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.

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Education blogs and commentary

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

Let Ofsted inspect religious education in faith schools

Let Ofsted inspect religious education in faith schools

Wed, 09 Sep 2015

Religious education should receive the same scrutiny as any other area of the curriculum – and be inspected by Ofsted, argues Stephen Evans.

I recently came across a local newspaper headline about a school being praised for its religious education. As someone interested in what constitutes good practice in RE I read on.

However, it soon became clear that the school's RE wasn't being praised by Ofsted, the body responsible for standards in schools, but by the Catholic Church.

That's because in many faith schools, religious education isn't inspected by Ofsted as you might imagine, but by inspectors appointed by the school's governing body in consultation with the appropriate 'religious authority'.

All schools and academies with a religious character have their denominational religious education, school ethos and collective worship content inspected by religious groups under Section 48 of the Education Act 2005. These inspections evaluate the distinctiveness and effectiveness of a school as a religious institution. In Catholic schools they also serve to ensure schools are devoting at least 10% of teaching time to RE – as required by Catholic Bishops.

The school in the aforementioned news story was a Catholic school, which as part of its "Good" RE, teaches young children that "God is at every beginning" and about "God's dream for every family".

Just 54% of the school's pupils are baptised as Catholics, but nevertheless, all pupils are taught about the importance of spreading the "Good News of Jesus Christ".

Like many other Catholic faith schools, rather than teaching the locally agreed syllabus, the school delivers its own syllabus, in this case the "Come and See" Religious Education programme based on the theological foundations of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

But should churches, temples and mosques really be determining what Britain's young people are being taught in publicly funded schools?

Many parents will naturally be keen to transmit a particular set of beliefs to their children. The big question is to what extent, if any, the state should assist parents in passing on their religious beliefs. At present religious parents are assisted by the state via the provision of publicly funded faith schools.

It is often argued that RE plays a crucial role promoting community cohesion. But when RE seeks to satisfy the demands of religious parents and is taught in a narrow and subjective way, as is the case in some faith schools, surely the opposite is true.

Our failure to successfully integrate the British Muslim community within British society is there for all to see. The proliferation of Muslim faith schools is unlikely to help. In many such schools religious education is inspected by the Association of Muslim Schools which seeks to encourage and promote schooling "for Muslim children that is rooted in Islamic principles and values". Allowing schools to approach religious education in such a partisan way clearly runs the risk of promoting separatism.

But with the religious aspects of the schools being inspected by the religious communities themselves, there is risk of this being glossed over. For example, the Association of Muslim Schools' inspection report for the Al-Hijrah School in Birmingham – where, according to the report, "all 774 pupils are from the Muslim faith" – praises the school's aim to "celebrate cultural diversity" and become an "excellent example of community cohesion". Utterly vacuous.

According to the report, the school's "whole curriculum is linked to spiritual values and Islamic beliefs". RE is rated as "Good". The school's "Good" RE includes "inserting Islamic Studies topics into different subjects regularly". Younger pupils "occasionally recite without understanding".

Another school that teaches "Good" RE according to its inspection report, is the Islamia Primary School in Brent. According to its latest report, the school is a "multi-racial community" but the report also reveals that "all its pupils are of the Muslim faith". We're told that the school's curriculum for Islamic studies, religious studies and Qur'anic studies fosters very good "sense of identity". I'm sure it does.

But isn't it disturbing that the state is so complicit in enforcing religious identities on children?

Too often "Good" RE just means "Good" inculcation. This not only undermines the academic integrity of the subject, it also undermines young people's religious freedom.

The very concept of faith schools is clearly part of the problem. But even within the current educational landscape, religious education needs a rethink. The promotion of partisan religious views should be as socially unacceptable in schools as the promotion of partisan political views – which is in fact, unlawful. Particularly in a school context, a clear distinction should be drawn between academic education and religious inculcation.

In Wales (where education is devolved), the Education Minister has called for RE to be transformed into religion, philosophy and ethics. This is encouraging. Religious education absolutely must be wrestled from those who regard it as a tool for indoctrination. Just because some parents want to shield their children from the plurality of religious and other worldviews, it doesn't mean the state must sanction it.

Whatever the future direction of RE, there's clearly a strong case for allowing Ofsted to inspect the way in which it is taught in faith schools. No part of publicly funded education should be shielded from scrutiny. The point of schools is to expand pupils' horizons, not limit them. If a narrow religious education curriculum is standing in the way of pupils becoming well-informed, open-minded and tolerant citizens, then that needs to be addressed – and Ofsted are best placed to do that.

The National Secular Society has called on the Education Committee to raise the prospect of Ofsted inspecting RE in faith schools when Sir Michael Wilshaw gives evidence on the work of Ofsted in Parliament on Wednesday 16 September.

Students forced to lead prayers and made to attend Mass – the reality of faith schools for non-religious pupils

Students forced to lead prayers and made to attend Mass – the reality of faith schools for non-religious pupils

Thu, 03 Sep 2015

A Sixth Former gives a student's account of what it's like to attend a faith school if you aren't religious, and shows the reality of some faith schools for pupils who don't share the school's enthusiasm for religion.

Christians shouldn’t put self-interest above Britain’s need to better integrate

Christians shouldn’t put self-interest above Britain’s need to better integrate

Fri, 31 Jul 2015

The long history of Christian involvement in state education shouldn't stand in the way of a more integrated education system, argues Stephen Evans.

