Johann Hari: Q: Are there links between the Birmingham riots and the building of more faith schools?

Segregating children according to their parents' superstitions is a great way to make a volatile town

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Young black and Asian men in Birmingham hack chunks out of each other in a self-described "race war", while the government's education White Paper quietly prepares the ground for a massive expansion of faith schools. At first, these seem like disparate, disconnected news stories - headlines passing each other in the night.

But in reality, the fact that Britain has 7,000 expanding faith schools - Muslims to the left, Christians to the right - is feeding the Balkanisation of Britain's towns and preparing the ground for one, two, three Birminghams.

After every Brum-style race riot in Britain over the past decade, there has been a government inquiry - and every time, the sober professors in charge issue the same warning. Segregating children according to their parents' superstitions is a great way to create a volatile, violent town where ethnic groups glare at each other across a chasm of mutual incomprehension. As Bradford cleaned up after its own smash-and-crash race riots in 2001, the council woke up to the fact that its city had hardened into racial ghettos. It boldly decided to create shared social spaces, starting with infants because a four-year-old is more open to making their first white, black or Asian friend than a 40-year-old. But there was a problem. David Ward, the Bradford council member responsible for education, explained that the Government's obsessive humming - "You gotta have faith/ faith/ faith" - made it impossible to build mixed schools. "You feel as if you are fighting with two hands tied behind your back," he said. "We are trying to desegregate in Bradford but we are powerless when we have schools dictating their own admissions policies."

After hearing this from dozens of people, Lord Ouseley's report into the riots warned: "There are signs that communities are fragmenting along racial, cultural and faith lines. Segregation in schools is one of the indicators of this trend. There is virtual apartheid in many secondary schools." After the riots in Oldham, David Ritchie - chair of the investigation - issued the same warning, saying that faith schools are "contributing institutionally to divisions within the town."

Bradford, Oldham, and today Birmingham - it's like a screeching song playing in a loop. Only you don't need to wait for the inquiry this time. As recently as this summer, Birmingham's head of education, councillor Les Lawrence, was issuing this eerily familiar warning: "Separating pupils on the basis of religion for the purposes of education is not the best way to develop social cohesion." He said no more faith schools should be added to the 96 already dominating Birmingham, and said "where the opportunity arises, reduce the number of faith schools that already exist." Nobody listened then - and today, as blood is washed off Birmingham's streets - still nobody listens.

Of course, faith schools claim they promote "tolerance" - but the evidence hardly backs them up. For example, at a state-funded Muslim school on the outskirts of London, a student wrote in the school paper that "Jews and Christians" will "burn in furnaces", and another said non-Muslims are described as "doomed in this world".

So why did the Government decide to make it even easier to build faith schools in the very week Birmingham combusted? The White Paper had an excellent proposal to extend bussing to make sure schools have a fertile mix of rich and poor kids. So why are they trying so hard to prevent a mix of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and atheist kids too?

The reason is simple: the Government believes faith schools achieve better results. At first glance, this seems true: look at a league table of the highest GCSE and A-Level scores in the state sector and you'll overdose on Saint this and Holy that. So, Blair says, would you really have me dismantle some of the best state schools in Britain?

But look again. The right-wing think tank Civitas - expected to back faith schools with table-thumping vigour - decided to study the figures, and found something surprising. Faith schools get better results for one simple reason: they use selection to cream off middle-class children - all kids bright and beautiful - and to weed out difficult, poor or unmotivated students who would require more work. They gave the game away last year when the Government suggested church schools educate more children who are in care, and they recoiled in horror. John Hicks, governor of St Barnabas' Church of England school in Pimlico, snapped: "We know children in care must be educated but it can be detrimental in schools that are oversubscribed." Or, not on our league tables, baby.

Civitas found that actually - once you factor in the fact they take brighter kids with far fewer problems - it turns out faith schools underperform compared to other schools. This is hardly surprising since they dedicate hours of school time to non-academic religious pursuits. The Welsh National Assembly commissioned a study that found the same thing. So the sole credible argument for faith schools is as mythical as the Christian belief that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and burped out, alive and well, a month later.

And it's not only Britain's race relations that Tony Blair is sacrificing in pursuit of this misplaced faith. Most religious schools preach one chunk of reactionary morality or another, all causing terrible harm to children. One friend who was at a Catholic school in Leicester until recently explained: "We were given no sex education, except for a lesson in which we were shown a video of an evil woman having an abortion and the foetus being chucked in the bin. We weren't even told about tampons because they believed they interfered with the hymen." This "don't come, all ye faithful" attitude pervades faith schools, ramping up Britain's teen pregnancies. Some of the new evangelical city academies - models for the new faith schools - openly admit they are "anti-gay" and urge gay pupils to "choose another path". There is a real risk that, having abolished Section 28 by the front door, the spread of homophobic faith schools reintroduces it by the back door for thousands of schoolchildren.

The British people can see how crazy this is. This is one of the most irreligious societies on earth, thank God (or the void). Only the French are less likely to attend a religious ceremony than us. That's why the building of new faith schools is even more unpopular here than the poll tax or rail privatisation, with 80 per cent declaring it wrong in an ICM poll. Some 64 per cent of us believe existing faith schools should be forced to ditch their superstition or go into the private sector. So next time a major British city erupts into race warfare because our children are being divided up according to religion and taught to oppose each other, remember: it's not our fault. Tony, we told you faith was a lousy basis for education.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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