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.

A parent’s perspective: collective worship and evangelism in schools

A parent’s perspective: collective worship and evangelism in schools

Posted: Thu, 17 Sep 2015

Even where parents have the option of a community school, securing a secular education can be difficult. One parent offers their perspective on negotiating appropriate boundaries which respect children's rights to form their own beliefs.

My support for secular education was influenced by my own upbringing in a household with mixed religious views. While at a CofE primary school I decided I didn't believe in a god but (with the support of a letter from our vicar) I was sent to a CofE secondary school outside of the catchment area.

Although my family respected my religious freedom and didn't thrust religion on me, the religious component of my state (tax funded) education, was enough to have me (pardon the pun) 'singing from the hymn sheet' of religion. My wife, similarly, was brought up with a state religious education (Catholic) before rejecting it in her teens.

This left me with the firm belief both that children should be able to make up their own mind about religion and that the role of education (whether in the home or school) should be to empower them to appraise their beliefs and others, without having one view foisted on them before they can reason for themselves. If after secular (by which I mean religiously neutral) education, which includes understanding of the roles of religious and non-religious beliefs, my son or daughter came to different conclusions than me, or the other adults/authority figures in their life, then who would I be to argue?

When it came to choosing a school for our son, we were in the catchment area for two schools, one with a religious character, and one without. The one with a religious character had a slightly better Ofsted report, but the religious character was too important a factor to ignore, so we placed it 4th, below two other schools for which we were outside the catchment area.

We love the school, and have been very happy both with our son's progress and their communication with parents. So we were surprised when our son came home telling us about God, and how he was 'in charge' and lived in heaven with Jesus. Where was he learning this?

We found out that, without communicating it to us, the school arranged visitors from a local church, which they have a relationship with. They come into the school, typically before the holidays, to do activities and to promote their summer holiday club. My son loved the activities, and really took on board what he was being told and believed everything being taught was fact.

We were infuriated and felt that our rights, and more importantly, those of our son had been infringed.

As long term followers of the NSS campaigns and activities, we were well aware of many of the issues surrounding RE and collective worship, and the NSS were able to offer additional support and help communicating our concerns to the school.

Very quickly I received a response from the school, and was invited to meet with the head of RE.

We had a very productive meeting with the head of RE, where we addressed our concerns, and the school explained their position. Most of our concerns were with the legal requirement for collective worship and the position this put the school in. We all agreed that the situation was far from ideal and I was worried that visitors to the school where taking advantage and using the opportunity to evangelise and proselytise.

Like the NSS, I believe that external groups (including religious) can make a legitimate contribution visiting schools. But just as if a political group were visiting I'd expect there to be appropriate boundaries on their behaviour and proselytization.

We discussed these boundaries with the school and they agreed to refresh training on this. Teachers are always present during visits and visitors should always be introduced with a clear explanation that they are going to talk about their own beliefs. Teachers should also monitor the presentation, to ensure that children are never asked to make declarations of their faith, or being taught aspects of the faith 'as fact'.

We were happy that the school was listening to our concerns, and that they were taking steps to ensure appropriate boundaries in such situations - a compromise we were prepared to accept.

However I do feel that it is very difficult for a child of this age to understand the nuances of being taught something 'as fact' as opposed to being told about another person's own personal beliefs - particularly when they seem to come from an authority figure at school.

We spent some time talking about collective worship and how actively children were expected to participate. Luckily the school at least follow a loose interpretation of the law and never ask children to pray, but instead give them the option. Once again, this choice is lost on a 5 year old when the authority figure who teaches them maths or science starts talking about God. However, as long as there is a requirement for collective worship in state schools, regardless of religious character, then this confusion will remain.

I was interested to hear if any children had been withdrawn from collective worship. Despite the mixed faith population of the school, no children have ever been withdrawn. However, I was surprised, and slightly saddened to hear that children had been withdrawn from visits to religious establishments. This was normally by children of religious parents who didn't want their children to visit places of worship of different religions. Although I'm absolutely opposed to delivering religious messages as part of a child's state-provided education, I strongly believe it is important to understand different cultures, particularly in the multicultural nation we live in. This kind of education builds tolerance and understanding - something which is in great shortage.

Although I wanted to know if children had been withdrawn, I don't see this as a viable option for us. Withdrawing children from collective worship draws undue attention, and it is hard for children to understand why they aren't being allowed to join in with the singing, and enjoyment of this part of the school day. My son so much enjoyed the activities when the church visitors were there, and I wouldn't want to deprive him of something which the other children are enjoying. It a choice we shouldn't have to make. If parents want to take their children to church, they are quite free to do so - secularism gives them that freedom, but education is a necessary part of every child's life.

