Secular Education Forum

The Secular Education Forum (SEF) provides expert and professional advice and opinion to the National Secular Society (NSS) on issues related to education and provides a forum for anyone with expertise in the intersection of education and secularism.

The SEF's main objective is to advocate the value of secularism/religious neutrality as a professional standard in education. The SEF welcomes supporters of all faiths and none. It provides expert support for the NSS working towards a secular education system free from religious privilege, proselytization, partisanship or discrimination.

Want to get involved?

Sign up

Join our mailing list to apply to join the forum. You'll be kept up to date with news, meetups and opportunities to contribute or volunteer.

Membership of the Secular Education Forum is intended for education professionals (including current, former and trainee professionals) and those with a particular expertise in the intersection of secularism and education. All requests to join will be considered after signing up to the mailing list.

Education blogs and commentary

A selection of blogs and comment pieces on education and secularism. For education news from the NSS, please click here.

Transport to faith schools: Local authorities shouldn't be subsidising religious segregation

Thu, 06 Nov 2014

A "hideous form of discrimination" or the justifiable removal of a religious privilege? NSS campaigns manager Stephen Evans takes on Conservative MP Nigel Evans over the removal of transport subsidies to faith schools.

Last week, during Education Questions in the House of Commons, the Conservative MP Nigel Evans raised what he described as a "hideous form of discrimination" concerning faith schools.

He wasn't objecting to some publicly funded schools discriminating against pupils in admissions on the basis of their parents' beliefs or religious activities. Nor to some such schools refusing to employ teachers that can't prove their piety.

No, instead he singled out as a "hideous form of discrimination" some local authorities exercising their discretion not to spend public money transporting children to faith schools when other suitable schools are available closer to home.

The law already requires local authorities to make arrangements for pupils from low income backgrounds to attend the nearest school preferred on grounds of religion or belief, where that school is between two and 15 miles from their home.

However, for many years, local authorities have been more than generous, and where parents have chosen to send their child to a faith school rather than the nearest available school, local authorities have provided free or subsidised transport on a "discretionary" basis to all pupils.

Families wishing to send their children to schools further afield that specialise in other areas, such as sport, mathematics, drama, science, art or technology have to meet the total cost of transport themselves. Only parents choosing a school on the basis of religion receive special treatment.

The costs are considerable - in the tens of millions of pounds when surveyed some years ago. In recent years a number of local authorities have decided they can no longer afford this, and must instead prioritise protecting services that look after the most vulnerable members of society.

One such council is Lancashire, home to Nigel Evans' constituency of Ribble Valley where the Council currently spends £8.5 million on providing home to school transport. About half of that sum is spent on 'discretionary' provision - primarily paying for pupils to attend a Church of England or Roman Catholic faith school which is not their nearest school.

Despite having to slash public services to find £3.5m savings over two years, Lancashire Council has rather generously agreed to continue subsidising the cost, but has said that it will in future ask parents to pay a greater contribution to the costs associated with transporting their children to religious schools.

But that's not good enough for some parents. They are up in arms, and have prompted their MP to start lobbying to ensure that the taxpayer picks up the bill for their children's bus passes. In a well-crafted piece of Orwellian doublespeak, Evans has launched a campaign to 'stop the discrimination'.

With the Government providing the funds for faith schools and politicians constantly waxing lyrical about the 'importance of faith', it is hardly surprising that parents have come to believe they have some sort of 'right' to send their child to a religious school at the state's expense.

No such right exists.

Under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), there is no specific right to have your children educated at a faith school. Yes, local authorities need to respect parents' religious and philosophical convictions as to the education to be provided for their children, but that's not the same as the state having to provide a faith-based education. It does not and it should not. This has simply become an unreasonable - and potentially divisive - parental demand that no politician seems prepared to challenge.

What is perfectly reasonable is for parents of all faiths and none to expect a state education that doesn't run completely counter to their beliefs. Therefore, if the nearest state school with available places is, let's say, a Sikh faith school, non-Sikhs shouldn't be expected to send their child there, or be penalised in any way for not doing so.

The same applies to every religion and belief combination you can come up with. Therefore, if the nearest appropriate school that doesn't run counter to a parent's beliefs is further away, then it seem fair that the state should pick up the bill for having to travel further for an appropriate school.

This is yet another reason why it would be better all round for the state to ensure that all publicly-funded schools are strictly neutral when it comes to matters of religion. The schools we all share should be inclusive and secular - where all beliefs are respected, but none are actively promoted. Parents that want to give their child a religious upbringing are at liberty to do so (via the home and wherever they worship), but it's not a reasonable demand of state education.

As councils up and down the country have realised that discretionary spending on transport to faith schools is no longer affordable, we've seen all sorts of distorted rhetoric concerning the cutbacks. Catholic activist Lord Alton suggested expecting parents to pay for their choice was a "faith tax". Conservative Assembly Member for South Wales Suzy Davies even claimed that by not providing free transport to faith schools local authorities "could be denying a child's right to manifest a religion".

