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Newsline 19 June 2015

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Faith schools: education’s sacred cow

Faith schools: education’s sacred cow

Opinion | Fri, 19 Jun 2015

Faith-based schools have been part of Britain's educational landscape for a long time. But as Britain's religious outlook changes, the time has come for some people to come to terms with their fear or unwillingness to question them, argues Stephen Evans.

Britain's religious landscape is rapidly changing. Polling consistently shows that a majority of Britons are not religious. The share of the population which is religious is also increasingly fractured into growing minority faiths. The proportion of people saying they are Anglican has fallen by two fifths in 10 years and Islam is set to grow rapidly in the UK this century. It's clear that our schools have a vital role to play in building social cohesion.

Given the conflict that plagues societies in which religion, sectarianism and segregation permeate every facet of life, it seems short-sighted to suggest that children's education should be organised around religious identities.

But that's exactly the recommendation of a new report calling for a new settlement on religion and belief in schools.

The policy proposal, published by former education secretary Charles Clarke and sociologist Linda Woodhead, recommends that "children of families of faith should where possible be able to attend schools of that faith, and that their current right to be given priority in the admissions process should not be removed."

There is an important debate to be had about the role of religion in schools, and this report makes an important contribution to that debate, but given Britain's rapidly changing demographics, this particular proposal strikes me as a dangerous recipe for yet more religiously segregated schooling and greater religious discrimination: the very features of our education system we should be distancing ourselves from – not endorsing. It also raises important questions over the value we place on young people's independent rights and religious freedom.

But the recommendation should come as no surprise. As far as education policy is concerned, faith schools have long been a sacred cow.

Much of the media commentary around the launch of the policy proposal centred on the long overdue recommendation to abolish the legal requirement on schools to provide a daily act of Collective Worship.

This really shouldn't be considered as a bold or even controversial proposal. The current legal position has zero credibility, is widely flouted and apart from the Department for Education and Church of England hierarchy, which are looking increasingly isolated in their archaic and entrenched positions, most people now agree with what secularists have been saying for decades - that the state shouldn't be mandating acts of worship by law.

The report also has interesting things to say about the way in which religious education is organised. Whilst some of the recommendations may be a step in the right direction, making progress will prove difficult – particularly with so many vested interests involved in the subject.

It's also doubtful whether the proposals go far enough to repair RE's tarnished reputation or to ensure that young people receive the sort of religion and belief education that allows them to take a truly objective and critical approach to the consideration of moral and ethical issues.

But it's the report's failure to advocate for a child-centred, inclusive and secular education system, based upon principles of equality and fairness, that most disappoints.

I raised these concerns with the authors at the report's launch event at the House of Lords. But one gets the clear impression, even from many of those arguing for the continuation of faith based schools, that their heart isn't really in it – it just that tackling the issue is in the 'too difficult department'.

In response my point about the undesirability of faith schools, two main reasons were advanced for not calling time on them, firstly; that it would be politically impossible; that parents simply wouldn't accept the discontinuation of them, and second; that it would be problematic from a human rights perspective.

On the first point, it's necessary to get one thing clear. Nobody is advocating the mass closing down of faith schools overnight. Parents would rightly be angered by that and why would anyone want to close down good schools and disrupt children's education. That's not what we're talking about. The way to a secular education system is to phase faith schools out starting with a moratorium on opening new ones.

It's certainly true that the churches and other faith groups would take exception to this. But in the main, parents aren't clamouring for faith schools. What they really want is good local schools. Linda Woodhead's own research confirms that academic standards, location, discipline and ethical values far outweigh faith-related reasons for choosing schools. Just 5% of parents would choose a school on the basis of giving a "grounding in faith tradition"; and only 3% for "transmission of belief about God".

Polling also indicates no real appetite for faith-based schools. Only a third of the adult population approve of state funding for faith schools. Nearly half actively disapprove, and the rest say they 'don't know'. Two-thirds of Muslim parents wouldn't want their children to go to a Muslim state school, if given the choice.

But even where parents do demand faith schools, such demands for a religious education, wholly on parents' terms, is simply unreasonable. Schools are not the place to push ideologies, political or religious. It's hardly the role of the state to promulgate Anglicanism, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism – or atheism for that matter – through state education.

And whilst some ultra conservative parents may want to keep their children insulated from 'gentiles', 'kuffars' and 'infidels', the state should really think twice about actively encouraging that.

The second argument – that moving away from faith based education would interfere with parents' human rights, just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

The courts have ruled that the right to education provided by Article 2 Protocol 1 of the Human Rights Act gives a right of access the education system that already exists. It doesn't require the government to provide or subsidise any specific type of education and it certainly doesn't oblige the state to fund religious schools of any kind.

Although parents have a right to ensure their religious or philosophical beliefs are respected during their children's education, this is not an absolute right. So long as these beliefs are properly considered, schools can depart from them if there are good reasons for doing so and it is done in an objective, critical and pluralistic way.

