NSS: Don’t let Welsh independent schools put faith before education

Posted: Wed, 12th Jul 2023

NSS: Don’t let Welsh independent schools put faith before education

The National Secular Society has told the Welsh Government independent schools should not omit education which conflicts with religious teachings.

Responding to a consultation on proposed changes to standards for independent schools in Wales, the NSS warned that allowing the teaching of personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) in a manner that reflects a "school's aims and ethos" could lead to faith schools not teaching about protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010.

The NSS welcomed provisions in the proposed changes which would require a curriculum which "encourages respect for other people", with particular regard for the protected characteristics set out in the act. These include religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

But they also highlighted that independent faith schools in England frequently fail to teach about same-sex relationships or people of different religions and beliefs, or teach discriminatory ideas about them.

As recent figures from England's Department for Education revealed, independent schools with a faith ethos are four times more likely to be issued warning notices than their non-religiously affiliated counterparts, with many judged to be of an unacceptable standard because they fail to teach aspects of PSHE which are perceived to contradict the school's faith ethos.

Examples from 2023 alone include:

  • Ateres Girls High School, which fails to teach about "sexual orientation, different types of stable relationships and vocabulary such as consent and the implications of this word".
  • Bnois Jerusalem Girls School, where the school's proprietors forbid "any coverage of different religions, faiths and beliefs" and where respect for others, including those with protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010, is not encouraged.
  • Bournemouth Christian School, which presents a Christian perspective as "more important than scientific fact" and fails to provide appropriate relationships and sex education (RSE).

The NSS also drew attention to its own Unsafe Sex Education report from 2018, which uncovered RSE policies from state-funded faith schools in England that explicitly denigrated same-sex relationships.

The NSS said that the Welsh Government's proposed curriculum changes allowing PSHE which "reflects the school's aims and ethos" could create a similar situation in Wales.

The NSS also raised concerns that, under the proposed changes, 'partisan political views' could be given a free pass when they have a religious basis. The proposals would preclude the promotion of such views in teaching or require that when political views are discussed, a balanced view is presented.

In its Unsafe Sex Education report, the NSS found many faith schools delegitimised same-sex marriages by describing marriage solely in terms of being 'between man and woman', with one stipulating that "treating alternative relationships as equivalent to marriage" was "contrary to the school's ethos".

Other faith schools were found to explicitly teach that contraception and abortion are morally wrong.

The NSS argued that these perspectives are fundamentally political and, as such, should not be excluded from the restrictions simply due to their faith-based character.

NSS: 'Faith ethos is no excuse for avoiding educational obligations'

Jack Rivington, campaigns officer at the NSS, said: "We welcome the proposed changes to the regulations for independent schools in Wales, which will bring requirements largely in line with England and help to promote respect for the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act.

"However, the Welsh Government must ensure that the regulations do not contain loopholes which can be exploited by faith institutions to avoid teaching full and impartial RSE and PSHE curriculums, or to present biased political perspectives without context.

"All children are entitled to high-quality, age-appropriate RSE, whatever kind of school they attend. It is vital that the wording of these proposed changes guarantees that provision and protects against religious attempts to circumvent it."

Image: xtock, Shutterstock

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Tags: Faith schools