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.

Yes, “faith schools” really are the problem

Wed, 11 Jun 2014

Politicians are in denial over the problems caused by "faith schools" and religious influence in education, argues Terry Sanderson.

The National Secular Society has been saying it for years – "faith schools" are a bad idea. And despite the events of the past few months in Birmingham, the simple message still hasn't got through to the politicians who are responsible for the education system: religious schools are the problem, not the answer. The Church of England is about to launch another great tranche of schools that they'll run but the taxpayer will pay for.

Under the Gove regime, with its promotion of academies and free schools, which give religious proselytisers virtual carte blanche to promote all kinds of questionable religious ideologies, the situation has worsened.

With a host of religious proselytisers out there desperate to get access to those pesky children who obdurately will not attend their churches and mosques, the free schools and academies are – in their terms – a God-send.

We reported last year on the seemingly endless parade of conservative Christian organisations that are given free access to schools to evangelise. We have exposed the Church of England's own "Trojan Horse" –style plan to up the religious input in its schools.

And since then there we have received a steady flow of emails from parents who are astonished and alarmed about what religious messages their children are being exposed to in schools.

When you give religious schools freedom to teach what they like, as Mr Gove has done, there will always be the temptation among some to abuse it. They will teach creationism, they will invite in hate preachers, they will begin to run the schools as if they were churches or mosques or madrassas.

After protests from secularists, Mr Gove said that he would forbid the teaching of creationism in science classes, which seems like progress. Of course, he has not been able to entirely police that and depends on whistle-blowers to bring cases to his attention. How can he possibly know what's going on in all the tens of thousands of schools doing as they please with only his blinkered oversight from his desk in Whitehall?

The problem is that Mr Gove, like all Education Secretaries before him, thinks that "faith schools" are marvellous. They all looked at the results and said: "If the rest of the education system could perform like this it would solve all our problems."

Ergo, let's have more faith schools.

The problem is that research has shown more than once that "faith schools" don't achieve what they do because of their "religious ethos", they do so because of their ability to select and discriminate. Parents don't really care about the "religious ethos", they just want a good education for their children. If that means they have to feign religious belief and go to church and tell lies to the vicar, then they'll do it.

Ah, you say – but the schools in Birmingham at the centre of the so-called Trojan Horse fiasco were not faith schools. They were community schools.

Yes, that's true. And it seems that some of the parents at these schools want their children to have a hard-line, separatist, Islamic education. They don't see it in those terms, of course. To them it seems perfectly reasonable to raise pious, conservative children who are contemptuous of the immoral culture in which they find themselves and so avoid engaging with it. There was a good analysis of how this came about in the Telegraph.

Some of these ultra-traditionalist parents, determined to have what they see as a pure and unsullied view of Islam foisted on to their children, as it was foisted on to them, have become governors at the schools. They have gone about ensuring that they get the kind of "ethos" that they want. In some schools that means no art, no dancing, no music. Girls are required to wear head dresses and to sit separately (often at the back of the class) from boys.

Some young people were brave enough to say to a Sky News reporter that they thought their lives were restricted by the school.

But the very existence of "faith schools" of any description means that the place of religion in schools is going to be guaranteed.

If our school system were to be secular, it would be easier to control the input of extremists anxious to inculcate their ideas into young minds.

If education about religion is to be truly objective and inclusive it cannot be taught in a single-faith ambience. If no school had a particular "religious ethos" and a strictly neutral education about religion, which had been nationally agreed, then there would be less opportunity for abuse by religious zealots.

As it stands, "faith schools" open the door for all kinds of undesirable and inappropriate behaviour.

Apologists for "faith schools" have made the case for years that not only are they harmless, they are desirable and superior.

Their emollient words have worked for them in the past and have convinced enough. But now the tide of public opinion is beginning to become a bit more questioning.

The Church of England has felt rather pleased with its relationship with this Education Secretary. They have encouraged his enthusiasm for ever more "faith schools".

But even they are beginning to see the tide turning. They are gradually dropping references to "faith school" from their own institutions and are now increasingly referring to them again as "church schools". This, they hope, will help distance them from what has happened in Birmingham.

