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.

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

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

Posted: 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.

Books in the library promoting rape and violence against women. Girls complaining that they were being prevented from integrating into wider society. An apparent culture of discrimination against LGBT people.

Welcome to the Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham, where boys are separated from girls from the ages of nine to 16. Last week, during an eye-opening case at the High Court, we saw what can happen when a conservative Islamic ethos takes hold in a school.

Then this week Sir Nick Weller, the executive principal of a chain of academies in Bradford, said there was an "unhealthy" degree of segregation in the city. Two groups of people lived "separate lives". Their children were educated at different schools.

"Bradford is almost two communities: the Muslim community and the white community," he said.

So what better time could there be for Theresa May to utter this gem at Prime Minister's Questions: "It's important to enable more faith schools to be set up and to expand"?

The Government, she added, will publish its response to a consultation on the issue soon. All the indications suggest the rules on admissions will be relaxed. Faith schools will become even more exclusive than they already are.

According to the Bishop of East Anglia, Alan Hopes, this is a welcome trend. "More faith schools will mean more diversity and more inclusivity in schools," he said yesterday. But extending schools' right to admit children based on their parents' religious views, and push a religious agenda on them once they are there, is an odd way to promote inclusion.

"Diversity" was also the argument advanced by some proponents of faith schools on last night's Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4. But when he was pressed on what that meant, one speaker said schools should be able to teach that homosexuality is wrong. Another said he advises his children that sexual encounters should be "within the context of marriage".

We should trust children to hear a broad range of intellectual perspectives, but opinions like these do not have a special right to be protected. In secular schools they would be subject to the same exposure and testing as any other idea. If that means they are defeated, we should welcome it.

And when some state-funded schools teach that rape in marriage is "wrong" and others teach that "well, maybe it isn't," perhaps a lack of diversity is not the problem. A strong society must accept an element of difference – but it must also be guided by a clear set of principles.

Advocates of faith schools tend to have two other main fallbacks. First they say that parents should be allowed to choose the education they want for their children. It is unclear how many of those who make this argument would react positively if taxpayers' money was spent on atheist schools where children attended collective recitals of The God Delusion or watched Christopher Hitchens videos every day.

But more importantly faith schools prevent plenty of parents who want to send their children to inclusive community schools from doing so. Faith schools use up scarce resources, and in many local authorities this leaves insufficient places elsewhere.

Lastly the faith schools lobby says: look at the statistics. These schools produce good results in public exams and Ofsted inspections. There is no need to change them.

But is that surprising when some schools are given a special right to manipulate their intake? Do we expect parents who take advantage of the system to raise their children in the same way as those who do not? And do the metrics reflect the purpose of education?

A faith-based ethos does not make a school successful. Clear, reasonable expectations do. Strong partnerships between teachers and parents do. Leaders who value responsibility, community and personal development do.

The case against faith schools is strengthened by the fact the UK is no longer a religious country. There is overwhelming public opposition among people of all faiths and none to relaxing the cap on religious admissions. And yet the Prime Minister is hardly being held to account for her position.

Her remarks made no more than a brief appearance in the Catholic newspaper The Tablet. Last year Labour's shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, made a passionate speech arguing against grammar schools, where segregation is based on ability. But she had nothing to say on dividing children on the far more nonsensical grounds of their parents' religious views. There was no mention of faith schools in Labour's general election manifesto.

So this is not simply a "Tory" problem. Both major parties seem to think it is too risky to take on faith groups and communities. Rolling back faith schools would be a step towards an education system which values everybody equally. But both the Conservatives and Labour are pandering to the interests of particular groups.

In these angry times, social cohesion is not in fashion on either side of the political spectrum. Identity politics is king. From the left comes the culturally relativist argument that minority communities need their own enclaves and rules, with the damaging implication that secular principles are no better than those held by religious fundamentalists. Translation: we must not touch Muslim schools, lest we be considered racist.

From the right we hear that British institutions are our defence against radical Islam. This means Christian faith schools should not have to pay the price for the sins of institutions such as Al-Hijrah. Perhaps we even need more of them, to assert 'our' own identity and give us strong moral guidance.

So on education, as on so many other issues, it is left to secularists to make the principled case based on universal values. Education should encourage a spirit of free intellectual enquiry. Children should be taught about ideas which have shaped the world, while also being given the chance to make their own minds up about existential questions. And young people should not be separated by their parents' religious leanings.

Chris Sloggett is the communications officer at the NSS and a former teacher. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

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

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

Posted: 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

Why we need a 21st century RE for all

Posted: 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.

What gets taught in religious education is decided locally by committees dominated by faith representatives, or worse, by religious bodies responsible for running faith schools. Local determination of the syllabus is unique to RE and exists as an anachronistic hangover which survives merely because of the privileged position of churches and other religious organisations. There is no justification in the twenty-first century for having any subject of the curriculum 'reflect local circumstances'.

The time has surely come for every pupil, regardless of where they live, or what school they attend, to have the same entitlement to high quality, non-partisan knowledge about religious and non-religious worldviews. Religious formation and the in-depth teaching of specific faiths is a parental responsibility, for those that that want it, and not the job of state schools. There is, however, real value in young people understanding the significance of religion in society, the huge religious diversity that exists, and the importance of faith to many people - albeit a majority of Brits are now non-religious.

Religious education, as currently arranged, isn't the right vehicle for this. The current model of RE is out of date and unfit for purpose. A new programme of study needs to be determined by educationalists without any proselytising agenda. Control needs to be taken away from religious special interest groups that currently dictate the direction of RE and ultimately damage the subject's credibility.

