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Newsline 20 June 2014

Newsline is a weekly round-up of news and opinion from the NSS website. If you're not already a member, becoming one is the most tangible way of supporting our work. Our campaigning is wholly supported by our members, people like you who share our belief that secularism is an essential element in promoting equality between all citizens. Please join today.

A “religious ethos” is not why faith schools succeed – it’s selection that does it

A “religious ethos” is not why faith schools succeed – it’s selection that does it

Opinion | Tue, 17 Jun 2014

Rather than a faith-based ethos, Terry Sanderson argues that it's selection that allows faith schools to outperform other schools – and calls for fairer admissions policies to ensure a level playing field for all.

The headline in the Coventry Telegraph was pretty unequivocal "Coventry Faith Schools Report Better GCSE results than other city schools".

As far as the dwindling number of enthusiasts for religion-based schools are concerned this is the reason we need "faith schools". They achieve. Their ethos of religion and, by implication, superior morality, makes them better academically as well.

It's a myth enthusiastically reiterated by the assistant head at the Coventry Blue Coat Church of England School, Matthew Connor-Hemming, who told the Coventry Telegraph: "The faith ethos enables students to excel in their studies, thrive in the wide range of activities on offer and develop into caring individuals with a strong desire to positively change the world around them."

Leaving aside the implication that community schools are hotbeds of depravity, what Mr Connor-Hemming failed to mention is that all four of the city's "faith schools" have entry criteria with which only the most determined and pushy parents will be able to comply.

The sort with sharp elbows and the confidence to negotiate the mire of "faith selection".

The busy, working class and disadvantaged parents might also want the best for their children's education but be completely unable or unwilling to (a) suddenly find a commitment to a Christian faith that has heretofore been entirely lacking or (b) be able to negotiate the barriers put in their way by a system that deliberately seeks to exclude their difficult or low-achieving child.

Look at the Blue Coat Church of England school's admission criteria, for instance, which has 203 places for "faith applicants" (vicar's letter to confirm regular church attendance of parents and child required), and 37 "open places". On the application form for the "open places" parents are also required to tell of their commitment to faith and how many times they go to church. So, what "open" means in this context seems entirely up to the church authorities.

The other existing "faith schools" in Coventry, Bishop Ullathorne Catholic School, Cardinal Newman Catholic School and Cardinal Wiseman Catholic School are all Catholic and all three have exacting entry requirements.

The four Christian faith schools in Coventry will be joined next year by Sikh and Muslim free schools.

Do we need to say that those Muslim and Sikh children who are presently attending community schools, and providing the much needed platform for integration, will now be drawn away to spend the day exclusively with others of their own (or, at least their parents') religion? They will be educated by people likely to have a conservative and traditionalist mindset who will – deliberately or not – discourage their pupils from being full participants in the surrounding culture.

Faith schools are a disaster, whichever way you look at them. They are justified with a mythology of achievement that is only possible by unjust selection.

To quote the joint divisional secretary for the National Union of Teachers, Jane Nellist: "I don't think you can say that having a faith makes you brighter. The better exam results are a combination of other factors. Outcomes are still very much about class and about economics. If you are from a deprived area you are much less likely to achieve well. In other parts of the country there are religious schools that are struggling and have been found wanting by Ofsted."

It is good that there is now a national debate at last about whether "faith schools" are an asset or a hindrance to our education system and the nation's cohesiveness. On the evidence of the poll by the Observer, it seems that now a majority have reached the conclusion that this unfair and unnecessary system should end.

Applying equality legislation to publicly funded schools should not be controversial. Of course the churches are not going to willingly give up their privileges, but the next Government must give the whole system a thorough examination and insist that all schools operate fair admissions, free from faith-based discrimination.

Schools and the failure of multiculturalism and multifaithism

Schools and the failure of multiculturalism and multifaithism

Opinion | Tue, 17 Jun 2014

Rumy Hasan argues, faith based identity politics have contributed to an increasingly divisive school system, which undermines children's right to a broad, critical and tolerant secular education.

The spat between Michael Gove and Theresa May focuses on the failure to tackle Islamic extremism in Birmingham's schools. Whether such failure can be attributed to one party or the other is, in fact, a moot point. The real problem has deeper roots: it resides in the failure of multiculturalism and multifaithism. Given that both the previous and present governments describe Britain as being a multi-faith society, it is entirely to be expected that leaders of those groups for whom their faith trumps all other indicators of identity, will seek robustly to instil the imprimatur of the values and practices of their religion. In this context, recent statements made by Prime Minister David Cameron and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles that Britain is essentially a Christian country, are most unhelpful in that they provoke many within the faith minorities to emphatically say "no we are not", and to assert their own non-Christian faith identity with even greater vigour.