Why have I never taught a Jewish child?

Why have I never taught a Jewish child?

Tue, 14 Jul 2015

Is this the way to unite society – with faith schools teaching the supremacy of their ideology and how wrong the rest of us are, asks Dennis O'Sullivan, a headteacher with thirty-five years of experience in education.

When is a faith school not a faith school?

When is a faith school not a faith school?

Wed, 08 Jul 2015

Academisation and the 'grey area' between faith and non-religious schools may allow even more schools to assume a religious character by stealth. To avoid this, we need a much clearer definition of 'faith school', argues Alastair Lichten.

The 1944 Education Act, known as the Butler Act, brought faith schools into the new state system. In England and Wales this created three categories of schools, voluntary aided (VA) and voluntary controlled (VC) (both primarily faith schools), and community schools.

Of course this distinction was always somewhat blurred. Community schools were (and still are) required to hold Christian collective worship and to give Christianity special input and prominence in religious education.

Meanwhile, there was, and still is, great diversity within VA and VC schools in terms of how robustly they promote their religious ethos and how they balance that with a genuine wish to serve the whole community.

For example, the NSS hears from governors at faith schools who want to make their admissions less discriminatory and from staff worried that their SIAMS assessment will force them to make their teaching more overtly religious. Meanwhile the way in which Christianity is promoted in some community schools would cause national headlines if it were another religion.

Successive government's expansion of free schools and academies have had the effect of further blurring the line. Particularly academies/free schools with a 'faith ethos' but not a formal religious character. There's also now the uncomfortable situation of schools without even a 'faith ethos' but who find themselves in an academy chain that does. Freed from local authority oversight, individual headteachers can find themselves with new opportunities to insert their personal religious beliefs into school life.

If anyone can sponsor an academy or free school and operate it according to their ethos, free from local authority control, what does it mean to be a faith school? What for that matter does it mean to be a community school?

Khalsa Science Academy in Leeds is one example of the blurring of the lines. It is a 'Sikh ethos free school' but vociferously rejects the label 'faith school'.

We don't know for sure how enthusiastically the Khalsa Academy will promote its Sikh ethos. Children from non-Sikh families being allocated places there may perhaps act as a barrier, but only if the parents choose to send their children there. The indications are that they will not, making this school as religiously segregated as any other minority faith school.

Rev Nigel Genders, the Church of England's chief education officer, has also insisted that schools run by the Church of England are "not faith schools" but "Church schools for all."

Maybe religious groups rejecting the 'faith school' label shows they are beginning to understand (if not embrace) the public's growing discomfort with many aspects of faith schools.

But the rise of academy chains has also given religious groups a new way to expand their influence in nominally secular schools.

The Church's intention to expand its Mission through non-Church schools is evidenced by a quote from a Diocesan Secretary in the Church of England's Church School of the Future Review:

"We have moved forward with affiliation and we do have some affiliated schools. We are keen to see such schools as part of our mission and we feel that we don't have to own these schools. So, through having affiliated schools with a clear link between diocese, school and parish, we are doing what we want to do, which is to promote the Christian ethos."

At the Third Reading of the Education and Adoption Bill, Second Church Estates Commissioner Caroline Spelman MP told MPs the Church will continue to develop diocesan and Church school-led multi-academy trusts which include community schools.

Seeking to allay fears expressed by the National Secular Society, that the Church may take control of previously non-Church schools, Ms Spelman told MPs at Second Reading that Church federations, such as the Trinity federation and the Pilgrim federation in the Norwich diocese, "demonstrated how the individuality of each school has been maintained."

The examples she cites do nothing to allay secular concerns. Quite the opposite – the Pilgrim federation runs four religiously designated schools, two of which appear to have been community schools until as recently as 2011.

Small rural schools are often underfunded schools and at particular risk of this type of takeover. The Government doesn't know how many children currently live in areas where the only state schools are faith schools, but any expansion of the Church's school portfolio will only impede parents' chances of obtaining a truly secular education free from religious influence.

Once converted into an academy, the permissive and informal nature of adopting a 'faith ethos' (as opposed to a formal religious designation) means the religious character of a school can change fundamentally without consultation and at any time simply through a change in the governing authority.

If we're to begin sorting out this mess there are some cultural as well as legal changes that must be made. Let's start by getting rid of the grey area of "faith ethos" academies. If a school wishes to operate as a faith school it should at least have to apply for a religious designation.

As an interim measure the Department for Education should keep a public record of which schools operate with a faith ethos and which schools do not.

There's a clear risk that government proposals to force struggling local authority schools in England to become academies could increase the proportion of faith based schools. To protect secular school provision, the National Secular Society has recommend changes to the Education and Adoption Bill to ensure that no non-religiously designated school is permitted to acquire a religious designation or faith ethos upon, or after academisation.

At the very least the Bill should be amended to maintain the requirement to consult with the local community to mitigate the possibility of non-religious designated schools acquiring a faith ethos without the clear support of parents, pupils, teachers and the wider community.

But more than that we need a cultural change, we need to challenge the idea it is appropriate to use schools to promote religious doctrine, doing so should come to be as frowned upon as promoting a political outlook, such a Neo-conservativism or Marxism, would be.

We need to value a child's right to a secular (and by that I mean neutral, not atheistic) education and to form their own religious and philosophical beliefs more than we value parents' and religious organisations' right to promote theirs with public money. These child-centred values can at first take root in good community schools and gradually, organically become a shared value across all schools.