Jesmond debates “faith schools: good or bad for society?”
Although not the most diverse corner of Tyneside, Jesmond has an increasingly multicultural outlook, with members of the community coming from Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, Hindu and Jewish backgrounds. So when Jesmond Community Festival played host this month to a debate on “faith schools”, it allowed many within Jesmond to have their say.
Chairing the debate was Peter Breakey, a law lecturer from Northumbria University who had a busy time keeping the peace during intriguing yet passionate exchanges between the two sides of the panel. The panellists in favour of faith schools were Pat Wager, head-teacher of Sacred Heart High School in Fenham and Reverend Bryan Vernon, a senior lecturer at Newcastle University. Against faith schools, the panellists were Dr Philip Nathan, chair of the North-East Humanists and Roger McAdam, the education officer for the North-East Humanists.
The debate often swayed off-track and and into a vaster argument concerning religion itself, a topic that panellists were never going to agree on. However, the evening did provide food for thought regarding faith schools. Nathan argued that faith schools failed to allow for proper integration of students in a society which is becoming more diverse, and suggested that imposing the beliefs of others on pupils of other religious backgrounds for just attending a certain school could be detrimental to integration. McAdam pointed to Northern Ireland as an example, arguing that this showed the dangers which segregated faith schools can hold for a community.
Vernon argued that faith schools have been an historical part of our society, and continue their role in developing better education. Wager argued that sending a child to a faith school was a matter of parental choice and there was never an imposition of one religion on any child – something Nathan and McAdam disputed on the grounds of the schools selection process.
What became clear during the debate was that the faith schools of old – schools which many within the audience had attended – had come a long way in attempting to liberalise their teachings and methods. Wager went out to explain how faith schools in the UK have performed better, on average. She also used statistics to argue that faith school allowing for greater diversity than non-faith schools.
Nathan and McAdam questioned the level of inclusion that faith schools brought to a community, particularly with regards to homosexuality and other religions. McAdam spoke of his own experiences of going to a Church of England primary school, before moving on to a much larger grammar school, where he seemed foreign to his Roman Catholic class-mates. He recalled how de simply did not understand them.
Central to the opposition’s argument was the notion that young people should have the choice to choose for themselves whether to take part in prayers during assemblies or chapel services, as is the case in some schools.
Follow David Harrison on @DaveHarrison43