FAITH schools are to be instructed to teach pupils about other religions besides their own.
Leaders from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths have signed a joint statement backing the teaching of an awareness of the “tenets” of other faiths in schools.
The declaration, made jointly with the Department for Education and Skills, says that religious education enables pupils to “combat prejudice” and helps them to develop respect and sensitivity to others.
The agreement commits faith schools to using the National Framework for Religious Education, drawn up in 2004, which encourages the teaching of the tenets of the five major religions but which is non-statutory.
This agreement may well commit Church of England and Roman Catholic schools, who in any case already teach about other faiths through their exisiting religious education syllabuses.
But in the case of Jewish schools, the signatory was Jon Benjamin, the Director General of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Jon is a tireless and very able chief executive, who has a great deal of experience of working with some of the major Jewish charities, including the British division of ORT, which is active in promoting technology education in Jewish and non-Jewish schools. However, he is not a faith leader. He has no authority of any sort over Jewish schools, because their religious education syllabuses are determined by whichever religious authority is responsible for them. The Board of Deputies is a communal representative organization, akin to a parliament or a regional consultative council, which does not exercise any religious or other authority over Jewish schools.
And I cannot imagine any circumstances in which the dozens of strictly orthodox schools, including the three or four which are state funded would agree to teach other faiths to their pupils.
In the case of most of the state-funded Jewish schools, the religious authority is the United Synagogue, or the Scopus Jewish Educational Trust, a zionist and orthodox educational charity. In other cases, it is a named rabbi or council of rabbis. In the case of independent Jewish schools, it is also likely to be a named rabbi or rabbinical council. Almost all state funded orthodox Jewish schools recognise the authority of the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue.
And there's the little matter of the orthodox Jewish tradition which specifically forbids the teaching to Jewish children of faiths other than their own.
The small number of state and private Jewish schools which are supported by the Reform and by the Liberal and Masorti Jewish movements are in any case strongly committed to teaching about other faiths.
So I am wondering how Jon Benjamin and the Board of Deputies thought they were in a position to sign up to this agreement.
As some of my previous posts show, I am a very strong supporter of faith schools. And that's on the basis of my experience as a school inspector and consultant, rather than on my personal commitment to orthodox Jewish practice.
In my experience, there are very few schools, faith or non-faith, which do genuinely do a good and successful job of teaching about other faiths. I know of no substantive research which shows that such teaching has been effective in making pupils more accepting of other religions than they already were.
I find ironic the touching belief that having children in schools of no particular faith makes them more accepting of other faiths. The very few home-grown Islamist terrorists that the UK has so far produced have all gone to mainstream British schools, either non-denominational or independent Christian denominational. The many left liberals who rail against faith schools regularly trot out the case of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, which they see as related to the almost entirely sectarian education system. Yet they ignore the fact that although 25% of the schools in England are faith schools, there is little or no sectarianism in mainstream English society. And as far as I know, there is no evidence that those who did go to faith schools turn out any more sectarian or intolerant than those who did not.
As a school inspector, I have unfortunately spent quite a few hours sitting through some quite excruciating and embarrassing lessons in which pupils were taught quite erroneous and sometimes ludicrous beliefs about Judaism by well meaning non-Jewish teachers who didn't know what they were talking about.
That's hardly surprising. After all, it takes years of ceaseless effort by parents, school and synagogue to bring up a Jewish child to know and feel positive about Judaism. I'm sure the equivalent is true of Islam and other faiths. So why should we expect that teachers with perhaps a few hours of training will be able to change attitudes and dispel ignorance about faiths about which they know so little?
I know that from my professional experience where children are taken to synagogues and mosques where they hear believers talking knowledgeably and enthusiastically about their lives, they very much enjoy it and feel positive about their experience. But that's something that can be done without the need to take on extended programmes of teaching what effectively are comparative religion courses.
And the signatory on behalf of Muslims was Sir Iqbal Sacranie, who as far as I know has no more authority over Muslim state and independent schools than Jon Benjamin has over Jewish schools.
And I'd really like to know how this spin came to be put on what at best can only be a worthy recommendation.
The really interesting issue is whether OFSTED inspectors will now be required to determine whether teaching about other religions becomes a key element in the criteria for whether a school is judged adequate.