This is nonsense. Not providing free buses to faith schools in no way interferes with anyone's right to manifest a religion. In fact, it's the provision of free transport to those choosing schools on the basis of their religious convictions that introduces the disadvantage.

Take for example the situation in Flintshire where only children who can "prove" their religion qualify for free school buses, whilst those who can't have to pay their own way - and may not even be allowed on the 'Catholic' bus. This means children who live next door to each other, and travel to the same school, can be treated unequally, purely on the basis of their parents' religious beliefs.

You might have thought that anti-discrimination laws would have put paid to this - but Equality Act exemptions mean local authorities can't be touched for applying such discriminatory policies.

During its scrutiny of the legislation, the Joint Committee on Human Rights expressed concern that "maintaining this exemption from the Equality Act duty may encourage local authorities to continue to treat those with religious and those with non-religious beliefs differently in the provision of school transport."

The Committee concluded: "In our view, the Government has not demonstrated the necessity for this exception from the prohibition on discrimination on grounds of religion or belief for school transport."

Nevertheless, the exemption remains and in some areas, religious families continue to receive more favourable treatment.

Where discretionary free transport to faith schools has been phased out it has simply resulted in parents and pupils being treated equally by their local councils. Only someone who thinks being religious should bring with it entitlement to civil privileges could possibly describe this as a "hideous form of discrimination".

But what's even more worrying is that the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan told Parliament that she understood the parents' frustrations and "will perhaps look at this again".

Rather than further entrenching religious privilege in education, Nicky Morgan should be stressing the importance of local authorities avoiding discrimination in the provision of transport and insisting upon equitable policies, free from religious favouritism, fair for families and taxpayers alike.

The Government may not have the courage or even the conviction to question the wisdom of faith schools, but it certainly shouldn't be entertaining the idea of dictating to local authorities that they must subsidise religious segregation in the form of free transport to faith schools.

Sixth formers: You have the right to withdraw!

Fri, 26 Sep 2014

Sixth form pupils can excuse themselves from acts of worship – but it appears some schools aren't so keen on recognising their students' rights to religious freedom.

Sixth form pupils over the age of sixteen have, since 2006, enjoyed the right to withdrawal themselves from acts of worship in schools – including in faith schools and academies.

So it has been surprising in recent weeks to receive calls into the NSS office from sixth form students experiencing difficulty when attempting to exercise this right.

In the two most recent cases, both schools were faith schools, and both pupils were themselves religious, but neither shared the faith designation of the school they attended.

In one case a practising Christian who regularly attends a Baptist Church requested permission not to attend the school's Church of England services. Rather than respecting the student's decision, the school's Head raised the possibility of expulsion.

In a second recent case, a Muslim student attending a Catholic school was told in no uncertain terms that if he wished to be a part of the school, he would have to attend all religious services and "take part by singing and saying the words".

The NSS campaigned hard during the passage of the Education and Inspections Act to make parliamentarians recognise that young people, like everyone else, have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – and that those old enough to make informed decisions for themselves should be allowed to do so.

It could be argued that many pupils under the age of sixteen have sufficient understanding and intelligence to make their own decisions about their beliefs – and should be regarded as legally competent to decide for themselves whether or not to worship.

But the law sets the bar at sixteen. That means the right to withdraw a student below that age rests with the parents – but students over sixteen can decide for themselves.

But the schools in question took the view that if the pupils (or their parents) had difficulty in accepting the school's religious ethos then they shouldn't have chosen the school in the first place.

The point these schools miss is that an overwhelmingly majority of parents don't choose faith schools because they're faith schools – they choose schools based on locality and academic success.

When polled, 77% of parents said their choice of school is made on the basis of its academic standards. 58% said that the location of the school influences their decision. Just 5% say they would choose on the basis of giving a "grounding in faith tradition"; and only 3% for "transmission of belief about God".

So it's wrong for any school – including faith schools – to assume the religion of its pupils. These are publicly funded schools – not churches. The vast majority of young people are there to be educated, not preached at.

Even if there were no statutory protection, there is simply no moral justification for forcing young people to take part in acts of worship with which they do not agree.

I'm pleased to report that having being alerted to both the unreasonableness and unlawfulness of their actions, both of the above-mentioned schools, have since repented – and acknowledged their pupils' right to withdraw.

Let's hope that one day soon our lawmakers will recognise that religious worship doesn't belong in schools and abolish the 70-year old requirement. Instead, schools should be ensuring that their assemblies are relevant, respectful and inclusive of all their pupils, whatever their religious backgrounds.

Until that time, at least sixth formers can decide for themselves whether or not to take part in acts of worship – provided that is, that their schools obey the law.

A contested subject: religious education and faith schools

Tue, 23 Sep 2014

Reports of a Cabinet row over plans to require faith schools to teach more than one religion at GCSE level show that even baby steps towards greater objectivity in religious education will face fierce opposition, argues Alastair Lichten.

Secularists have had cause to be concerned about the Education Secretary's views on the relationship between religion and state; but Nicky Morgan's purported suggestion that faith schools should teach about at least two religions in GCSE religious education (RE) should be welcomed as a baby step towards much needed reform.

