Monday, November 06, 2006

Give the Secularists something constructive to do

We won. It was a peculiar feeling. We heard on the news that the Education Secretary had suddenly changed his mind about forcing faith schools to close a quarter of their school places to the children from their own faith families, and felt quite dizzy. The Catholic Church had actually won a political victory.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols was magnificent. He was serene, articulate, and kept to his points. He dealt with Jeremy Paxman’s bizarre lines of questioning in an honest, forthright manner.
My favourite moment was when Mr Paxman arched his brows so far they nearly disappeared and asked the Archbishop possibly the silliest question he had ever asked: “So are you happy that Government money should be spent on funding schools which teach that Jesus Christ is not the Son of God?”

The Archbishop could not have looked more puzzled if the great interrogator had asked when His Grace had stopped beating his wife; he voiced the thoughts of all of us when he answered, very civilly, that he wasn’t sure he had quite understood the question. Paxman blustered and backtracked onto another tack.

I imagine some wretched producer had been yelling in Paxman’s earpiece, “OK so these Catholics, they’re like, fundamentalists, yah? So if you get him to say that he wants Government funding for like, you know, schools that aren’t Christian, yah, he’ll be totally embarrassed cos all these you know, moral majority types will be watching and they’ll be like, Hey, we don’t wanna go there, yah?”

We are moving this new taste – victory – around our mouths and wondering how long it will last. It almost looks as though when enough people get together with a good case to make, and a well-led campaign, and a clear message to put across, then they can make things happen. Shortly before the Church’s victory, a petition from 4 million people succeeded in slowing down the closure of rural post offices.

The rage and hatred of the secularists is unbounded. Lord Baker called the Archbishop a liar for regarding his amendment, which laid down quotas for new faith schools, as the thin end of the wedge; which is odd, because I remember the Education Secretary being reported quite distinctly as saying that established schools would be next for the quota treatment, which sounded to me very like a wedge being tapped home.

I pick up The Times and find it brimful with anti-Christian propaganda: another huge puff for Professor Richard Dawkins’ embarrassingly bigoted book, “The God Delusion”, a news feature about the film of Philip Pullman’s atheist trilogy “His Dark Materials”, and on the paper’s main comment section – once graced by the likes of Bernard Levin – there is a spittle-flecked pub rant against Catholics by a fat man with a beard who used to write about sport. All in one issue.

This fight is not just about faith schools. It is about faith. The likes of Lord Baker, a classic Heathite Tory who is best known for making the National Curriculum into a vast prescriptive straitjacket - when all his Prime Minister had wanted him to do was make sure pupils were learning the 3Rs - do not want faith schools to exist at all and if possible would like religion to stop existing, too.Tell them that their quotas will mean that teachers will have to stop saying the Angelus at my son’s school, or displaying crucifixes at my daughter’s, then they smile, nod and say, “Good-ee.”

So where do we go next? Simple: we turn the fight round and campaign not just for Catholics but for all parents, our enemies included.

Seventy percent of schools in liberal, cool, hip, tolerant Holland are either faith schools or schools founded according to a specific philosophy, Steiner schools being among the best known. We should be lobbying politicians, the Tories in particular, to give anyone who wants to run a school on their religious or philosophical beliefs – including atheists, humanists and secularists – to do so with Government funding, as long as they can prove support from the local community.

Let the National Secular Society get the money together (Philip Pullman should be good for a bob or two) and run their own secularist voluntary aided schools. It might be tough at first (running the National Secular Society must be a bit like the National Can’t Be Bothered Society) but they ought to be allowed to have a go. It would give them something constructive to do.

We know we can win a fight for our own schools. Now we should look to fight for the voluntary aided school model - perhaps the most successful school funding pattern ever - for everyone, to bring diversity and passion back to state education.

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