Friday, 2 August 2013

What is "state education"?

My own trade union has begun a discussion with its membership aimed at arriving at a kind of "manifesto for education". If I have understood the intent of this conversation correctly, it is intended to support the union's work in responding to the rampaging policies of the present Coalition Government and to provide a strong document that can be used to challenge the major political parties as they move towards the next General Election in May 2015.

I took part in a seminar earlier today that was part of this conversation. Two things struck me about the seminar. The way in which the question was set for us precluded any discussion of the aims of education (though that might have been more explicitly addressed in other discussion groups). And religion was not mentioned as a factor to be included in a consideration of education.

The context of much of the discussion was the policy of the present Coalition Government in promoting Academies, Free Schools, Studio Schools etc - that is, a range of different types of schools funded from central government through funding agreements and run by bodies that are "private" in the sense that they are not bodies of central or local government. The headline of the teacher unions' campaigning against this policy is that of "defending state education".

But the question I asked was: what exactly does the union mean when it uses that term "state education" in the articulation of its policy against Academies, Free Schools etc.? Does "state funding" define a state ownership of the educational enterprise, in which case the funding defines the enterprise as a state enterprise? Or, which would be more in line with Catholic teaching, does the state funding enable parents, and the schools who are their collaborators in the provision of education for their children, to fulfil their responsibilities (subsidiarity and all that)? In this latter case, the ownership of the educational enterprise rests more at a level of civil society, shared between the parents/legal guardians. And, of course, there is rather less of a problem in principle with funding mechanisms that allow state funds to support private bodies - ie civil society - in the provision of this education. [There might well still be other grounds for opposing government policy in this area, but the in principle "no to privatisation" does not quite work, because on this model the state does not have ownership of the enterprise anyway.] And when I suggested ever so gently that learning and coming to know what was true was a part of the purpose of education ... I felt I was a rather lonely voice.

The absence of consideration of the part to be played by religion or religious communities in the provision of education prompted me to go back to the UN UNiversal Declaration of Human Rights, which contains clear provision with regard to the rights of parents/legal guardians with respect to the education of their children. Article 26 reads as follows:
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.  
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.  
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
The principle underlying state funding of an education service is that it enables a UN member state to fulfil its obligations under paragraphs (1) and (3) of this article, paragraph (3) additionally requiring a degree of plurality in the types of educational provision that are funded. Paragraph (2) provides a basis for a state to require certain standards of the education that is provided using its funding.

These provisions are further supported in a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Convention against Discrimination in Education from 1960. What is interesting here are the provisions of Article 2, which clearly recognise a place for considerations of religion in an educational system.
Article 1

1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term `discrimination' includes any distinction, exclusion, limitation or preference which, being based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic condition or birth, has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing equality of treatment in education and in particular:

(a) Of depriving any person or group of persons of access to education of any type or at any level;

(b) Of limiting any person or group of persons to education of an inferior standard;

(c) Subject to the provisions of Article 2 of this Convention, of establishing or maintaining separate educational systems or institutions for persons or groups of persons; or

(d) Of inflicting on any person or group of persons conditions which are in-compatible with the dignity of man.

2. For the purposes of this Convention, the term `education' refers to all types and levels of education, and includes access to education, the standard and quality of education, and the conditions under which it is given.

Article 2

When permitted in a State, the following situations shall not be deemed to constitute discrimination, within the meaning of Article 1 of this Convention:

(a) The establishment or maintenance of separate educational systems or in-stitutions for pupils of the two sexes, if these systems or institutions offer equivalent access to education, provide a teaching staff with qualifications of the same standard as well as school premises and equipment of the same quality, and afford the opportunity to take the same or equivalent courses of study;

(b) The establishment or maintenance, for religious or linguistic reasons, of separate educational systems or institutions offering an education which is in keeping with the wishes of the pupil's parents or legal guardians, if participation in such systems or attendance at such institutions is optional and if the education provided conforms to such standards as may be laid down or approved by the competent authorities, in particular for education of the same level ;

(c) The establishment or maintenance of private educational institutions, if the object of the institutions is not to secure the exclusion of any group but to provide educational facilities in addition to those provided by the public authorities, if the institutions are conducted in accordance with that object, and if the education provided conforms with such standards as may be laid down or approved by the competent authorities, in particular for education of the same level.

Article 3

In order to eliminate and prevent discrimination within the meaning of this Convention, the States Parties thereto undertake:

(a) To abrogate any statutory provisions and any administrative instructions and to discontinue any administrative practices which involve discrimination in education;

(b) To ensure, by legislation where necessary, that there is no discrimination in the admission of pupils to educational institutions;

(c) Not to allow any differences of treatment by the public authorities between nationals, except on the basis of merit or need, in the matter of school fees and the grant of scholarships or other forms of assistance to pupils and necessary permits and facilities for the pursuit of studies in foreign countries ;

(d) Not to allow, in any form of assistance granted by the public authorities to educational institutions, any restrictions or preference based solely on the ground that pupils belong to a particular group;

(e) To give foreign nationals resident within their territory the same access to education as that given to their own nationals.

Article 4

The States Parties to this Convention undertake furthermore to formulate, develop and apply a national policy which, by methods appropriate to the circumstances and to national usage, will tend to promote equality of opportunity and of treatment in the matter of education and in particular:

(a) To make primary education free and compulsory; make secondary education in its different forms generally available and accessible to all; make higher education equally accessible to all on the basis of individual capacity; assure compliance by all with the obligation to attend school prescribed by law;

(b) To ensure that the standards of education are equivalent in all public educational institutions of the same level, and that the conditions relating to the quality of the education provided are also equivalent;

(c) To encourage and intensify by appropriate methods the education of persons who have not received any primary education or who have not completed the entire primary education course and the continuation of their education on the basis of individual capacity;

(d) To provide training for the teaching profession without discrimination.
What interests me, or perhaps, more accurately, concerns me in the context of the discussion that has been initiated in my own trade union is a failure to look back to documents such as these from the United Nations that can provide a principled basis informing that discussion.

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