In recent days, especially from high profile politicians, there has been a considerable amount of criticism of schools regarding the issue of religious extremism. Unfortunately, as much as we may deny it, this criticism is justified.
Extremism has no place in our education system. The very purpose of subjects such as Religious Studies- despite being compulsory- is to make sure that young people have the knowledge to make their own decisions about faith. The point of education should be to inform and inspire, not instruct and inhibit.
So, when I heard about investigations into schools being run with Muslim extremism involved, I was frustrated to say the least. Schools should be places where anyone, no matter what their background, should be welcomed. In an ideal world, every school should be a blank slate where religion is concerned, i.e. a school should not be able to state whether it is Church of England or Roman Catholic or any other religion for that matter. Religion clearly has a limiting effect on education, perhaps not in terms of quality but certainly in terms of access, and this simply should not be the case.
Equality; just as we all have an equal right to education, we should have an equal right to make choices about how that education is conducted. I am proud to have come from a school that was not affiliated with any specific religion, not because I am not religious, but because I believe everyone should have a choice. This choice is important, especially at an early age when, for most, views on such subjects are still forming.
On the contrary, I do accept that in incredibly diverse cities, such as Birmingham, where the recent controversy has occurred, it is hard to accommodate everyone. However, if we gave young people the freedom to choose and express their religion, two things would likely happen. One, schools would have happier and healthier kids. And two, there would be much less extremism. This may only be theoretical, however, in theory, if you give someone freedom of expression of religion or otherwise, they are less likely to rebel.
The problem and the solution are much less complicated than some people make out. If we practice what we preach: respect, equality and choice, we would have a truly valuable system.
Additionally, although I accept that in primary education this may not be appropriate, I feel that if we teach young people about rights and choices, it will make it much easier to stamp out the stigma that there may be around certain religions. Although I do not necessarily follow any religion, I believe that there are some important lessons that can be learnt from the teachings of many religions. The fact that we are all equal in the eyes of God surely is something that schools should take on board, regardless of students’ religious backgrounds.
Overall, there should never have to be reviews into religious extremism in our education system. An education system is supposed to teach us to treat everyone equally, and it should follow by example.
Indeed, I hope that the developments of the last few days help make change happen. Because while I accept it is a minority of schools involved in extremism, it has no place in our education system.
Equal education is something we should value. Let’s not ruin it with bias and prejudice.
Backbench Minister for Education