Military action against the Taleban in Afghanistan is at the top of the news agenda, and is likely to stay there for some time. There is a welcome consensus among the political parties at Westminster. Charles Kennedy, supporting Tony Blair, said: “I regret that this crisis could not have been resolved peacefully. But given the obstinacy of the Taleban Government there was no other option. I fully support British and American troops who are in action. I urge that civilian casualties should be kept to an absolute minimum and that humanitarian aid remains a priority for the suffering people of Afghanistan.”
I believe it is never too early to start thinking about the long-term future – and the fact that there is currently a consensus should not mask the fact that there will be hard questions to be asked when the going gets tough. Apart from anything else, our long term aims will very likely affect the shape of our current military manoeuvres. There is a difficult balance to be struck between our desire to avenge the horrific events of last month and the reality that we need to find some way of living reasonably peacefully with the Muslim world.
There is no doubt that the world is a different place since September 11th, 2001. Just as the USA were about to pull up the drawbridge and cover themselves in the hugely expensive all-protective mantle of Son of Star Wars, they discovered in the most brutal way imaginable that such isolationism is no longer possible.
If the Americans can be persuaded to abandon their head-in-the-sand attitude to the rest of the world, we may have a future worth living. In particular I would suggest that if they took the billions of dollars ear-marked for Son of Star Wars and invested it in alleviating the poverty of the poorest nations of the world, we would all sleep easier in our beds in the long run. It is a shameful statistic that the money being paid to western airlines to enable them to keep flying would repay the debts of the world’s poorest countries many times over.
As far as the UK is concerned, the terrorist attacks in America raise serious concerns about our government’s proposals for an increase in the number of single faith schools, announced as part of its proposed reform of secondary education in England.
Liberal Democrats recognise both the popularity and the success of many church schools. They are often over subscribed and they achieve higher than average points scores at both GCSE and A level. We recognise that historically our schools system owes much to the provision by the Anglican, Non-conformist and Roman Catholic Churches of both primary and secondary schools. In addition we accept the logic of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 that allowed other faiths access to state funding for their own schools.
We do, however, question the rationale behind an expansion of faith schools if they are to become more exclusive. In light of the continuing decline of church attendance it is questionable whether the popularity of church schools lies in their religious character or the desire by parents for their children to attend ‘good’ schools. Parents are prepared to put themselves and their children through a rigid ‘faith’ test and this process of selection ensures one of the most vital ingredients for a successful school – parental support. Interestingly church attendance declines rapidly when places have been secured, and where church schools are performing less well over-subscription is rarely the case.
The principle concern of the Liberal Democrats is not directed at parents who rightly seek out the most appropriate schools for their children; the question is, how do we ensure that all children have access to good schools? The deliberate exclusion of children on grounds of religious belief or lack of it is discriminatory.
A second area of concern is probably more important given the current state of global affairs – the segregation of children by faith, ethnicity and race for their education. We should not move down this road without carefully considering the consequences for the future of our society.
The appalling scenes outside Holy Cross Primary School in the Ardoyne area of Belfast were hardly an advert for a single faith education system. Equally the racial tensions in our cities that exploded in violence in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley should make us stop and question whether educating children in separate schools according to their faith and increasingly race is desirable.
Lord Ousley, commenting in his Report on the Bradford riots, said: “Increasing the number of places allocated on the basis of a parent’s belief or purported belief can only exacerbate racial tension to the detriment of both minority and majority cultures.” The Liberal Democrats share this view and remain to be convinced that educating children according to faith and culture will create a more tolerant and understanding society.
It is often worth asking: “How would we organise this if we were starting from scratch?” So, imagining the creation of a completely new education system, we could ask: “Would it be reasonable to segregate children for educational purposes according to their parents’ religious beliefs?” What do you think? I certainly know what my answer would be.