Faith schools are currently under attack. A recent poll by Opinium reports that 35 percent of people believe faith schools should receive no state funding, and 23 percent think they should be banned altogether. A large majority of the critics object to faith schools on grounds that the government should not be funding religion, but significant numbers also feel they are contrary to the values of a multicultural society, that they create division and segregation, or even that they promote radicalisation and extremism.
At the same time, Jewish schooling is on a seemingly unstoppable upward spiral. According to JPR’s National Jewish Community Survey, 54 percent of those with school-age children have some or all of their children in Jewish schools. Large majorities of respondents believe Jewish schools strengthen Jewish identity and increase the chances of children marrying other Jews, while only 42 percent think non-Jewish schools are better at preparing children for contemporary British society.
So is the mainstream Jewish community’s commitment to faith schools on a collision course with the rest of British society? Are the arguments in favour of Jewish schools – that they enable us to sustain our religious-cultural identity and communal cohesiveness – defensible in terms of multicultural, democratic values? It’s certainly possible to make a robust, liberal-democratic defence of Jewish schooling. Critics of faith schools claim they are socially divisive. But while some faith-based institutions undoubtedly reduce the chances of getting to know children from other religious backgrounds, many more non-religious schools are involved in the de facto segregation of children, particularly on grounds of economic status. After all, who can afford to live within the catchment area of a good London primary? In fact, admissions criteria based on religious observance can sometimes enable low income children to attend high performing schools from which they otherwise would have been excluded.
Moreover, there’s a question about whether the state should be interfering in the cultural and religious identities of its citizens. If people want religious education, who’s to say that this is inferior to the secular alternative? Although the arguments against faith schools are framed using politically acceptable concepts of equality and community cohesion, it sometimes seems that this masks a far more partisan anti-religious agenda, which the government has no business supporting.
And if a perceived problem with faith schools is that they fail to prepare children for life in contemporary Britain, we just need to look at the evidence: faith schools’ academic performance is higher on average than that of their non-religious counterparts. If the job of schools is to produce economically productive young people, faith schools are doing very well.
If we also expect schools to mould good citizens who are at home in British culture, we face a wider challenge: no one is able to articulate what British values are, much less decide whether faith education is compatible with them.
Finally, just because some faith schools are socially exclusive, narrow-minded and academically inadequate, it doesn’t mean they all are (as it happens, the predominantly Muslim schools currently under the spotlight in Birmingham are not officially faith-based institutions). The question is whether faith schools have it in them to foster the universal values of inclusion, critical inquiry and democratic citizenship. Many Jewish schools, particularly the cross-communal and pluralistic ones, aspire to precisely this challenge.
But however well faith schools do on this agenda, it’s hard to argue that community cohesion would not be better served by putting all our children into local, non-faith institutions. The relative insularity of faith-based education is a price worth paying only if Jewish schools achieve their primary goal: to teach Judaism.
I once met a parent-governor of a Jewish school who told me he didn’t care about Jewish studies. He saw Jewish education as a way of getting his children out of the general state sector without paying private school fees. This kind of Jewishly-empty exclusiveness is exactly what we should avoid. Too many of our Jewish schools, while excelling in general academic terms, fail to provide a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of Hebrew and Jewish textual literacy. Jewish schools will have a claim to legitimacy only if their commitment to liberal-democratic values is matched by a high level of genuinely Jewish learning.
As the argument around faith schools heats up, this is the challenge we will need to meet.