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 add to the angst of school offer day

Mon, 18 Apr 2016

National Offer Day is when many parents fall victim to religious discrimination or discover they've been allocated a religious school against their wishes. Stephen Evans argues that a move towards a secular education system might make school offer day a little less fraught.

Anxious parents find out today if their child has managed to get into the primary school of their choice. In some cases, where parents haven't been successful, they may well be the victims of religious discrimination.

Year upon year another tranche of parents discover first-hand some of the injustices that occur when religion and state entwines to educate the nation's children.

In some cases parents will discover that their preferred local school is oversubscribed, and being a faith school has prioritised children whose parents are members of, or who practise, a particular faith – or any faith at all in some cases. The non-religious often have to get to the very back of the queue.

Maybe the successful applicants' parents had their children baptised, perhaps their family dutifully attend church every Sunday. Whatever hoops they've jumped through, they've managed to get the vicar's precious blessing. How ridiculous it is that in modern Britain clergy act as gatekeepers to publicly funded services.

In this way faith schools perpetuate a form of discrimination that simply wouldn't be tolerated in any another area of public life.

An absence of a secularist political framework results in discrimination. The equality law exemptions that make discrimination against children on the grounds of their (or their parents') religion or belief legal in school admissions exist only at the insistence of religious groups to facilitate their schools – for which the taxpayer picks up the bill.

In other cases, where faith-based schools are undersubscribed, the opposite problem often occurs, and children are allocated places at religious school that their parents don't want them to attend.

In recent years the shortage of school places has seen local authorities attempting to place children of non-religious parents in religious schools, children of Christian parents in Sikh schools and in one case a child from a Muslim family was allocated a place in an Orthodox Jewish school.

Both of these vexing issues concerning school admissions have the same solution. A move towards a secular education system would mean no child would be discriminated against on account of their parents' religion or belief. At the same time it would mean no child would ever be compelled to attend a school of a different religious tradition to their own, or their parents'.

It would of course mean that parents would have to take responsibility for their child's religious upbringing – but that really is their responsibility anyway, rather than the state's.

And wouldn't it better all-round if our publicly funded schools educated children of all faith backgrounds together and stuck to promoting the societal values we share without trying to stick religious labels on either those values or the children they teach?

This should be done as a matter of principle, but an end to faith schools and the resulting discrimination might also make school offer day a little less fraught than it currently is.

The surprising origin of Collective Worship in schools

Thu, 10 Mar 2016

Collective worship has its history in a murky compromise between politicians and the church dating back to the Second World War – and it is long since time the arcane requirement was removed, writes Ed Moore.

There is a growing consensus among educators, parents and academics that Collective Worship in schools should be abolished.

The debate was opened up again recently with the Wolf Institute's "Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life" which clearly came out against, calling for the legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship to be repealed.

But how many people know why we ever came to have this law in the first place?

The first law introducing mandatory collective worship was the famous 1944 Education Act, introduced by President of the Board of Education Rab Butler and receiving Royal Assent on 3 August 1944. This Act, passed while the Second World War was still being fought, was the largest piece of 'home' legislation brought forward by the Coalition Government. The Act specifies that "the school day in every county school and in every voluntary school shall begin with collective worship on the part of all pupils in attendance at the school".

"The arrangements made therefor shall provide for a single act of worship attended by all such pupils," it adds.

School Worship was now mandatory, but this provision wasn't the most important part of the Act. Religious Education covered only 6 of the 120 clauses; the rest contained the real meat, a complete overhaul of the education system. Among the radical measures introduced were free education for all, an increase in the school leaving age to fifteen (and later sixteen), the tripartite system of grammar, secondary modern and technical schools, and the 11-plus exam which directed children from primary to secondary education. As David Bell, the Chief Inspector of schools said in 2004, "As history has since shown, the act profoundly influenced the education system for decades to come."

While it could be considered strange that such a landmark piece of legislation should appear in wartime in fact it may be the case that it could only have appeared in such circumstances. The wartime Coalition Government meant party politics had been put aside. The mixing of the classes had broken down the rigid social order and mass evacuations of children to the countryside had revealed the shocking deprivation in the cities. These circumstances did not produce only the desire to change education, they produced the resolve to overcome the entrenched interests holding back progress; the churches.

No bill is ever brought to parliament without years of preparation and the 1944 Education Act was no exception. The work started in November 1940 in Bournemouth to where the civil servants of the Board of Education had been evacuated. Pressure had been growing to resolve the problems of education in the country and this was an opportunity to work through the issues away from the pressures of London. In their deliberations the pattern of future secondary education was quickly established – raising of the leaving age to 16, free schooling, moving to secondary education at 11 but an intractable problem to overcome remained: How to deal with the church schools?

