A Commission advising the government on religious life in Britain taking aim at state-funded faith schools has based its conclusions on “false assumptions,” said Britain’s biggest synagogue body this week.
The Woolf Institute’s two-year Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, published on Monday, made a series of recommendations on faith schools’ admissions policies, diversity, teaching content and collective assemblies.
Authors said “the legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed,” with new “inclusive assemblies” held. They also said that the government should “introduce a statutory entitlement for all schools within the state system for a subject dealing with religious and non-religious worldviews”.
The report added that faith schools “should take measures to reduce selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion”. Commissioners said: “It is not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion or that it has not been socially divisive, leading to greater misunderstanding and tension.”
Among those contributing to the study were former chief rabbi Lord Sacks and Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue in Berkshire, who chairs the Accord Coalition, which campaigns for inclusive education.
In October, Romain accused faith schools of “discrimination” by “ensuring that only the best performing, best behaving, most affluent children gain admission,” and was this week singled out for criticism by the United Synagogue.
A spokesman for the organisation said: “The false assumption that provision for vibrant faith communities creates division within our society is something we wholly reject.”
He added: “Religion is a driving force for good by promoting essential values of tolerance, mutual respect and a strong sense of self… By undermining religious identities the report risks perpetuating an intolerance of faith groups which should have no part in our 21st Century society.”
In contrast, the report was welcomed as a “significant step forward” by Liberal Judaism’s chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich, saying: “If we fail to recognise the diverse nature of our society in our institutions… we risk alienating large sections of our community who will see themselves as ‘the other.’ This in turn leads to them feeling excluded… It is a huge a growing threat to us all.”
The report details the changing religious landscape in Britain, noting that 50 years ago Judaism was the largest non-Christian tradition in the UK, whereas now it is the fourth largest, behind Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.
The report recommends “much greater religion and belief literacy,” adding: “The potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification based on ignorance is huge.” One respondent said many of today’s younger generation simply would not understand the humour behind Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ because they lack the historical, biblical knowledge on which it is based.