Say no to faith schools

Michelle Euston disagrees with Socialist Resistance's takes on faith schools and says that Marxists must take a stand on the issue

Blair wants to bring in more faith schools. Muslims and followers of other religions are requesting the same treatment as christians and Jews in terms of state funding. What should be the response of Marxists? Richard Hatcher asks, in the latest Socialist Resistance: "Should Respect have a discussion about faith schools?" To which he replies, "Yes." However, he then continues: "Should Respect have a position on faith schools? Not necessarily. It depends on how much agreement there is on it within Respect. If it proves seriously divisive we should acknowledge that there is no consensus or clear majority view, while continuing to encourage debate" (November-December). Since the International Socialist Group, the main sponsor of Socialist Resistance, is for transforming Respect into a properly functioning political party as quickly as possible, one has to ask what kind of party it would be that has no position on such a major issue. In view of this mealy-mouthed beginning, the reader is warned not to take comrade Hatcher too seriously when he quotes Frederick Engels' recommendations to German social democracy: "Complete separation of the church from the state. All religious communities without exception are to be treated by the state as private associations. They are to be deprived of any support from public funds and of all influence on public schools." The comrade notes that Engels added in brackets: "They cannot be prohibited from forming their own schools out of their own funds and teaching their own nonsense in them!" The above sentiments were, in broad terms, to be found in the 2001 general election manifesto of the Socialist Alliance, which called for the "complete separation of church and state, not least to ensure that we all enjoy the freedom to worship, or not, as we choose"(Socialist Alliance People before profit London 2001, p17). Obviously in this context 'church' and 'mosque' mean exactly the same thing. People before profit also included a demand for ending "charitable status and tax privileges" for all private schools - most muslim schools are financed by exploiting the laws on charity (p9). But comrade Hatcher immediately rules out such a position for Respect (and presumably for the ISG/Socialist Resistance), since the "call for an end to denominational schools "¦ remains just an abstract propaganda slogan in the absence of any strategy to operationalise it". Perhaps that is what Engels should have told the German socialists too. Equally unsuitable is the "compromise" of "no more faith schools, as a first step towards abolishing them all", because this would risk provoking "a damaging split within the working class", particularly amongst muslims and Afro-Caribbeans, where there is support for faith schools: ""¦ this would probably lead to a big growth in cheap, private faith schools, subsidised and run by religious bodies, thus institutionalising the division further," he concludes. Instead of opposing faith schools, then, comrade Hatcher offers "optional faith-based lessons and religious worship in secular state-run schools" as a possible answer. In return, all religious authorities would have to give up control of their own denominational schools. He does not say what his "strategy to operationalise" this would be, but its effect would be to further desecularise education, allowing religious authorities to become more proactive in state-run schools. Whilst Richard argues that religious indoctrination should be "optional", one could easily envisage a scenario where it becomes more widespread, not less, under his schema. Comrade Hatcher argues that the most important immediate aim must be to get all children and young people into "the common school", which he describes as the "'unity of the class' principle applied to schooling". To achieve that "we should be prepared to make whatever compromises are needed", bearing in mind that we are not talking about "some ideal situation", but "the situation we face today, where there is a clear demand among a section of the working class and the most oppressed for religion in schools". Undoubtedly when Engels was writing his advice to the German social democrats in the 1890s, there would also have been "a clear demand" amongst some workers for religion in schools. However, by abandoning secularism we are abandoning the struggle for equality between believer and non-believer, upon real which working class unity can alone be forged. Marxists do not fetishise religion. Wide sections of the population carry with them prejudices and backward ideas and will do so until the last alienating vestiges of class society finally disappear. Holding religious view blunts consciousness, but hardly stops people taking part in the class struggle - including the socialist revolution. Communists therefore oppose all attempts to divide the workers on the basis of religion. Class unity in their world is more important than agreement about the nature of the next world. Religion in schools is a way to harden difference along sectarian and ethnic lines, it has nothing, not a thing to do with strengthening working class solidarity. Parents ought to be able to take their children to religious ceremonies and celebrations. The same goes for Sunday schools and their various Friday and Saturday equivalents. Such occasions are a private concern and the state is obliged not to interfere. What is objectionable is using the education system as a means to promulgate and normalise religious superstitions and customs amongst children. Religion, like geography or physics, should be studied in schools as an academic subject. But there should be no prayers, no hymns, no sermons, no nativity plays, no multiculturalist equal signs between Easter, Diwali and Ramadan. Keep all of that out of schools.