At the outbreak of war the school system was made up of 10,363 council schools with 3,151,000 pupils and 10,533 'voluntary' church schools educating 1,374,000 pupils. This Dual System of schooling gave rise to endless complications in administration that had to be managed within the broad scheme of reform. Local Education Authorities had to pay for the 'fair wear and tear' of voluntary schools yet the managers of these schools had to pay for alterations and improvements which they were frequently unable to afford. Most voluntary schools were in old buildings, few had adequate support from church collections and even fewer could afford modern standards of ventilation and hygiene. An earlier education review had required children of eleven and over to be in dedicated Senior Schools or departments yet while 62% of Council School pupils had been reorganised only 16% had in voluntary schools. What was to be done to enable reconstruction? Perhaps the churches themselves had constructive suggestions?

On the 12 February 1941 a statement on improving education did indeed come, jointly, from the Archbishops of Canterbury, York and Wales. The 'Five Points' letter to The Times recommended … more religion.

"There is an ever-deepening conviction that in this present struggle we are fighting to preserve those elements in human civilization and in our own national tradition which owe their origin to Christian faith. Yet we find on every side profound ignorance of the Christian faith itself," the Archbishops argued at the time.

"We urge that in all schools the timetable should be so arranged as to provide for an act of worship on the part of the whole school at the beginning of the school day".

No mention was made of the difficulties in paying for school improvements, or how to reorganise the dual system. What did the committee of the Board of Education make of this? When their recommendations, in "Education After the War", were finally published on 13 May 1941, in what became known as the Green Book, it said among the 141 clauses: "At the present time in provided schools, while it is the almost universal practice to have undenominational religious observance and instruction, such instruction is required neither by statute nor by regulation."

The Green Book argued that, "There is a growing volume of opinion that the time has come when the place of religion as an essential element in education should be specifically recognised. It is accordingly suggested that there should be religious observance and instruction enjoined by statute in all provided Primary and Secondary Schools."

This document thus became the first official government record proposing legislation on collective worship in schools. Why was it there? For the answer we go back to file ED 138/22 in the National Archives. The file contains several papers explaining how the Green Book was decided on and in the paper "The Green Book and the Problem of the Dual System and Religious Instruction in Schools" we find:

"Thus, the Green Book proposed to meet as far as possible, the extended claim of the Churches in the matter of religious instruction in schools as expressed in the Archbishop's letter of February 12, 1941, and in return for this and extended financial assistance to non-provided schools to secure extended public control over non-provided schools."

Collective Worship would become a legal requirement in all supported schools. In exchange the Government would gain the control needed over church schools to carry out the desperately needed reforms.

Was this the final settlement? Of course not. The appointment of Rab Butler as the President of the Board of Education on 29 July 1941 started the process of negotiation and it continued through the White Paper "Educational Reconstruction" published on 16 July 1943 right up until the law was passed. Against the Government were the Church of England, the Nonconformists and the Roman Catholics, sometimes combined and sometimes fighting their own corners. Yet in the end a compromise was reached and the law passed.

How did the politicians behind the bill view the church leaders during this process? The last word goes to Winston Churchill, as recorded by James Chuter Ede, the Board of Education Parliamentary Secretary, in his diary on Tuesday 13 July 1943: "The P.M. said that if there was trouble over the religious settlement he would be in favour of telling the House exactly what the malcontents were getting out of the scheme, and then leave the decision to the free vote of the House on the understanding that if the scheme were defeated this, the most generous example of religious toleration in the history of the world, would be destroyed & the great measure of educational advance with it!"

So should we call Collective Worship a bribe? We have a legal requirement today only because the churches exchanged total control over education in their own schools for more religious influence in all schools.

Time for it to go.

Classrooms should be free from an overbearing religious ethos

Mon, 15 Feb 2016

With the Church seeking to extend its influence over the management of schools, Stephen Evans argues that religious groups' demands shouldn't outweigh parental rights and children's independent interests.

The niqab in schools: An argument for prohibition

Thu, 04 Feb 2016

Sadikur Rahman argues that the case for banning full face veils in schools extends far beyond whether or not they present a barrier to learning.

Religious education reform: mistakes of the past must be avoided

Fri, 04 Dec 2015

Despite many RE teachers doing their best under difficult circumstances, a growing consensus now recognises that religious education in schools needs a rethink. Alastair Lichten looks at the latest report calling for reform.