Education needs to be education, and not a means to promote the subjective beliefs of a diminishing sector of the population. We need to teach children how to reason and think for themselves, rather than how not to.

The author of the article is a parent of a pupil at a primary school in Nottinghamshire. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

Let Ofsted inspect religious education in faith schools

Let Ofsted inspect religious education in faith schools

Posted: 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

Posted: 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.

One might be forgiven for thinking that Britain is a de facto secular country. We have religious freedom and generally speaking we enjoy freedom from religion too. After all, we are not seeing apostates, atheists, and agnostics executed in this country or subject to systematic persecution. There is one group of people in particular however who do not enjoy this latter freedom; the non-religious students who attend faith schools, like me.

We are allowing, with little opposition from any mainstream party, for a third of our state education to be provided in so-called 'faith schools', where religious organisations control the school, with the school's running costs provided by the state.

The case against faith schools is well explained by the National Secular Society and I have no intention of simply repeating the arguments. Instead I want to provide an account of what faith schools are really like for pupils. I believe accounts like mine, on my experiences so far at my local Catholic School, will show what the reality is for so many pupils in our state schools.

I was sent to my school in 2011. With effectively irreligious parents, who even sympathise with many of the criticisms against some of the failures of the Church in the past and present, I found this decision very confusing and protested it at the time. Nonetheless, my other school options were limited. Faith schools are so often presented as providing choice for parents and students, but this was a school that I never wished to attend. I was sent there because it was the best performing local school, but many parents and pupils have no choice at all in their local schools; so often faith schools are the only viable option.

Interestingly, I was permitted to stop attending my local Anglican church after my admission, leading me to believe that I was only made to attend so that I could be signed off as a practising Christian by the vicar, a widespread practice across the country. Under the admissions policy, this gave me an advantage over other people; another example of the unfairness of faith schools. According to statistics published in the school's Diocesan Report, we can deduce that there are around 24 non-Catholics at school with over 650 pupils. This hardly seems diverse or representative of my local community.

I was apprehensive before I started, and I was disappointed when I arrived. Since I have started attending my school, I have felt out-of-place because I feel so philosophically compromised by what the school is doing. I have been called out for not standing up in Mass. I've been told that "not responding with a significant amplitude to prayers" amounts to not supporting the school. I've had a request to self-withdraw from Mass denied on the grounds that it would 'encourage others to do so'. Despite parents supposedly having the legal right to withdraw their children, I've also had a request from my parents (who subsequently withdrew it upon its rejection) dismissed on the same grounds.

I've also seen students refusing to lead prayer told that "they have to" and that they should "go to another school" if they're unwilling.

Despite being a firm believer in equality myself, my school's SRE policy refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of same-sex marriage and clearly states it's disapproval of gay relationships. Just imagine how homosexual pupils are made to feel by that. I expect better from a publicly funded school.

I have one final year left at school. Little can be done about my situation now, I'm too far into my education, but I think it has left a permanent scar on me. I will not look, as many do, at my secondary education with joy and nostalgia, but with disappointment and neuralgia. I urge readers to make their opposition to faith schools known to their MPs, join the NSS, and campaign in as many ways as they can to see this institutional discrimination come to an end.

This post was written by a current Sixth Form student at a Catholic faith school. The identity of the student has been kept anonymous at their request. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and may not represent the views of the NSS.

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

Posted: 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.

No sooner had David Cameron finished delivering his landmark speech on extremism which stressed the need for British citizens to better integrate, the Catholic Education Service set to work on a press release arguing that the PM was wrong on integration and setting out why it should continue to be allowed to use public money to religiously segregate children.

The part of the Prime Minister's speech that really seems to have upset them was where he suggested that dividing children by their parents' religion and bussing them to different areas might not the right approach for Britain.

This is a particularly sensitive topic for Catholics. For many years Catholic parents have taken advantage of local authorities' generous subsidising of the transport costs when they've opted to send their child to a more distant religious school rather than their catchment school closer to home.

In recent years, a number of local authorities have decided to cut this discretionary (not to mention discriminatory) expenditure, opting instead to only provide transport to pupils' nearest available school. It would be nice to think this was because they realised it was wrong in principle to treat religious families favourably and subsidise religious segregation, but in reality, it's because their budgets have been slashed and they have to make savings wherever they can.