This fundamental truth has not well been understood by the political establishment. Rather, like the previous government, the present coalition government's concern has been on tackling Islamist terrorism following 9/11 and especially since the 7th July 2005 bombings. It is precisely this thinking that led Michael Gove to appoint Peter Clark, former National Co-ordinator for Counter Terrorism, to review the evidence of the Trojan Horse plot. This detracts from core of the problem of heightened faith identities that are facilitated by high levels of segregation in communities and in schools.

Indeed, concerns about segregated schooling go back decades. As far back as 1985, the Swann Report on education highlighted the dangers of "separate schools" for ethnic minorities. Two decades later, Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, warned in 2005: "Do we want a ghettoised education system? ... Schools play a crucial role in integrating different communities and the growth of faith schools poses a real threat to this. These things need to be thought through very carefully before they are implemented". In a similar vein, in 2007, Commission for Racial Equality Policy Director Nick Johnson cautioned that Britain risks becoming a "mini America" dominated by racially and religiously determined schools, and warned: "If a Muslim child is educated in a school where the vast majority of other children are also Muslim, how can we expect him to work, live and interact with people from other cultures when he leaves school? This is a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode". Given that practically nothing has been done to tackle the roots of the problems, that is, to tackle the very high levels of segregation and promote genuine integration, such a proverbial "time bomb" has indeed exploded in Birmingham, and will doubtless do so in many other towns and cities.

This reasoning and warning is absolutely correct. A natural consequence of residential segregation is that schools in inner cities have also become segregated: in the 21 Birmingham schools that were inspected by Ofsted, children of Muslim parents comprise over 90 per cent. Channel 4 News reported that in one school, only one child was non-Muslim; the white mother of the child thought that though a secular, state, school, it felt like a Muslim faith school. Indeed, this is precisely what has been happening: parents and governors of these schools are attempting to convert them into de facto Muslim faith schools. And here is something that has not been remarked upon: what is giving cause for concern re attempts by Islamists to take over state schools in Birmingham is precisely what has been made lawful in free schools and faith schools. Abandoning children to such schools, which are plainly not fit for purpose for modern Europe, is nothing short of a dereliction of duty.

The rising level of segregation is not only a phenomenon of "white flight" but also the flight of those from other religious-ethnic minorities. Polite society may not notice, but the stark reality is that Hindu and Sikh parents do not wish to send their schools where there is preponderance of Muslim children and vice versa. So what have arisen are "mono-faith" neighbourhoods and schools. Given the enormous importance of the formative years in life, this phenomenon can have a highly significant and lasting effect on how children from different backgrounds relate to each other. Put bluntly, there is likely to be a deleterious impact on integration and cohesion from heightened levels of segregation of children and this surely does not at all augur well for the goal of a socially cohesive society. If segregation of communities is not a desirable outcome and is an obstacle to improving social cohesion, then it is certainly also true for children in schools.

Michael Gove's call that school children must be taught "British values" is inadequate given that there is simply no agreed definition of what these values are. Rather, it is imperative that a child's accident of birth should not preclude a broad, critical, tolerant education; this must necessarily be secular. Moreover, this needs to be combined with children from minority communities mixing with others, especially with those from the majority white society. These enormously important lessons need to be learned and acted upon by both the government and the opposition.

Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex and writes for the Huffington Post, where this article first appeared. You can follow him on Twitter @RumyHasan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

New campaign urges party leaders to support change in the law on assisted dying

New campaign urges party leaders to support change in the law on assisted dying

News | Fri, 20 Jun 2014

The campaign group Dignity in Dying has launched a campaign aimed at the three main party leaders asking them to support a change in the law to enable assisted dying.

NSS Speaks Out

We were quoted on three separate occasions in the Telegraph this week. NSS President Terry Sanderson was quoted on the need to rethink the dominant role of Christianity in the military after official figures highlighted the decline of religious belief among service personal.

NSS executive director Keith Porteous wood spoke out after David Cameron became first prime minister since Margaret Thatcher to join a US-style prayer breakfast in Parliament, using the occasion to again claim Britain to be a "Christian country".

Our campaigns manager Stephen Evans was also quoted after Ofsted announced it was scrapping controversial faith school inspection rules following criticism from the NSS that it was capitulating to oppressive religious demands and endorsing gender segregation in the classroom.

Newsline will take a break next week, the next edition will be on Friday 4 July

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