The notion that a system of inclusive, secular schools offering an objective and balanced education with equal access and esteem to all pupils would breach parent's human rights just isn't credible.

The fact that many parents can't avoid a faith-based education because they happen to be in a faith school's catchment area is far more injurious to parents' right to education. The Government's plans for 500 new free schools over the next five years, which could result in a proliferation of faith-based schools, should be a far greater concern for those worried about religious freedom and parental rights.

Attempts will be made to discourage unfair admissions arrangements and open up faith schools to all young people. Whilst any reduction in the degree of discrimination tolerated in our schools is welcome, it does leave you with the problem of religious organisations running schools as if they're religious communities when they quite clearly are not. The potential for conflict and risk to community cohesion there is clear. Many non-practising 'cultural Christians' tolerate church schools (and if their results are good, may even feign belief to get into them) but will be less likely to want to send their child to an Islamic, Sikh or Hindu free school. Such schools are likely to remain undersubscribed silos of segregation. However limited school places are, parents will still rightly expect to be able to secure a state education without a religious ethos being imposed on their children.

But I for one wouldn't want to see religion jettisoned from schools. Objective religion and belief education is valuable in helping young people to understand the significance of religion in society, and the importance of faith to many people.

But far more important I think, is integrated schooling. The best way of building mutual understanding, trust and the common values that we're going to need in multifaith Britain, is to ensure that our publicly funded schools are spaces where children and young people of all backgrounds are encouraged to learn and live together side-by-side.

We've almost won the argument on compulsory worship, let's just hope we don't have to wait so long for people to finally admit that organising education around parents' religious beliefs really isn't the greatest idea.

This article was originally published at Huffington Post.

Academic claims university atheists are “militant”

Academic claims university atheists are “militant”

Opinion | Thu, 18 Jun 2015

A paper published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education has claimed that atheists can be "militant" on university campuses, while describing religion as a "public good" and the exclusion of religion from the public sphere as "repressive."

Professor Craig Calhoun, Director of the London School of Economics, has said atheists make "free speech an issue" in efforts to "challenge the faith and beliefs of religious students". He described "controversies over religious cartoons" as 'disruptive to "campus harmony" and compared rows over free speech and blasphemy to 'clashes' between religions.

The Professor referred to his university's outrageous censoring of students for wearing "Jesus and Mo" t-shirts as a "small episode" and said that "harmony was restored eventually but not without acrimony, accusations and threatened lawsuits." Professor Calhoun fails to acknowledge that any friction was ultimately down to censorious student union officials ordering the removal of materials they deemed "offensive" and the threats of physical removal from LSE officials unless the students censored themselves.

The National Secular Society supported the students involved, Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis, back in 2013, after they were threatened with being physically removed from the LSE Freshers' Fair unless they covered the 'offensive' t-shirts. At that time, Professor Calhoun said staff had "acted in good faith".

The two said that LSE only issued a "half-apology" for the scandal, and noted that it "took the threat of legal action to elicit an acknowledgement of our grievances." In spite of this, Calhoun still complains about the action needed just to bring about LSE's feeble response.

Now however, the Professor has said, "Atheists have recently grown more active – even militant – within universities, often making free speech an issue as they seek to challenge the faith and beliefs of religious students." He accused "new atheists" of 'making a point' of "mocking religious convictions and symbols."

The Professor might be advised that it isn't atheists making an "issue" of free speech all across the world; this right is under attack almost daily from militant Islamists. In his paper, he gives the appearance of begrudging the inconvenience caused to university administrators when atheists and others simply make use of their most fundamental rights. It isn't 'militant' atheists threatening anyone.

On events at the LSE Fresher's Fair, Calhoun also says that LSE students "approached Muslim students … wearing T-shirts taken to mock Jesus and Mohammed." This seems to be factually incorrect; Moos and Phadnis' own account of the events reveals that LSE Student Union officials approached them, and began removing material from their stall at the Fresher's Fair. Calhoun's language sounds deliberately loaded, to imply that members of the Atheist, Humanist and Secularist society sought confrontation, when in fact they were "manning the stall" at the Fair.

It seems like we will have to keep making this point, I certainly don't plan to stop, but "harmony", "cohesion" and "feelings" do not, must not, cannot trump the most fundamental rights of all- like freedom of speech and expression.

In his paper, Calhoun seems extremely dismissive of secularism. He writes, "Attempts to exclude [religion] from the public sphere are intrinsically repressive." He doesn't seem to mind the LSE Student Union physically, literally excluding atheists, humanists and secularists from a literal public space though. His institution had to be threatened with legal action just to exact a modest "half-apology", as the students in question described it.

Extending his analysis, the Professor compares secularism- and the concept that religion and the state should be separate (not that religious people may not fully participate in public life)- to exclusion and repression of Catholics.

Worryingly, he also writes, "the pursuit of integration shouldn't block attempts by minorities to create their own cohesive groups. Without some level of self-segregation, those in small minorities will always have relationships mainly with members of the majority – and so will the majority."