Noises from the Church of England suggests there may be some common ground when it comes to the future direction of travel. Derek Holloway, from the Church of England's Education Office, clearly recognises the dysfunctionality of the current system, and has proposed a "common entitlement statement to RE", along the lines suggested by the National Secular Society. But there's little doubt that faith groups would lobby vigorously for wriggle room to allow faith schools to teach the subject from their own particular perspective. This needs to be resisted.

If religious education has any future, control of the subject needs to be wrested away from special interests. The educational needs of young people growing up in 21st century must be the primary consideration.

That's why we need root and branch reform – an end to the arbitrary and unfair postcode lottery of local determination and instead, a national religion and belief education programme of study suitable for all pupils, irrespective of their own religion or belief background.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Casework focus: community schools and religious takeovers

Casework focus: community schools and religious takeovers

Posted: 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, please get in touch.

Why are we still allowing religion to retard young people’s education and health rights?

Why are we still allowing religion to retard young people’s education and health rights?

Posted: Thu, 09 Mar 2017

The Government's proposals on Relationships and Sex Education are a welcome step in the right direction – but religious opt outs mean many children will continue to be left behind, writes Stephen Evans.

The Government's move to make Relationships and Sex Education mandatory in schools has been enthusiastically welcomed by all but religious conservatives. But whilst the new legislation is a very welcome step in the right direction, the decision to allow parental opt-outs and give faith schools leeway to teach the subject in accordance with their religion means some children will be left behind. This isn't acceptable.

The move towards statutory RSE comes amid increasing concerns around child sexual exploitation, sexual health and the growing risks associated with growing up in a digital age. There is a clear need for schools to tackle issues around sex, relationships, consent, gender equality, LGBT-inclusivity and sexuality. If there is a compelling case to act in relation to pupil safety then surely the proposals should apply equally to all children and young people, irrespective of their religious or cultural background.

Yet under the proposals, some of the children and young people most in need of this information, those denied it at home by socially or religiously conservative parents, will still be denied it.

The Government says it is important that we "ensure universal coverage for all pupils and improved quality" only to then undermine itself by granting de-facto opt-outs to religious schools.

All children deserve the same chances in life. Good quality comprehensive sex education should be every child's right. Instead, under these proposals, the subject will continue to be delivered according to the whims of religious authorities, rather than the needs of young people. These proposals risk reducing children in faith schools and from conservative religious backgrounds to second class status.

The limited scope of the subject also appears to be a sop to religion anxieties, fed by inaccurate tabloid 'scare' stories. Why, for example, why is the Government limiting primary school obligations to 'relationships education'? It is well established that the onset of puberty and sexual awareness, including of sexual orientation, occur for many children before they reach secondary school. Primary school children need age-appropriate education around the body, safe and unsafe touch, and puberty. What good reason is there to leave them in the dark?

The Government will hold discussions on what should be taught to children, and at what age, and there will be a full public consultation later this year. But the lack of explicit reference to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) inclusivity in the proposals is a concern.

The legislation seems to fall short of the latest recommendation from the Committee of the Rights of the Child which called on the UK to "Ensure that meaningful sexual and reproductive health education is part of the mandatory school curriculum for all schools".

The human rights committee recommended:

"such education should provide age-appropriate information on: confidential sexual and reproductive health-care services; contraceptives; prevention of sexual abuse or exploitation, including sexual bullying; available support in cases of such abuse and exploitation; and sexuality, including that of LGBT children."

The Government argues that specifying the content of the subjects on the face of primary legislation would be "too prescriptive" and would run the risk of the legislation becoming "quickly out of date as the world changes".

This risks giving the religious groups running schools the wriggle room they wanted to avoid topics they don't like. The areas listed by the UN aren't going "out of date" anytime soon and should be explicitly included and without exception.

There is a pressing need to promote inclusion and acceptance in education. A major Government survey of 15 year olds has shown that health indicators/outcomes and happiness levels are materially worse for gay adolescents/teenagers and very much worse still for bisexual adolescents/teenagers.

Extensive polling of British Muslim attitudes conducted by ICM found that 52% thought homosexuality should be illegal in Britain. 39% agreed that "wives should always obey their husbands".

A recent family court case in which a transgender woman was denied contact with her ultra-Orthodox Jewish children highlighted the corrosive effect of intolerant attitudes amongst ultra‐Orthodox Jewish communities - attitudes that are being perpetuated by religious schools, where homosexuality and transsexuality are unmentionable.

Even human biology is deemed beyond the pale for some faith schools. The publicly funded Yesodey Hatorah secondary girls' school in Hackney was rebuked by the exam regulator after a National Secular Society investigation revealed it was censoring exam paper questions on human reproduction - a common practice, it claimed, amongst charedi schools throughout England.

Organised religion's desire to control our collective sex lives is of course nothing new. In 1877 the National Secular Society's founder Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, a secularist and campaigner for women's rights, were brought to trial for 'obscenity' after disseminating a pamphlet on birth control. We can't allow a 19th century mindset to dictate modern education policy.

That's exactly what Justine Greening is doing by insisting that RSE needs to be "sensitive to the needs of the local community" and taught in accordance with the tenets of various religions in publicly funded faith schools - schools which are often attended by children from all religion and belief backgrounds.

Now that statutory RSE is secure, they key battleground will be over subject content and accompanying guidance. But the omens aren't good for the fight to ensure that no child is left behind. Announcing the Government's intentions in Parliament, the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, Edward Timpson MP, stressed that religious faith "will be respected as it has been in the past: that is reflected in the Bill, and will be reflected in the regulations and statutory guidance that will follow."

The Government's so called "21st century relationships and sex education" will not be worthy of that billing if it continues to allow young people's education and health rights to be retarded by religion.

Schools are the ideal place to foster a more tolerant and inclusive Britain and to encourage a healthier, more knowledgeable and sexually autonomous younger generation. Education policy that panders to religion will fall short of delivering this.