Now they have announced that the next large tranche of 'church schools' won't operate the same religious selection as previous Church of England schools have.

It could be regarded as a finger-in-the-dyke exercise, an effort to fend off criticism about the outrageous privileges that it has in education. But it is too late.

The fundamental question is now being asked: why are we allowing churches, mosques and temples to run our schools? What possible purpose could it have other than to use our education system as a recruiting ground?

The argument that if we returned "faith schools" to community status the education system would go down the pan is fallacious. The fantastic teachers and headteachers who are the true miracle workers in these schools would not suddenly disappear from the system. The excellence could continue without the presence of vicars and bishops and evangelising groups who see schools as a happy hunting ground.

We've said it a hundred times before, and now the message is getting through to more and more people. Religion in schools really is a problem, and faith schools really aren't the answer.

School chaplains: the Church of England's latest plan to evangelise in schools

Tue, 03 Jun 2014

With the majority church schools now employing Christian chaplains, Stephen Evans questions whether public money intended for education should be used to fund the Church of England's missionary work.

Embedded religious privilege triumphs on Scottish education issues

Mon, 12 May 2014

National Secular Society's spokesperson for Scotland, Alistair McBay, argues that the Scottish Parliament has helped entrench religious privilege in the country's education system.

Tuesday 6 May was a busy day in the Scottish Parliament which saw a triumph for embedded religious privilege in the country's sectarian education system.

Two secular petitions were heard by the Education and Culture Committee of the Scottish Government. The first, submitted by the Scottish Secular Society, sought to change required religious observance (RO) in Scottish state schools from a parental opt-out to an opt-in basis. The Committee rejected the petition, but did urge the Scottish Government to see that parents were better advised of the right to opt-out their children. They also advised that schools should make better provision of 'meaningful' alternatives for those opted out. This was a predictable cop-out by the Committee and will have come as welcome news to religious interests in Scotland, although it was to be expected given the Scottish Government's now reaffirmed support for RO in schools.

Here is an example of why the decision was never going to be anything else, in spite of some excellent campaigning for change. A report submitted by the NSS to Education Scotland last year stated that in our view the present guidance issued by the Scottish Government in 2011 betrayed four underlying beliefs:

Now consider in this context this paragraph from this current guidance to schools, which at Tuesday's hearing the Scottish Government said remained 'relevant and up-to-date":

"Scottish Government Ministers consider that religious observance complements religious education and is an important contribution to pupils' development. It should also have a role in promoting the ethos of a school by bringing pupils together and creating a sense of community. Schools are therefore encouraged to inform parents of this without applying pressure to change their minds.

This is a clear endorsement of RO as an essential element to religious education, positively underpinning the creation of a school ethos with the need for all pupils to participate in confessional religious experiences. In effect the only RO experience children get in Scotland is of a Christian variety – Protestant in non-denominational schools, Catholic in Catholic schools. No explanation is offered as to why such an experience is necessary to create 'a sense of community', nor why creating a sense of community without it is impossible. The so-called encouragement to schools 'to inform parents of this (essential ethos element) without applying pressure to change their minds'is clearly intended to play a guilt-trip on parents, that by withdrawing their children from RO (regardless of whether they opt-out or don't opt in) they will be undermining the very ethos of the school. What parent would want to be singled out as being responsible for that? As the NSS has also demonstrated, it is no longer simply a case of a child being withdrawn from a formal RO assembly setting. With RO to be practised in a wider range of school activities beyond the 'most common vehicle' of the school assembly, it becomes very difficult for pupils to be withdrawn on every RO occasion. No doubt this is also a desirable outcome from the current guidance.

So let's not hold our breath as to how these revised guidelines will be phrased and implemented, given that the underlying belief of the Scottish Government is that RO is a good thing and must remain. It is not simply, as the chairman of the Education and Culture Committee stated, a case of parents being made fully aware of their rights. It is a case of the Scottish Government supporting what amounts to religious indoctrination in so-called non-denominational schools. And so we might reasonably ask if the revised guidance will alter the instruction to inform parents exercising their right to opt-out that RO is essential for a school ethos and community culture "without applying pressure to change their minds". In an interesting observation, the Committee quoted the Scottish Government as stating that a switch from a parental opt-out to an opt-in would not be 'helpful' to young learners. What does that mean, I wonder? If an opt-in was granted, might it mean that not enough parents would take up the option, such that Government's effort to promote indoctrination in schools to the maximum number of pupils would be diminished? Why are parents who exercise their right to opt their children out not being helpful to their children's learning process?

The Education and Culture Committee also disposed of the Edinburgh Secular Society petition. This sought to secure removal of the legal obligation on Scottish local authorities to accept the nomination of three external voting religious members to their education committees which are otherwise composed of elected councillors. The Committee convenor stated that since the Scottish Government had made known its opposition to changing this, so there was no point in pursuing it.

Should we be surprised? The Scottish Government was unlikely to consider any dilution of the embedded Christian privilege in the education system so soon after the same-sex marriage debate. There remains a large residual fury among Christian organisations in Scotland over the same-sex marriage consultation and its eventual passing on to the statute book. Even now Christians continue to misrepresent the Government same-sex marriage consultation as a referendum which ignored the wishes of the majority in Scotland. It remains a worry that, with an independence referendum and draft constitution awaited, there will be some sort of conciliatory offering to religious groups in the wake of the same-sex marriage legislation. Perhaps we are already seeing this in the dismissal of these two secular petitions. It must also be remembered that the Scottish Government counts both the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Catholic Church as key strategic partners. It is hardly likely to demonstrate this by emasculating them.

It mattered not in the consideration of the ESS petition that it drew support from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The EHRC pointed out to the Scottish Government that Section 149 of the Equality Act requires public authorities in Scotland to give due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation; advance equality of opportunity between different groups; and foster good relations between different groups. While the legislation concerning religious representatives predates these public sector equality duties, the Commission nevertheless believed an appropriate course of action for Scottish Ministers "may be to assess whether these provisions and the policies and practices which flow from them meet the requirement to give due regard to the three elements of the Equality Duty listed above."

Was this consideration given in the Scottish Government's decision-making process? If not, why not? And if so, on what basis was the EHRC advice rejected? Why was the responsible Scottish Government minister, Mike Russell MSP (coincidentally a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church) not called to the Committee to explain his reasons for dismissing the EHRC advice?

The issue will be raised again in the coming weeks, this time in the main Parliament chamber, in a private member's bill on transparency and accountability in Scottish local government being pursued by independent MSP John Finnie.

In conclusion then, May 6 2014 was a good day for the defence of unwarranted religious privilege in the Scottish education system, and a bad day for equality, democracy and community cohesion. While the Scottish Government is now aware of a growing body of objection to the influence of religious organisations in education, the churches and other faiths have also been alerted to this and any complacency in their ranks has been thoroughly dissipated. Their well-funded and resourced lobby machines will be redoubling their defensive efforts to continue to use Scotland's schools as pulpits. It seems, sadly, that they can count on the Scottish Government for support while continuing their tailspin of decline – currently the Church of Scotland has no fewer than 25 churches and church halls for sale.

'Trojan horses' in Birmingham schools should come as no surprise

Wed, 16 Apr 2014

With powerful religious agendas which reach far beyond faith schools and insufficient protections for community schools, Rumy Hasan argues, the so called 'Operation Trojan Horse' should come as no surprise.

Religious schools are the problem, not the answer

Mon, 14 Apr 2014

One could almost be tempted to say "Hallelujah" to the news that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has at last recognised that there is a problem with dangerous religious proselytising in schools – particularly, but certainly not only, in Muslim-dominated schools.

The latest news is that he has sent "teams of inspectors" into various community schools in Birmingham and Manchester to find out the extent to which they have been hijacked by Islamist extremists who are intent on using the schools as religious recruiting grounds rather than places of general education.

Meanwhile, reports suggest that some schools with a Muslim ethos have become little more than madrassas paid for by the taxpayer, with the emphasis on religion so extreme that there is little time for anything else.