Given the almost weekly defections of young Muslims to the Islamic State, is "self-segregation" really any part of the answer? Is it not in-fact a key part of the problem?

Benjamin Jones is the communications officer of the National Secular Society. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and may not represent those of the NSS.

Preacher James McConnell faces prosecution for calling Islam “Satanic"- the state again tramples over free expression

Preacher James McConnell faces prosecution for calling Islam “Satanic"- the state again tramples over free expression

Opinion | Thu, 18 Jun 2015

Free speech for all is threatened once more by the senseless prosecution of another Christian preacher. His religious freedom is the same liberty that defends secularists, atheists, people of all religions and none.

"Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell," thundered Belfast Pastor James McConnell in a sermon last year.

For a Christian preacher Islam surely is "heathen" by definition. But he is now to be prosecuted for the 'crime' of speaking his mind and talking about his faith. He has been charged for saying something "grossly offensive" (as the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service put it).

In spite of warm, fuzzy inter-faith dialogue (recently criticised quite strongly by the Archbishop of Canterbury), the fundamental premise of most religions is surely exclusivity; that Jesus and Mohammed cannot both be right.

But it is now considered a matter for law enforcement if a clergyman asserts the uniqueness of his doctrine and its incompatibility with other religions. McConnell's offence "was one of sending, or causing to be sent, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that was grossly offensive", the BBC reports.

The prosecution has come about despite McConnell issuing a fairly grovelling apology in which he said he had not intended to "arouse fear or stir up or incite hatred" against Muslims.

The state is acting as a Ministry of Religious Truth and Moderation, clamping down hard on evangelical preachers and others who make traditional claims about the primacy of their faith's claims- sometimes doing so with exciting language. This is a deeply anti-secular position. "Offense" trumps all.

Courageously, and rightly, McConnell appears to have refused to accept a caution, and his case will now go to court.

The preacher, last year, said: "'People say there are good Muslims in Britain - that may be so - but I don't trust them." If we substituted the word "Muslim" for the word "atheist" or the word "Catholic", would he have been prosecuted? We know the answer: No. Of course not.

If someone said, "I don't trust atheists", there is not a chance in Pastor McConnell's hell they would be prosecuted for it. Nor should they be.

"There are cells of Muslims right throughout Britain," the 'firebrand' preacher went on, in case we weren't clear on his views.

He has said since: "I have nothing against Muslims, I have never hated Muslims, I have never hated anyone. But I am against what Muslims believe. They have the right to say what they believe in and I have a right to say what I believe." If only the law saw things with this clarity.

The consequences of this situation are remarkably similar to those of the case of Michael Overd, the street preacher in court earlier this year. I ask again, given that scripture of all three monotheistic faiths makes claims like McConnell's, is it now illegal to read scripture aloud, in public? Are the books containing said passages now outlawed?

A Christian theologian has been warning anyone who will listen this week that the Government's plans to create 'extremism disruption orders' could outlaw Christian teaching that Jesus is the 'Son of God'. It seems he was right, but in McConnell's case this has already come to pass, without the added, draconian legislation that Rev Dr. Mike Ovey has been warning of.

You can watch the offending sermon from McConnell here, though we, and the Belfast Telegraph, are presumably sending a "grossly offensive" communication by linking to it. For the sake of testing the law, I would like to add that I consider both the doctrines of Islam and the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland to be Satanic- and worse besides. I want to see if I get the 'knock-on-the-door' one night, surely we all will soon at this rate.

Benjamin Jones is the NSS communications officer. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and may not represent those of the NSS.

Tribunal to rule on Gay clergyman refused NHS chaplaincy job because he is in same-sex marriage

Tribunal to rule on Gay clergyman refused NHS chaplaincy job because he is in same-sex marriage

News | Tue, 16 Jun 2015

A Bishop stripped a Church of England clergyman of the licence needed to take a hospital chaplaincy job because he is in a same-sex marriage.

NSS Speaks Out

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood spoke on LBC and BBC Radio Merseyside about the Clarke-Woodhead proposals on compulsory worship in schools. Our full response can be seen above. We were also quoted on the proposals in Christian Today.

Additionally, our campaigns manager Stephen Evans posted a blog in the Huffington Post on faith schools, education's 'sacred cow', and this has been re-published above.

Keith was quoted in the Telegraph on Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change, noting that the Pope had overlooked the role of the Church's social teaching in exacerbating environmental problems. Keith had a letter on this published in the Evening Standard.

He was also quoted in the Sunday Times, speaking out against "gay conversion" therapy.

The NSS was mentioned in the Mid Devon Gazette on council prayers, after Tiverton Town Council took the controversial decision to begin holding them during official meetings.

The Society was also quoted in the Independent, Telegraph and Breitbart on the recent case of a Muslim nursery worker asked to wear a jilbab that did not cover her feet.

NSS president Terry Sanderson was quoted in Church Times on the case of a Christian nursery worker who was found to have been wrongly dismissed.

Our opposition to and concerns about 'extremism disruption orders' was also picked up by Breitbart.

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