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.

Faith schools mustn’t be allowed to stymie young people’s sexual health and well-being

Faith schools mustn’t be allowed to stymie young people’s sexual health and well-being

Thu, 12 Jan 2017

Political sensitivity about faith schools is getting in the way of providing evidence-based, age-appropriate sex and relationships education (SRE) to all children. We can't wait forever for the Government's proposals on SRE, writes Stephen Evans.

The latest legislative attempt to introduce statutory sex and relationship education in schools was blocked this week, when Conservative MPs voted down an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill which would have made providing SRE a requirement for all schools, including academies.

From the debate, it is clear that faith schools provide a major hurdle for anyone seeking to safeguard children and ensure that all young people are equipped to navigate the realities of modern life.

The proposals, tabled by an all-female group of MPs led by Labour's Stella Creasy, would have placed schools under a duty to ensure that the personal, social and health education they provide included age appropriate sex and relationships education covering same-sex relationships, sexual consent, sexual violence, and domestic violence.

The provisions, included in New Clause 11, contained a number of concessions to religion, yet still the Government didn't feel able to support it.

Opposing the proposals, Conservative MP Simon Hoare said some form of "protection" was needed for those who run faith schools to ensure that they can make their position "absolutely clear".

The provisions already required the information provided to pupils to be "religiously diverse". It may not be immediately obvious what this means in an SRE context, but it was helpfully interpreted as meaning "religiously sensitive" by those advancing the proposals.

It will be a massive disservice to children, particular those from orthodox religious backgrounds, if the Government acquiesces to religious parents' and faith schools' demands to allow religious doctrine to get in the way of accurate and balanced SRE. Religious teaching will be mixed with fact-based SRE, giving young people a mixed message, weighting facts with doctrinal overtones.

More worryingly for inclusiveness is if that ethos is anti-homosexual, anti-choice or anti-sex-outside-of-marriage it can specifically exclude students and provide a context of a conflict between faith values, sexuality and sexual orientation, leaving children isolated and open to victimisation or bullying. Within this context, any mention of acceptance would appear as tokenism only.

Before voting against the amendment, Junior Education Minister Edward Timpson accepted that "Now is the time to make sure that every child has access to effective, factually accurate, age-appropriate sex and relationships education". But he said it was a "sensitive issue" and insisted "we must attempt to allow everybody with a view a chance to make their case".

Mr Timpson committed the government to bringing forward its own plans on sex and relationship education in due course. But noises coming from the Government give grounds to the fear that some schools with a religious ethos may be permitted to fail their students when it comes to their right to receive comprehensive, objective and fact-based SRE.

The Government will of course insist that it is only being pragmatic when it says it wants to "ensure that we bring as many people with us as possible." This must not translate into betraying the young people educated in faith-based settings, many of whom will be those most in need of the protection that good quality SRE offers. Their right to education is as valid any anyone else's.

At the same time, we mustn't forget that many children aren't in faith schools because their parents want a religious upbringing for them, they're simply tolerating the churchy aspects of their local school.

However "sensitive" some may find this issue, when it comes to children and young people's sexual health and well–being, religion must take a back seat.

A faith ethos is no magic solution for improving schools

A faith ethos is no magic solution for improving schools

Sat, 07 Jan 2017

There are success stories and failures in schools of all types, including faith schools, despite what the churches would have people believe. NSS vice president Alistair McBay debunks the myth that 'faith school' is a byword for success.

2016 was another interesting year in the faith school industry. The aftermath of the Trojan Horse school episode in Birmingham rumbled on, while the scandal of unregistered illegal Jewish schools in Hackney and elsewhere hit the headlines (again). Our new Prime Minister made news with her intention to relax faith school admission rules, to great rejoicing by those who advocate exclusion as the new inclusion.

