results. Such considerations bounce the focus back on onto whether they aid or damage social cohesion. Les Lawrence, the Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Families of Birmingham City Council has argued that faith schools are a threat to community cohesion and should be closed, and has pledged to ‘”reduce the number of faith schools” in Britain’s largest city council (in Paton, 2005).

More recently, Sir Cyril Taylor, Chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, has argued that one solution to the problem of schools becoming segregated by ethnicity and religion might be to build new multi-faith academies (in Boone, 2007; and in Wilby, 2007). Oldham City Council has plans to open three multi-faith Academies, with a total cost of £200million, and:

“Saddled with communities that are heavily segregated, Oldham is trying in effect, to nurture new, less divided communities through it secondary schools” (Wilby, 2007).

Yet the problem of defining the values that can unite pupils and teachers remains. According to Munira Mirza (2004): “The only thing that politicians seem confident in asserting about our society is its tolerance” – as though British folk had a monopoly on this social attitude. There is a crisis of identity in British society, she argues. The problem for Mirza is that:

“We need to acknowledge that the crisis of identity is not caused by the strength of Islam, but the weakness of our own society. If we do this, we can begin to realise that the solution starts here, too. If we really want to create a common culture, we need to ask the awkward questions of what our society believes in and be prepared to fight for hearts and minds” (Ibid.).

As Hanif Kureishi has argued, this exchange of ideas across cultures and religions must go beyond a superficial multiculturalism based on ‘festivals and foods’ (2005). It might be more akin to what Gargi Bhattacharyya has viewed as the university model; that is, ‘the university as a place of free thought is not a bad model for understanding how people might learn things’ (2006, pp.2-3). This university ideal stresses access:

‘…to learning resources, to informed and inspiring teaching, to a variety of ideas and ways of thinking and to a mixed and unpredictable bunch of others who are all curiously trying to learn as well” (p.3).

Thus, just as many universities are becoming more and more like further education colleges and schools, it might be a good idea if schools, on this analysis, were to become more like universities in the way they approach differences in religious and cultural views amongst students.


Berliner, W. (2004) Wise and wonderful? The Guardian (Education), 16th March, pp.23-24.

Bhattacharyya, G. (2006) Religion is not a learning aid, The Guardian (Education), 25th October, online at: http://education.guardian.co.uk/faithschools/story/0,,1930169,00.html

Boone, J. (2007) ‘Multi-faith’ academies set to force integration, Financial Times, 22nd January, p.4.

Bunting, M. (2004) Muslim schools don’t cause riots, The Guardian, 10th June, p.24.

Curtis, P. (2007) Hindu school is first to make vegetarianism a condition of entry, The Guardian (Education), 29th November, online at: http://education.guardian.co.uk/faithschools/story/0,,2218801,00.html

Daily Telegraph (2007) Teach our children what it means to be British (Editorial), The Daily Telegraph, 23rd September.

Glover, J. (2006) Religion does more harm than good, The Guardian, 23rd November, p.1.

Jasper, L. (2005) Trevor Phillips is in danger of giving succour to racists, The Guardian, 12th October, at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1589876,00.html

Mill, J.S. (1859) [1999] On Liberty, edited by E. Alexander, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.

Mirza, M. (2004) Backlash against multiculturalism? Spiked, 7th April, at: http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000CA4C4.htm

Johnston, P. (2005) Segregated schools ‘breeding extremism’, The Daily Telegraph, 22nd September, online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/09/23/nedu23.xml

Paton, G. (2005) Faith-based primary pupils are a year ahead, say researchers, Times Educational Supplement, 29th July, p.7.

Paton, G. & Seth, M. (2005) Secular schools rush to convert, Times Educational Supplement, 15th July, p.9.

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