Catholic schools are some of the most socially selective schools in the country - bastions of discrimination - selecting their pupils of the basis of their parents' religious beliefs and activities and teachers on the basis of their "personal conviction and practice of the faith". Do you really need to be "witnesses in word and deed to the Divine Teacher, Jesus Christ" in order to teach Maths, as this Memorandum on the appointment of teachers in Catholic Schools suggests?

The Catholic Church is even refusing to open free schools because the 50 per cent limit on school places they can allocate on the basis of faith wouldn't enable them to keep the non-Catholics out.

They will claim, sometimes with justification, that due to the cultural diversity of Catholics in some areas, Catholic schools are vibrant mix children of various ethnic, social and economic backgrounds.

But that doesn't alter the fact that, as a country, Britain needs to move away from religiously segregated schooling.

We live in an age of equality. If Catholics have their own state funded schools, every other religious group will have to have their own state funded schools, leading to a horribly balkanised school system. Children from Anglican, Muslim (Sunni and Shia?), Hindu, Jewish and Sikh, backgrounds, separated and educated in accordance to the teachings of 'their' religion. What could possibly go wrong?

Unsurprisingly, the public mood in Northern Ireland, where it did go wrong, is for an end to segregated schools. That's because after years of conflict they've realised the importance of breaking down barriers and allowing children to live, learn and play together from an early age.

In his speech, David Cameron said: "It cannot be right that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths."

He is absolutely right, and in time perhaps he may even find it within himself to call into question the whole concept of faith schooling. Instead, he says he's"the first to support the great education they provide". "I chose one for my own children" he added.

But if he really wants schools to be truly inclusive and based on "British values" of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs - he might have to accept that they shouldn't also be based around religious doctrine.

Perhaps David Cameron thinks its fine for his fluffy Anglicanism to be drummed into Britain's youngsters, but doesn't care so much for some of the more orthodox stuff.

The Prime Minister recently insisted Britain was a 'Christian country'. But the privileging of Christianity - so incongruously prevalent in today's society - makes demands for the privileging of other religions much harder to resist.

Parents of all religious persuasions may regard the passing on their particular faith and religious values to their children as vitally important, but this should be regarded as a parental role, not the role of the state.

According to Pope Benedict XVI, the primary mission of Catholic educational institutions is to allow students to "encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth". But the state should concern itself with education in the more traditionally understood sense of the word - and ensuring that children are properly equipped for life as citizens in modern Britain.

Both the Anglican and Catholic Churches have long been able to use publicly funded schools to inculcate children into their religious traditions. Their reluctance to let go of that privilege is understandable. But for the sake of young people's future, people of all faiths should accept that faith-based education isn't in Britain's best interest.

Let's educate our children together.

This blog was originally posted on the Huffington Post.

Why have I never taught a Jewish child?

Why have I never taught a Jewish child?

Posted: 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.

Teaching British Values is now compulsory in our schools and we are drawing in on ourselves, into Little Britain, because of a fear of the actions of a tiny, tiny minority of so-called radicalised British Muslim youth.

As we clamour for restrictions on immigration, alongside a liberal's fear of talking about race, we label some communities as dangerous and not very British. Fear of Islam is irrational but encouraging Muslims to retreat as some sort of alien breed is counter to our democracy and the values we claim as our national identity. And it alienates Muslims.

Faith schools are marching towards segregation and the creation and strengthening of racial barriers between communities. The government adores free schools and plans to open another 500, many of them single faith schools.

In 2014 there were 6,848 state funded faith schools – about a third of the total and around a 3% increase in the last decade. Jewish and Muslim faith schools, a tiny minority of these, increased from 37 to 48 and from 7 to 18 respectively over the last 7 years. 1.8 million students are in faith schools. Most of these are Catholic or Church of England primary schools.

In 36 years in multi-cultural East London schools and a largely mono-cultural Hertfordshire town I have taught around 7,000 children aged 11-18. I have known many churchgoing Christian children, active Catholics, practising Hindus and Sikhs. Muslims studied alongside other faiths and we had small numbers of Baptists, Buddhists and at least 8 Jehovah Witnesses. But never a Jewish child.

I spoke to a London headteacher about the number of Jewish children in his 1000 strong school. The school had many Jewish children until the opening of a nearby Jewish Free School at which point all Jewish children left. If we segregate children by religion are we surprised they become segregated socially and that elements of separatism will pervade?