At the end of the year tripping over into 2017, it was the turn of Christian fundamentalists to be caught in the Ofsted headlights, with the Accelerated Christian Education schools being downgraded. Aside from current concerns over the curriculum being taught in ACE schools, there are historic allegations to be investigated concerning corporal punishment, exorcisms being performed on children and girls being "groomed" for marriage to much older men, although predictably Christian Concern has wasted no time in playing the now depressingly familiar 'persecuted victim' card in an attempted defence of what is clearly indefensible.

I read these stories of children at risk through poor to non-existent governance and leadership, and/or poor quality teaching and was reminded of an experiment I conducted three years ago, when the manipulative PR exercise lauding the success of faith schools of the 'mainstream' variety appeared to be in full swing. One evening I spent ten minutes on Google searching for Catholic and Church of England schools in special measures and Google instantaneously produced a slew of results for schools of both kinds. I was surprised there were so many results for faith schools, given the very public claims of how wonderful they are. Please note that my search was done some two years after religious leaders had been lauding the then Coalition government for 'understanding' the faith school sector much better than the previous Labour administration, and for showing 'heartfelt sympathy' for religious educators. Yet when I examined the Google results and the Ofsted source reports, I saw plenty of examples of poor management and leadership, poor governance, low literacy and numeracy achievement, homophobic bullying, racism, casual ethnic and 'cultural' segregation, with disabled or special needs children left behind all regularly featured, and of course many, many more children are at risk than in the more fundamentalist faith-based establishments. Maybe some of the Government's understanding and sympathy was misplaced.

So if a religious ethos is promoted so forcefully and regularly as the reason for faith schools being successful, backed up by the Government, why are so many of them failing in these important ways? Can we blame the religious ethos for failure in the same way the religious tout it as the reason for success? The litany of problems listed above are not exclusive to fundamentalist schools in our midst by any means, but they go to show that a faith ethos is no solution on its own.

Here are just the top Google search results (there were many more, from all over England and Wales).

1) In October 2013, Ofsted inspectors reported on St Joseph's Catholic Primary in Birmingham rating it as 'inadequate' as to its leadership, the quality of teaching and the behaviour and safety of children. One parent told the local newspaper, "As a middle class, affluently placed school, we expect better," as revealing a comment as ever was. Many parents were so concerned that they offered their services as teaching assistants free of charge.

2) "Despite very recent improvements, leaders, managers and governors have not addressed the shortcomings identified in the previous inspection and have not significantly slowed the decline in the school's performance." This was the Ofsted verdict in January 2013 on St Edmund's Catholic School, Dover.

3) In January 2013, Ofsted reported on St Francis Catholic Primary in Stratford: "The school's leaders and managers do not check on the progress made by pupils rigorously. They do not have effective systems for managing the performance of teachers to ensure good quality teaching for all pupils and are not effective in promoting and securing improvements quickly enough. They do not have the capacity to improve without external support. The governing body has not met its responsibility to ensure that school leaders provide an acceptable standard of education for all groups of pupils."

4) In April 2014 a local newspaper reported that a Sheerness school was making "reasonable" progress towards exiting special measures. St Edward's Catholic Primary, in New Road, was rated as inadequate by Ofsted in March 2013. It was deemed to have serious weaknesses in the achievement of its 210 pupils, the quality of teaching and leadership and management. The Inspectors noted: "Although the quality of teaching is improving, there is not enough permanent, good teaching to make sure that pupils learn consistently well."

5) "A renewed drive to raise standards is being pursued by St Anne's Catholic Primary School following a disappointing Ofsted report published last week which places the school in special measures." This was a school in Reading in February 2014. The list of leadership and teaching failures in this school reported by the local newspaper is quite astounding. It was even reported that Inspectors found some pupils were 'regressing', but on the plus side opportunities for 'spiritual development' were being promoted well.

6) The Ofsted inspection at Our Lady and St John Catholic College in Blackburn found evidence of an increase in racist incidents, as well as a 'high number of incidents, including bullying'' and homophobic language. The North Road school, housed in a new £10 million Building Schools for the Future campus, was found to be 'inadequate' on every count, with behaviour cited as a particular concern. Pupils said they felt the school's leaders did not do enough to promote cohesion and harmony, and the Inspectors' report found "relatively little evidence of students from different cultures and heritages mixing together".