Objectively learning about different world views is an important part of a holistic education. For young people to understand the role religion plays in many people's lives and to decide for themselves what, if any, role they'd like it to play in theirs requires exposure to multiple viewpoints. This sends a message that they have the right to draw their own conclusions and make their own choices rather than have these dictated by adults – whether teachers, their parents or school authorities.

For both secularists and those that believe that state education should promote specific religious viewpoints, religious education is a key battleground.

One of the biggest concerns about faith schools is their ability to teach religious education from one specific viewpoint –which undermines both social cohesion and their pupils' right to an objective education.

Outrage about the biased approach towards religion tends to be more widespread when it happens is supposedly 'secular' schools, as in the case of some schools in Birmingham.

Following the 'Trojan Horse' affair, the Education Select Committee, among others, picked up on the problem of a "narrowing of the world view of the pupils" with religious education, at least in some of the schools, focusing exclusively on Islam.

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, believes that requiring all schools – including faith schools – to teach more than one religion will expose children to a wider range of views and help reduce extremism. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, whose disagreements with Ms Morgan's predecessor over tackling extremism reportedly contributed to him being moved on, is said to support the proposal.

It's unfortunate that this debate has been framed in terms of reducing extremism in schools. Although a good education probably does contribute to less extremism, framing the debate only in terms of counter extremism fails to recognise objective education as being important in its own right.

The Church of England, who this week admitted to serious weaknesses in the teaching of RE in Anglican schools, is said to be supportive of the new proposals.

The Church of England is the biggest beneficiary of state funding for faith schools and Christianity enjoys elevated status on the curriculum.

Being used to teaching about a variety of religious viewpoints – with theirs given special prominence - it's unsurprising that the Church feels less threatened by the proposals.

Catholic and Jewish schools, however, are more likely to teach RE from an exclusive position and both the Chief Rabbi and Archbishop of Westminster are reported to oppose the proposal. Even more than the Anglicans, Jewish and Catholic leaders may recognise that their faiths face an uncertain future in a country which is already majority non-religious and witnessing an unprecedented rise in the Muslim population.

It's not the first time that Ms Morgan's response to the problems highlighted by the 'Trojan Horse' affair have come under criticism from religious commentators. This week the Catholic Herald carried an editorial bemoaning that the promotion of 'British values' such as equality and tolerance would undermine Catholic schools' RE classes that teach the exclusive doctrine of "outside the Church no salvation".

Unsurprisingly, opposition from within the Cabinet has come from the Minister with a specific brief to apparently promote religious privilege. Eric Pickles, Community Secretary and new Minister for Faith, is, according to one Government source, concerned that this could: "Have a knock-on effect on the freedom of Catholic and Jewish schools to restrict their teachings to just their faith and preserve their distinctive ethos".

This statement is a microcosm of the problem with how religious education is arranged, and raises two important questions: what is the purpose of religious education and whose religious freedom is really at stake in our publicly-funded schools?

Advocates of RE as an academic subject argue that religious beliefs form an important part of many people's worldview. Good RE, goes the argument, is therefore important and necessary to help pupils understand the views of others – and of course, pupils need not accept the religious viewpoints discussed.

The sincerity of such claims needs vigorous scrutiny, as there is no doubt that the promotion of 'religious literacy' is sometimes used as a smokescreen to facilitate deference to religion. Mr Pickles' comments show the naked desire, most others at least try and politely obscure, for state education to be used to promote specific religious views.

In no other subject would the way in which we organise RE be seen as acceptable. No other statutory subject has its curriculum decided at a local level. No other subject has its content decided through the wrangling of religious special interest groups.

Mr Pickles' statement reflects a mind-set that 'religious freedom" doesn't belong to individuals but to faith groups. Their freedom to receive state support to spread their beliefs seems to be the only concern.

What about the religious freedom of pupils to decide for themselves? Faith schools label children by their parents' beliefs, and abuse the trust placed in them to deliver state education by using RE to enforce this identity.

A young person's educational experience will differ depending on what school they go to for all sorts of reasons. But whether a young person finds themselves at an academy, community or faith school, this shouldn't materially affect their right to a broad and balanced education.

Freedom of religion and belief protects the individual – not beliefs – and it seems education is the area where entrenched religious privilege impacts most on people's day to day lives.

With RE taught in such an inherently biased way, we should of course defend pupils and parents' rights to withdraw. But secularists must also set out a positive vision for how pupils can learn about religious, non-religious and secular philosophies and worldviews in an objective and balanced way. The National Secular Society briefing paper on Religious Education addresses many of these issues and sets out proposals for how we can move forward.

A parent’s perspective: a review of the ‘collective worship’ requirement is long overdue

Fri, 25 Jul 2014

As a parent of a 6 year old daughter, Alison Fenwick argues that the obligation on schools to 'worship' impinges on her parental right to raise her child in accordance with her own beliefs.

Why the time has come to end compulsory worship in schools

Fri, 11 Jul 2014

With the launch of a new petition calling on political parties to make the removal of the collective worship requirement part of their education policy, NSS campaigns manager Stephen Evans explains why the time has come to relieve schools of the obligation to provide worship.