This week saw the launch of REforReal – the latest report advocating for fundamental reform of religious education. The report correctly identifies the problem of a "20th century settlement for a 21st century reality".

Calls for major changes in the approach to religion and belief in schools seem to be coming thick and fast, with the REforReal report coming hot on the heels of a Faith Debates report, which set out recommendations for a new settlement on religion and belief in Schools, and an Arts and Humanities Research Council review of collective worship and religious observance in schools. The RE Council has also announced that it is to undertake its own review of the policy and legal standing of RE. Whether the education secretary Nicky Morgan is listening to any of this is another matter.

The REforReal launch took place a day after the widely reported (and often misreported) High Court ruling that the Education Secretary had made an "error of law" by leaving non-religious views out of the GCSE syllabus. Perhaps with the exception of the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, everyone now seems to accept that an understanding of non-religious world views is essential for religious/belief literacy.

The National Secular Society has of course been active in the ongoing debate over the future of religion and belief education in schools and it's encouraging to see consensus moving in a broadly secular direction.

The report calls for a national panel to oversee a new national framework for RE. This offers the most achievable avenue for real reform and for establishing best practice at the national level. However this is also poses a real risk of repeating the mistakes of the past if it becomes little more than a national SACRE.

SACREs (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education) are one of the biggest problems with our current approach to RE. One of the mistakes of the Education Reform Act 1988 was to increase the power and prominence of these local committees, who along with an Agreed Syllabus Conference (in many cases made up of the same SACRE members), are responsible for the syllabus and approach to RE within each local authority area. Such bodies give faith representatives disproportionate influence and their quality varies widely.

The SACRE approach is too often about satisfying the demands of competing special interest groups (with a non-voting humanist member sometimes thrown in to represent the views of the non-religious) rather than about providing the best quality education for pupils. The question of the knowledge and skills that good quality religion and belief education should aim to impart is a matter of curriculum design, not a theological debate.

Most contributors to the debate understand that RE has to move away from a biased presentation of specific beliefs to promoting religious (and belief) literacy. In areas of good practice this has largely happened.

In today's globalised world, an understanding of others' beliefs is clearly important. Living together successfully probably requires a certain degree of religion and belief literacy. However, the assumption by some within the RE community that religious illiteracy is demonstrated by or causal of society's growing disinterest or opposition to aspects of religion is entirely wrongheaded. The idea that people would embrace religion if only they understood it better is little more than wishful thinking, more than a little insulting and deeply ignorant of the lived religious and non-religious experiences of many citizens.

Many religious enthusiasts have jumped on the 'religious literacy' bandwagon seeing it as a suitable Trojan horse to promulgate favourable and positive views about religion – with a view to replacing the Christian indoctrination of the 1950's with a softer multi-faithism, with 'humanism' thrown in as a sop to the non-religious. Any trace of this needs to jumped on by anyone seeking to create a new serious academic subject out of the ashes of RE.

Any new subject must (as the report acknowledges) avoid the problems of overloading that has beset the subject in the past. RE can't be a dumping ground for everyone's personal hobby horse, or for issues that good schools can better address through citizenship education or PSHE.

The inclusion of topics should flow naturally from the agreed educational purpose(s) of the subject – whatever that may be. For me, it should be about enabling pupils to understand contemporary religion and belief issues; the importance and role of faith and belief to many people; and a space to explore the big questions through a host of philosophical approaches. I find it hard, therefore, to understand why we'd try to squeeze more theology into the subject. Latin may inform many modern European languages, but it would be hard to justify squeezing it into a French or German GCSE course.

Perhaps it might be better for theological studies to be offered as a separate GCSE or A-Level voluntary option. Although, if the REforReal report's comments on what young people and other stakeholders find useful/interesting about the subject is anything to go by, it's hard to imagine take up would be high.

The report's authors spent a great deal of effort in canvassing the views of young people, whose rights are often overlooked in the squabbling over RE reform. Given that young people in both faith and non-faith schools have been shown to have similar interests and ideas about what RE should do, any reform must address the discrepancies between the approach, assessment and apparent goals of RE in both faith and non-faith schools.

Almost everyone appears to agree that RE requires a name change, but it would be a mistake to view this as merely a cosmetic change or an opportunity to avoid the negative brand associations RE has amassed, rather than an opportunity for more fundamental reform. Yes, let's teach about religious beliefs, but let's also teach secular ethics and the philosophical approaches that inform the lives and actions of our fellow citizens. Then let students make their own choices.