7) In March 2014 it was reported that a primary school in Mole Valley was being put into special measures following a damning Ofsted report. The Weald Church of England Voluntary Aided Primary School in Beare Green was labelled 'inadequate' and the school ordered to improve before another Ofsted inspection later that year. Three years before it had been rated it as 'good' and then Ofsted had noted: "The Christian ethos, which threads through all aspects of the school's work, is a strength and underpins the respectful and caring relationships between pupils and staff." Asked about its subsequent slide into special measures in spite of this all-pervasive Christian thread, the Reverend Barbara Steadman-Allen, one of the governors, helpfully told the Surrey Advertiser: "Individual comment from any governor would seem to serve little helpful community purpose."

8) In May 2014, teaching and leadership at Ian Ramsey Church of England School in Stockton was branded "inadequate" by Ofsted. The inspectors' report said teaching was "inadequate", with teachers' expectations too low, "particularly of the most able students". It also noted that "the progress of some students is hampered because behaviour is not consistently good in lessons. Students do not always display positive attitudes to learning." It also concluded that "Leaders and managers, including governors, have an over-optimistic view of how well the school is doing. They are not effective enough in checking on, or challenging, teachers."

9) Also in May 2014, a primary school in Willesden was put into special measures following an Ofsted report branding the quality of education as "inadequate" (clearly a favourite word in the Ofsted lexicon). The standard of education in St Andrew and St Francis CofE Primary School, which was previously deemed good, had "plummeted to a new low". The inspectors accused the headteacher and governors of not having a realistic picture of the school and not enforcing an adequate standard of education. They also criticised the attainment of pupils, claiming few made good progress in reading and mathematics, with specific mention to a "weak" progress in writing, particularly for boys.

10) "Pupils' achievement is inadequate because too many do not make the progress of which they are capable, especially in writing. There are gaps in achievement between different groups of pupils. For example, disabled pupils and those with special educational needs are not given the specific extra help they need to make better progress." So said Ofsted about St James Church of England School , a voluntary controlled junior school in Upton Street, Tredworth. It was criticised for not stretching pupils enough and not giving students enough time to do their work.

11) "Inspectors visited Holy Trinity Church of England Primary in Middleton Road, Oswestry, in January for their third monitoring visit since the school was placed in special measures in February 2013. In her report, chief inspector Linda McGill, said: "Having considered all the evidence, I am of the opinion that at this time the school is not making enough progress towards the removal of special measures." However, the Inspectors also noted that "It is clear that the climate in school has changed for the better".

Since then, some of these schools have been rescued by the academy programme, while others made the progress needed to improve and escape the special measures opprobrium. I'll be checking on them all again later this year to see what the current situation is – after all, academisation is no guarantee against failure, and good performance really shouldn't be the subject of ebb and flow in any school.

The conclusions we can draw are clear enough. Most obvious is that a religious ethos in no way guarantees delivery of a successful learning and teaching environment for the community served by a faith school, contrary to what the Church of England and the Catholic Church would have you believe in their regular proclamations of faith school success stories. In schools with or without a religious ethos, failures will occur but as any parent will readily testify, the quality of teaching and school leadership are the most important in-school factors in a child's outcomes. In all these above examples, these were found to be just as lacking in faith schools as in any other kind of school, and in spite of the scale of administrative control and support given through the Anglican and Catholic diocese education frameworks.

Clerics shouldn’t be the gatekeepers to publicly funded schools

Clerics shouldn’t be the gatekeepers to publicly funded schools

Fri, 25 Nov 2016

A progressive education policy would seek to break down barriers between people of different faiths and beliefs, not erect them, writes NSS campaigns director Stephen Evans.

