The proposal by the National Union of Teachers to allow every state school pupil to have religious instruction in their own faith is a tricky one. It provoked immediate hostility from head teachers who warned that it could open the floodgates to extremist preaching in schools and some church leaders who argued religious instruction should be confined to the religious institution the pupil's family attends.
The reaction, however, ignores one fundamental point. There is a problem with the system at the moment. More and more schools are becoming segregated and there are all-white and predominantly Asian schools operating side by side in many inner city areas. That cannot be good for social cohesion – and from this year the Government has placed a legal requirement on schools to promote community cohesion. The union's proposal recognises that it would be impractical to close down all faith schools – there are 7,000 of them and they are popular with parents – and replace them with secular state schools. Another factor in the NUT's consciousness is that it has many members in faith schools who might decamp to other unions if it campaigned to close them.
Steve Sinnott, the general secretary of the NUT, believes his proposal would reduce the demand for faith schools because parents would feel their children could worship in their own faith in any school they chose. There is some doubt about that. Would a Catholic parent prefer a school that promotes a Catholic ethos to one that allows pupils some time during the day to worship with a Catholic priest? Also, would each faith represented at the school have enough priests, rabbis or imams to call on to give instruction to a pupil of their faith?
Given these caveats, however, it has to be recognised that there is a problem here that needs to be addressed urgently. No one could have predicted that the NUT's annual conference – with its reputation for Easter militancy and for delegates adopting a determinedly secular view of the world – would come up with a proposal to give every pupil religious instruction of their choice in their school. It is an idea born out of the notion that everyone is entitled to worship as they see fit, and it is incumbent on those attacking the proposal to come up with alternatives of their own rather than simply dismiss this one as unworkable.Reuse content