As more Jewish kids are taken into faith schools and fewer are taught alongside non Jews should we be surprised that the horror of anti Semitism is prospering in Britain, with more attacks in 2014 than for decades?

There is a video of the Muslim IQRA Primary School in Slough which starts with a boy doing morning prayers in Arabic with the other assembled children. This faith school was created because, "the community wanted it." The allocation of community status is an interesting one: is there just one Muslim community; just one English community? Despite support for our school's planning application people living within 100 metres of the school have designated themselves "the community." And really did expect their views to take prominence. It seems we can all claim community support if we narrow our constituency sufficiently. In theory, non Muslims could attend the IQRA school but they don't. My understanding is that at least some Muslim schools ban stringed instruments, singing, dancing and figurative art because they conflict with the teachings of the Koran which suggests they can lead to sexual arousal and idolatry.

The Catholic Church has refused to open further academies until the government changes its policy on a 50% cap on the control of admissions. This cap on single faith control of admissions upset Jewish community leaders, too, but the Government says that, "new faith schools established with taxpayers money in areas where there is a shortage of good places will be available to all who need them." Why wouldn't faith schools, all built upon such positive principles want to attract others to their moral outlook?

I worry about the curriculum in all schools, with the drive in reverse gear to the artless, toneless mind-numbing rote learning, speed writing and endless test-practising menu. However, what do faith schools teach? I was taught the Catholic view of many things, which included virgin birth, resurrection and the chastity of priests. I was 18 before I dared tempt hellfire by entering a non Catholic place of worship.

In July 2013, a state-funded orthodox Jewish girls' school in north London was admonished after it was discovered that students had their GCSE exams censored, with questions about evolution deliberately blacked out of science papers. The OCR examinations board found that 52 papers in two GCSE science exams sat by pupils at Yesodey Hatorah Senior girls' school in Hackney had questions on evolution obscured, making them impossible to be answered.

When we separate from others we allow gossip, exaggeration and ignorance to take hold, playing into the hands of those who want to divide people. David Green, chief executive of the think-tank Civitas, said, "Some Muslim schools in Britain have become part of a battleground for the heart and soul of Islam. Their aim is to turn children away, not only from Western influence, but also from liberal and secular Muslims." Mr Green says that children in some of the Islamic schools are not being prepared to live in a free and democratic British society. Indeed, they are being made to despise our culture.

It is wrong to go down the Daily Mail's 'one school does it so they all do' route in condemning the new government sponsored free school, Islamic Al-Madinah school in Derby. Here, allegedly, girls have to sit at the back of classrooms, boys and girls are segregated at meal times and there is a strict dress code even for non Muslim staff Sensibly, Manzoor Moghal, chairman of the Muslim Forum, declared: "We are not living in rural Pakistan or a Taliban-run region of Afghanistan. Such superstitious, divisive nonsense should have no place in a British school." Whose voice will be considered typical?

We don't know what goes on in religiously separated schools so I guess we have to believe the Mail when they add, using anonymous sources, "Growing Government worries over what is being taught in the quickly rising number of private and publicly-funded Islamic schools has led to reports that the home intelligence service, MI5, is to send in undercover agents posing as teachers to check if children are being brainwashed in Islamic radicalism." By 'eck.

Might the reality be that some or most faith schools develop thoughtful, tolerant, responsible and caring young citizens as Ofsted reported on the JFS (Jewish Free School). Their "religious outlook is orthodox, and one of its main aims is "to ensure that Jewish values permeate the school". Jewish Studies is a core subject for all students all of whom take the GCSE examination in Religious Studies. Ivrit and Israel Studies are included as part of Jewish Education.

King Solomon High School in Ilford also highlights the importance of Israel, wanting to teach "a positive and proud sense of Jewish identity built upon a sound knowledge of Jewish practice and observance and an appreciation of the centrality of Israel in Jewish life".

I do worry when I see so many children waving the flag of Israel on a school website; we might all be expected to worry if Muslims were pictured with the Saudi flag enthusiastically paraded. We worry anyway if the English flag is given prominence.

We should live, work and study side by side in mutual respect of different traditions and cultures. We should celebrate and proclaim the characteristics that can bring us together. Let's promote acceptance of others, both within the school community and in the wider world, incorporating values such as caring, kindness and charity. Study together in secular schools for a better world.

Dennis O'Sullivan is a headteacher with over 35 years of experience in education. This article originally appeared on The News Hub, and is republished here with the permission of the author.