The schools adjudicator recently ruled against a new policy across all Catholic schools under which priests certify on a pupil-by-pupil basis whether a family is sufficiently pious for the pupil to merit a place at the local Catholic school.

So incensed is the Catholic church that it is considering taking the Government's schools admissions watchdog to court to protect the rights of priests to decide who can, or cannot, attend the local Catholic controlled school.

Under the policy parents wishing to apply for a school place are forced to obtain a Certificate of Catholic Practice (CCP), signed by a priest, to prove that their child is from a practising Catholic family.

This arbitrary approach clearly falls foul of the Admissions Code which requires admissions arrangements to be "fair, clear and objective". As one of the objectors pointed out, the CCP could lead to different priests applying different measures of practice.

That said, other mechanisms of proving your religious credentials are no less problematic. It's equally unfair to demand that parents regularly attend church in order for their children to attend the local school. This has resulted in many middle-class parents pretending to be religious in order to manipulate the system and get a place at their school.

One oversubscribed Church of England school in Lancashire is now considering insisting that parents attend worship for a minimum of two years in order secure a place. I'm sure this helps prop up church attendance figures, but where does this leave Justin Welby's claim that church schools must be "places of welcome for all, not cosy clubs for Anglicans"?

The relationship between religious adherence and school admissions in a liberal, secular democracy like Britain is an outrage that needs to end. Yet the Government's regressive plans to open a new wave of fully religiously selective schools means we can look forward to a lot more religious discrimination in years to come.

Department for Education guidance on 'promoting fundamental British values' calls it "unacceptable" for schools to "promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background".

I quite agree. But by dropping the 50% faith-based admissions cap, this is exactly the sort of discrimination that the Government is promoting. Perhaps Ofsted should consider putting the Government under special measures until it adequately promotes its own fundamental British values?

At the same time, the dropping of the 50% faith-based admissions cap will pave the way for yet more mono-religious and often mono-ethnic minority faith schools, which we all know will be disaster for social cohesion.

If our multi-racial, multi-cultural, increasingly secularised yet religiously diverse society is to succeed, pupils from an early age are going to need to learn to live respectfully and harmoniously alongside one another. You don't achieve that by fetishising faith and segregating children based on their religious background.

The collaboration between religion and state goes back a long way in Britain. What seemed reasonable and sensible in the 19th century today leads to division and discrimination.

A progressive education policy would seek to break down barriers between people of different faiths and beliefs, not erect them. Theresa May's plan to open up a new wave of discriminatory religious schools embodies retrograde thinking and sustains religious privilege.

The National Secular Society's message to Theresa May is clear. Don't extend religious discrimination and segregation in schools – end it.

Inclusive education: divisive faith schools are the elephant in the room

Inclusive education: divisive faith schools are the elephant in the room

Fri, 30 Sep 2016

NSS campaigns director on why progressives of all political and religious stripes should unite in opposing Theresa May's plan to open a new wave of divisive 'faith schools'

As an advocate for secular education, my hopes were raised momentarily this week when I heard Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner, announce to her party conference that she was launching an 'education not segregation' campaign.

I soon realised however that the focus was entirely on segregation by ability. In front of a sea of delegates waving 'education not segregation' placards, Rayner told delegates that grammar schools "entrench division and increase inequality".

Yet she had nothing to say about Theresa May's regressive, divisive and dangerous plan to abolish the 50% cap on faith-based admissions, paving the way for a new wave of discriminatory religious schools.

When it comes to segregation and discrimination on religious grounds, religion, it seems, gets a free pass.

This is somewhat surprising given that it was Labour's persona non grata, Tony Blair, who oversaw a massive expansion in state-funded religious schooling. Keen to demonstrate his multiculturalist credentials, it was Blair who paved the way for Britain's burgeoning religiously and ethnically segregated minority faith schools.

The Government's own data shows what a horribly ghettoised education system this is creating. Britain's Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim schools are monocultural zones, silos of segregation that do nothing to foster greater social cohesion.

