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.

Never mind joining SACREs, we should be abolishing them

Fri, 21 Jul 2017

A parent's legal challenge to the exclusion of a humanist representative from the local body responsible for overseeing religious education highlights the need for urgent reform of this contested area of the curriculum, argues Keith Sharpe.

A humanist parent is to challenge the Vale of Glamorgan Council at the High Court in Cardiff over its refusal to allow a humanist representative to join the local SACRE (the body which oversees RE in a local area). This focuses public attention once more on the anachronistic and dysfunctional arrangements for religious education in this country.

Almost thirty years ago the 1988 Education Act enshrined for the very first time in England and Wales the principle that every child in the country should receive a basic unitary national curricular entitlement during the years of compulsory schooling, as a matter of right as a future citizen. Hitherto all the curricular content had been determined locally, by local education authorities, individual schools and teachers using their own professional judgements. By 1988 the inequalities, injustices and inefficiencies of this local provision were widely recognised, and the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker, were resolved to replace it with a truly national system offering the same rights to all pupils wherever they live.

However, the one exception Thatcher and Baker allowed was the subject called Religious Education. The 1944 Education Act had established a compromise position with regard to the control of schools, between the state on the one hand and churches and other religious organisations, who had had a historic role, on the other. And part of this compromise was the setting up of local 'Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education' (SACREs) to advise and monitor local education authorities and state-funded schools on the content of Religious Education. The 1988 Education Act permitted this local determination to continue undisturbed, even while national curricula for all other subjects were put in place.

In the 21st century there is no social or educational rationale for the continuance of local determination of religious education. It exists as a problematic hangover from history which survives merely because of the privileged position of churches and other religious organisations in our society. In contemporary Britain there is no justification for making any subject of the curriculum 'reflect local circumstances'.

In the three decades since the 1988 Act there has been growing public resentment against 'postcode lotteries' in a range of service areas. The local determination of the Religious Education curriculum by SACREs is a prime example of exactly such a lottery. It is probably now the mainstream view in the country at large that such irrational local variation is unacceptable. Nobody would suggest it would be sensible to teach decimals in Doncaster but not in Dunstable. By the same token it cannot possibly be reasonable that Buddhism be taught to children living in Bradford but not to those living in Bognor Regis. Surely if there is a body of knowledge called 'Religious Education', which is worthy of being taught at all, it should be offered to all children wherever they live? There are simply no grounds for discriminating on grounds of geographic location. If Religious Education deserves to be included in the school curriculum it should be offered to all as a basic entitlement for every future citizen. This is simply a matter of fundamental justice and equality.

Unfortunately there are still some prepared to defend the unfair arbitrariness of local determination. Paul Smalley, chair of the National Association of SACREs, said in response to the humanist challenge that membership of SACREs "should reflect broadly the proportionate strength of the denomination or religion in the area". Therefore, he added, "it would seem that in deciding whether to appoint a humanist representative an authority must satisfy itself that humanism is an 'other religion' that is part of the make-up of the principal religious tradition in the area, that humanist representation would reflect the strength of humanism in the area and that the person has authority to represent that tradition."

This statement is really quite preposterous and pretty much sums up everything that's wrong with religious education. RE should equip children with knowledge about and understanding of all the major religious and philosophical traditions, beliefs and values which have shaped human culture and history. It is particularly important for pupils to learn about religious cultures which are different from their own. What Mr Smalley advocates is the exact opposite and will lead at best to the reinforcement of particular religious beliefs and at worst to the inculcation of particular religious dogmas. This is the antithesis of education.

The current NSS campaign 21st Century RE for All seeks to give every pupil the same entitlement to high quality, non-partisan education about religion and belief. We want all children to appreciate the diversity of religious and non-religious worldviews in modern Britain. We believe that local determination should be ended and the SACREs abolished. Our view is that the construction and content of any nationally taught subject covering religion or belief should be determined in exactly the same way as other subjects, involving consultation with teachers, subject communities, academics, employers, higher education institutions and other interested parties, none of whom should have undue influence or veto.

Of course it is right that non-religious worldviews such as humanism should be included in any such curriculum. But in order to give it its proper place in the curriculum, humanists should not seek to create an 'other religion' and participate in the failing and discredited system of SACREs, but rather join us in calling for their abolition and the establishment of a universal national RE entitlement.

