The row about extremism in schools has over the past week widened out to the role of faith in education in general. This morning I interviewed Crispin Blunt, a former Conservative Justice Minister and Duncan Hames, a Lib Dem MP, for Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster. Blunt told me he fears that the Coalition’s own flagship free schools programme will sow division in England and allow extremist sects to educate children at the taxpayer’s expense. He went so far as to suggest that free schools would move England towards the situation in Northern Ireland:
‘It is extraordinary that with 30 years of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland, where 95% of the children go to a school which is almost exclusively Protestant or Catholic, that it takes the American President to come here two years ago to point out the fact that we are continuing to build division into our society in Northern Ireland, and we’re now starting to do it, particularly in England with the policies that we’re putting in place. We are encouraging this division in society, paid for by the taxpayer! It is an extraordinary state of affairs when something that’s absolutely not in the public interest is being encouraged as a consequence of our policies.’
‘It’s then in the current environment or the developing environment about people’s attitude to faith and we’re seeing it with these Islamist schools and it’s Islam at the moment that is a cause of concern, but there are Christian sects, who apply a very segregated view of society on people who accept that denomination, they’re not allowed to talk and socialise outside that particular group… this is the consequence of having free schools, it’ll be taxpayers who are then paying for this type of education… It is now happening so the opportunity to set up faith-based schools, free schools, with taxpayers’ money has now been presented to these groups. Now the taxpayer should not be supporting something that appears self-evidently to be against the public interest, which is properly preparing children for life in modern Britain.’
UPDATE, 4pm: The Education department has responded to Blunt’s comments. Here’s a statement from a spokesman:
‘It’s nonsense to suggest extremists can set up free schools. Our due diligence and counter extremism unit vets all applications carefully and any group we believe is unlikely to run a fully inclusive school is not allowed to proceed.
‘It is also wrong to imply that free schools are more likely to be faith schools – in fact only 26 per cent of free schools are faith schools, compared to 30 per cent of all schools. Faith free schools must be attractive to students of all faiths and none and, unlike other state faith schools, can only admit up to 50% of students on the basis of faith.
‘It is also misleading to draw links between free schools and events in Birmingham – none of the schools under investigation in Birmingham are free schools. In fact, free schools are part of the solution – with groups like Perry Beeches bringing an outstanding education to children in some of the poorest parts of the city.’