The Government recognises this and so has come up with a hotchpotch of half-baked half measures and sticking plasters to ensure faith schools "promote cohesion". It wants to 'teach integration' rather than give children from minority backgrounds the opportunity to just do it. These proposals are mere window dressing to disguise the fact that the Government is too beholden to organised religion to take the most obvious measure to remedy the separatism and segregation - the phasing out of faith schools.

The ethnic diversity of Britain's Catholic community means Catholic schools are far less culturally monochrome, but they still divide pupils along religious lines. Indeed, it was the Catholic Education Service and Jewish Board of Deputies' refusal to accept quotas for offering school places to pupils of other faith and belief backgrounds that prompted the Government to scrap the cap and allow yet more religious selection.

Free schools were sold as a 'parent and teacher-led schools revolution', but a shortage of school places and a paucity of school sponsors has forced the Government to turn to religious organisations to fill the gap. By acquiescing to the Catholic Church's discriminatory demands Theresa May has demonstrated her willingness to sacrifice equality and cohesion on the altar of faith school expansion.

The Church of England, meanwhile, is busily preparing itself for a massive expansion of its influence in the nation's education. Given that so few people attend its churches these days, it has decided that taxpayer-funded schools are to be its pulpits of the future.

In its trademark 'holier-than-thou' tone, the CofE reacted to the Government's proposals to extend religious selection by reassuring the nation that "Our schools are not faith schools for the faithful, they are Church schools for the community".

But in its latest report setting out its vision for education, the CofE reaffirms its commitment to offering pupils "an encounter with Jesus Christ and with Christian faith and practice". But it's more than just 'an encounter' they offer - church schools across the country are increasingly finding themselves under pressure to push the Christian message.

But should evangelism really be a strategic objective of a publicly funded 21st century education system? Education should open young minds, not indoctrinate them.

And let's not forget, the faith schools that Theresa May wants to open will be our local schools. All this talk of 'parental choice' is a red herring. Religiously selective schools choose pupils, often on the basis of a baptism certificate or a parent's churchgoing activities. And besides, however 'inclusive' faith schools claim to be, the simple fact is many parents don't want somebody else's religion imposed on their children whilst at school. Faith schools limit choice for many parents, not least the rapidly growing non-religious majority.

David Blunkett famously once said he wanted to "bottle the magic" of Christian schools, but there's nothing magical about a 'faith ethos' when it comes to academic success. Where church schools do achieve marginally better results, it is usually down to faith-based selection which, as the evidence shows, leads to social selection which unfairly benefits middle class and better-off parents.

A further expansion of faith schools and religious selection is the antithesis of inclusive education. Religious groups may have played a positive role in the historical development of state education in Britain, but the time has come to look to the future, and religious schooling looks hopelessly out of step with the needs of children growing up in Britain today.

As senior Conservative MP Ken Clarke told Education Secretary Justine Greening in Parliament recently, "we need to live in a society where we reduce barriers and improve contacts and integration between people of all faiths." He was absolutely right in calling on Secretary of State to "reconsider pretty fundamentally" her faith school proposals.

If you want to break down the barriers that divide British citizens, dividing children up by their parents' religion is exactly the wrong way to go about it. MPs on all sides need to recognise this.

There's nothing anti-religious about advocating for secular schools that are open, inclusive and equally welcoming to all children, whatever their religion and belief backgrounds.

Religion is fine for those that want it, but Britain's rapidly changing religious landscape screams for the scaling back of religious control of the classroom.

That's why progressives of all political and religious stripes should unite in opposing Theresa May's plans to further entrench segregation and discrimination in our schools by saying no to yet more faith schools.

Facilitating more religious segregation in faith schools can only harm social cohesion

Facilitating more religious segregation in faith schools can only harm social cohesion

Mon, 12 Sep 2016

In a move devoid of any common sense, Theresa May's government looks set to capitulate to the demands of religious groups by relaxing admissions rules for faith-based academies, allowing them to select all pupils along religious lines.