The PM must be held to account for her faith school obsession

Thu, 20 Jul 2017

Theresa May's plans to expand faith schools in Britain are ill-judged. In response, Chris Sloggett argues, it is up to secularists to make a principled case: state education must be grounded in reason and free intellectual enquiry.

Separate is not equal ­– not in this ‘faith’ school

Tue, 11 Jul 2017

Turning a blind eye to discriminatory gender discrimination in Islamic schools would be disaster for future generations of British girls growing up in Muslim communities, argues Stephen Evans.

I was in court this week for Ofsted's appeal of a ruling that gender segregation in a state-funded Islamic state school is not discriminatory.

The publicly funded Al-Hijrah Islamic faith school in Birmingham was inspected by Ofsted last summer, following a visit from the former chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw in June.

Sir Michael was said to have expressed "firmly negative views about the practice of segregation" at the school during his visit and ordered an immediate inspection.

In addition to finding girls and boys completely segregated in what purported to be a 'mixed school', inspectors also found books in its library which "included derogatory comments about, and the incitement of violence towards, women".

Discussing the books' content in his ruling, the judge said: "one of the books states that a wife is not allowed to refuse sex to her husband. Another opines that women are commanded to obey their husbands and fulfil their domestic duties. Two books made clear that a husband may in certain circumstances beat his wife, provided that this is not done 'harshly'."

Some girls complained anonymously that gender segregation did not prepare them for social interaction and integration into the wider society.

Nevertheless, the judge determined that the segregation practised within the school did not result in "one sex being treated less favourably than the other."

Mr Justice Jay said Ofsted inspectors wrongly assumed that the gender segregation implied unequal treatment and said its inspection report was based on the erroneous view that the school had committed unlawful sex discrimination.

The law permits only the most limited differences of treatment between pupils based on gender. There is a specific exemption in the Equality Act 2010 that allows single sex schools to have sex or gender specific admissions policies. There is however no statutory sanction against enforced segregation on the same school premises, whether for religious or other reasons. As vesitages of Victorian era gender segregation in education faded away, perhaps nobody thought this would be an issue in modern Britain.

But after considering the facts of this particular case – not least the "very prominently" displayed books in the library ­– it's hard to understand how one can fail to see the way in which the separation of the sexes in this school indicated an inferior outlook on women that reinforced notions of inferiority.

Of course there will be limited circumstances where it is reasonable to separate girls and boys in educational settings. But context matters. And we cannot ignore the fact that under some interpretations and manifestations of Islam, Muslim women are certainly not treated as men's equals.

Defenders of segregation may well stress the educational advantages of segregating pupils. And it is true that some educationalists believe that girls and boys perform better in single sex environments.

But this is a school that had books in its library that condoned rape and violence against women. A school where inherently misogynistic 'modesty' codes are enforced on young girls, forcing female pupils to 'cover up'. A school that applies a regime of "complete segregation" for all lessons, breaks, school clubs and trips. A school in which "teaching and learning in all subjects is Islamised".

You may believe that the school is acting in the best educational interests of the female pupils, but forgive me if I just don't buy it.

Another person not buying it is human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie. As she puts it:

"Girls in Islamic schools are segregated not in order to enable them to flourish but because they are seen to be the source of fitnah and male arousal from puberty onwards. Which is why they must be veiled, segregated, and prevented from many activities that are essential to child development. The court would do well to remember that when it comes to children in particular, there is a duty of care to ensure that the girl child has access to a level playing field and is able to flourish – sometimes despite the wishes of parents and fundamentalists."

Others not buying it include women's rights campaigners Southall Black Sisters and the counter-extremism and human rights organisation, Inspire – led by Sara Khan, a British Muslim woman on a mission to empower Muslim women to challenge the inequalities facing them.

The two groups have intervened in the case to ensure the court considers what is at stake here – especially for minority women and girls.

In the context of this school, separate is not equal. We wouldn't dream of regarding racial or sexual orientation separation in the classroom as legitimate ­– we wouldn't even be having the conversation ­– let's not lower the bar for gender segregation in order to accommodate religious customs and practices.

As their intervention will make clear, "the growing practice of gender segregation in education is not a benign development. It has a social and political history that can be traced back to the Rushdie Affair when religious fundamentalists sensed an opportunity to seize education as a battleground and a site on which to expand their influence."