In February the NSS found that one Muslim school, the Madani High School in Leicester, was advertising for a specifically male science teacher which we argued is against the equality laws. The Department for Education agreed and the school was told to change the way it advertised for staff.

However, the head of governors decided that it was not against the law and said that he would continue to recruit teachers on the basis of their gender. A report into the school by Channel 4 News has the chair of governors saying that "faith schools" have an exemption from the Equality Act that permits them to recruit on Islamic lines. However, this exemption is very narrowly drawn and quite clearly does not apply to science teachers.

The NSS has been arguing for decades that these schools are divisive. How can they be anything else when they separate children on religious grounds? And yet still our political classes persistent in praising them to the rooftops.

The latest was Ed Miliband who, in a confused statement about his personal beliefs ("I am an atheist who has faith") lauded the "incredible job" done by "faith schools".

We all know that politicians feel they have to walk on eggshells so as not to upset "faith leaders" but taken together with Cameron's own sudden public embrace of evangelical Christianity, and Nick Clegg's decision to send his children to a strict Catholic school, it is clear that the prospect of any serious political challenge to religion-based education is nowhere in sight.

When the NSS exposed an Orthodox Jewish school for crossing out questions on exam papers that didn't fit with the school's "religious ethos" it became clear that more and more schools are being governed by extremists. And the Government is funding them with public money.

The Church of England and the Catholic Church on the other hand, insist that we mustn't lump all "faith schools" together. Maybe some minority religious schools are abusing the system, they will say, but the good old, moderate Church of England (which has around a quarter of our school system under its control) and the traditional Catholics aren't like that.

But they are rapidly becoming like that.

Taking advantage of the Government's open cheque book, the CofE has set about establishing hundreds of new schools. They may provide a good education (not all of them do) but they are now seen by the Church primarily as recruiting grounds. Not only do they allow the Church to corner the generation of children who have little interest in religion, but some also force their parents into the pews in order to get the all-important vicar's letter that provides entrance to the state school.

We need to ask: How have we reached the point where the local vicar decides who gets a place at a state-funded school?

The Church of England's education supremo, the Bishop of Oxford, has said: "The clergy ought to have a camp bed in [schools] for heaven's sake! We don't have to bemoan the fact that our Sunday school has collapsed if there are 200 children at the local church school. The first big challenge is truly owning the centrality of our church schools in our mission..."

The Chair of the Catholic Education Service similarly says: "The Catholic ethos...should be incarnate in all aspects of school life, so that they may be effective instruments of the New Evangelisation."

And even in community schools there is a danger from determined evangelists who seem to be welcomed with open arms by headteachers in so many schools.

There are almost daily complaints arriving in the NSS's email box from parents angered by some of the extremist Christian groups that are invited – without their knowledge – into their children's schools. The Department for Education's response to the NSS's report into religious visitors in schools was simply to absolve itself of any responsibility for what evangelism is occurring.

Surely the time has come for a much more rigorous and fundamental consideration of the whole concept of "faith schools".

They are rapidly becoming a danger to the country and present a completely unjustifiable imposition on our children and their education.

The argument that they provide a "superior education" which excuses everything does not stand up. Would the excellent teachers that they employ suddenly disappear if the "faith" element was removed? Would the community be better served if these schools were truly community schools, open to all, and not just gathering places for the sharp-elbowed middle classes?

The arguments about "faith schools" have been rehearsed over and over. A solution to the problems and dangers they pose is no nearer. A few Islamic schools may be closed or re-staffed, but after that it will be business as usual.

I don't think Mr Gove has yet grasped just how determined and persistent these religious proselytisers are. Once he has patted himself on the back for kicking out a few extremists and he looks away for a moment, it will all start again.

And the system of academies and free schools that he has implemented is surely making the problem worse. It is presenting more opportunities for extremists to move in once the school is established, free from the scrutiny of local authorities.

While "faith schools" remain, the fanatics will always find a way to take advantage. After all, gaining access to the malleable minds of children is a primary motivation and even the CofE admits that.