Perhaps just as troubling as the current ruling is Ofsted's refusal to argue in court that the reason for segregating in this way was that the school's religious ethos viewed girls as inferior. It is inconceivable from what Ofsted acknowledges having observed at the school that they cannot have realised this.

The interveners were denied the opportunity to make an oral statement in court, but thanks to the intervention, these arguments will now be considered as part of the appeal.

As the intervening groups have warned, "Ultra-conservative and fundamentalist gender norms are seeping into the everyday life of minority communities".

UK law must protect young girls from 'educators' who seek to treat them as second-class citizens, yet this case risks becoming a precedent for the segregators.

It's shameful that our education system allows and encourages the religious segregation of pupils in the first place. To allow such gender segregation within those faith schools would be even more egregious ­– and a disaster for future generations of British girls growing up in Muslim communities.

Why we need a 21st century RE for all

Wed, 17 May 2017

2018 marks the 30th anniversary of the Education Reform Act 1988 which saw the introduction of a national curricular entitlement for all pupils. One subject alone remains set apart from this - religious education.

Casework focus: community schools and religious takeovers

Thu, 11 May 2017

Parents and staff regularly contact the NSS over concerns related to religious influence in their schools. Campaigns officer Alastair Lichten looks at a typical example of the casework we receive and what lessons can be learned.

A small rural primary school near Bath looks set to become the latest of hundreds of community schools to be taken over by a Church of England Multi-Academy Trust (MATs). Bathampton Primary is moving to join the Bath and Wells Multi-Academy Trust – a MAT run by the diocese, which promotes a "distinctly Christian ethos". These 'mixed' trusts, containing a combination of religious and non-religious schools, allow religious groups to take over community schools, and there are few meaningful ways to protect the non-religious ethos of these schools once they are absorbed.

The school has co-opted as a community governor who just so happens to be local priest – said by one parent at the school to be "particularly evangelical". He regularly leads assemblies and the school website says "in particular he wants to maintain and strengthen good links between the church and school".

Priests and religious leaders may have all sorts of skills which would allow them to be competent community or parent governors. But how confident can we be about their commitment to preserving a school's community, secular ethos, when a governor is a member of a religious organisation (e.g. a diocese) which wants to take over the school.

The National Governors' Association model code of conduct suggests that governors should "declare any conflict of loyalty at the start of any meeting should the situation arise" and should always "act in the best interests of the school as a whole and not as a representative of any group".

A parent who raised concerns with us said they had "been concerned about the schools links with the church for some time". The school does not have a large enough hall for whole school assemblies so relies on the local church to provide adequate space for various events. An act of generosity that we might welcome, as long as it wasn't leveraged by the church for improper access to the school.

Bathampton Primary School is the only non-faith school of nine primaries within three miles, with the nearest being twenty minutes' drive away. Parents who wish their children to be taught in a secular environment free from the influence of one particular religion will now have no choice whatsoever.

While the school won't officially become a faith school or acquire a religious ethos/designation upon conversion – something the current governing body stress they are opposed to – this could change in future. The MAT claim to have no such plans and have made the right noises about protecting the school's community ethos. However it is established CofE policy to treat such non-faith schools under their control as part of their 'mission'.

Parents concerned about similar takeovers and wishing to challenge them can basically have three aims:

In this case, parents contacting the NSS decided to focus on aim number 2. The school is under a lot of pressure to academise, and joining the religious MAT would be their only option; something one concerned parent called a "tragedy". The situation on the ground always matters, and the best way to protect a community school's ethos is vigilance and good communications.

In the case of Bathampton, parents told us that, whilst they do still have concerns over what influence the MAT may try to exert in the long term, they do not believe that this is an attempt by the board to extend religious influence over the school.

The governors seem genuinely concerned, and even passionate, about preserving the community school ethos of the school. In the words of one parent: "Following the consultations I have at least some confidence that the school board is fully aware of the vocal parents who will hold them to account if the community ethos of the school is negatively impacted by joining the religious MAT."

The earlier you can get involved in the consultation process the better. Although it doesn't always feel that way, consultation processes must be "substantively fair and have the appearance of fairness". David Wolfe QC gives a very clear definition of what that means on his 'A can of worms' blog – detailing some of the problems with academisation.

If your school is being academised, and you have concerns about it being taken over by a religious group, some options you might want to consider are: