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Newsline 21 July 2017

Despite the impending school summer holidays, education has again been our main area for campaigning and case work this week. We've been supporting parents left with no option but a faith school, dealing with inappropriate evangelism in schools and being denied their right to withdraw children from collective worship. Despite claiming to support integration, the Government's enthusiasm for more discriminatory faith schools continues unabated. As a humanist parent fights to be included on a local committee that decide schools' RE syllabus, the coordinator of our Secular Education Forum argues it's time to take the subject out the hands of competing belief groups.

This weekend we're excited to be attending and supporting the International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression in the 21st Century. We'll be hearing from activists from around the world, including Pakistan where there's a new push to get Facebook's help in hunting down 'blasphemers'. Tickets are sold out, but if you are attending be sure to come and say hello.

Thirty years ago we were supporting activists at Pride, protesting Britain's blasphemy laws being used by Christian activists to target the LGBT community. Today we're supporting Ex-Muslims threatened with exclusion from Pride for criticising Islamic homophobia. The nature of work changes, but its importance is undiminished.

If you'd like to support our work, please consider joining or making a donation.

Never mind joining SACREs, we should be abolishing them

Never mind joining SACREs, we should be abolishing them

Opinion | Fri, 21 Jul 2017

A parent's legal challenge to the exclusion of a humanist representative from the local body responsible for overseeing religious education highlights the need for urgent reform of this contested area of the curriculum, argues Keith Sharpe.

A humanist parent is to challenge the Vale of Glamorgan Council at the High Court in Cardiff over its refusal to allow a humanist representative to join the local SACRE (the body which oversees RE in a local area). This focuses public attention once more on the anachronistic and dysfunctional arrangements for religious education in this country.

Almost thirty years ago the 1988 Education Act enshrined for the very first time in England and Wales the principle that every child in the country should receive a basic unitary national curricular entitlement during the years of compulsory schooling, as a matter of right as a future citizen. Hitherto all the curricular content had been determined locally, by local education authorities, individual schools and teachers using their own professional judgements. By 1988 the inequalities, injustices and inefficiencies of this local provision were widely recognised, and the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker, were resolved to replace it with a truly national system offering the same rights to all pupils wherever they live.

However, the one exception Thatcher and Baker allowed was the subject called Religious Education. The 1944 Education Act had established a compromise position with regard to the control of schools, between the state on the one hand and churches and other religious organisations, who had had a historic role, on the other. And part of this compromise was the setting up of local 'Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education' (SACREs) to advise and monitor local education authorities and state-funded schools on the content of Religious Education. The 1988 Education Act permitted this local determination to continue undisturbed, even while national curricula for all other subjects were put in place.

In the 21st century there is no social or educational rationale for the continuance of local determination of religious education. It exists as a problematic hangover from history which survives merely because of the privileged position of churches and other religious organisations in our society. In contemporary Britain there is no justification for making any subject of the curriculum 'reflect local circumstances'.

In the three decades since the 1988 Act there has been growing public resentment against 'postcode lotteries' in a range of service areas. The local determination of the Religious Education curriculum by SACREs is a prime example of exactly such a lottery. It is probably now the mainstream view in the country at large that such irrational local variation is unacceptable. Nobody would suggest it would be sensible to teach decimals in Doncaster but not in Dunstable. By the same token it cannot possibly be reasonable that Buddhism be taught to children living in Bradford but not to those living in Bognor Regis. Surely if there is a body of knowledge called 'Religious Education', which is worthy of being taught at all, it should be offered to all children wherever they live? There are simply no grounds for discriminating on grounds of geographic location. If Religious Education deserves to be included in the school curriculum it should be offered to all as a basic entitlement for every future citizen. This is simply a matter of fundamental justice and equality.

Unfortunately there are still some prepared to defend the unfair arbitrariness of local determination. Paul Smalley, chair of the National Association of SACREs, said in response to the humanist challenge that membership of SACREs "should reflect broadly the proportionate strength of the denomination or religion in the area". Therefore, he added, "it would seem that in deciding whether to appoint a humanist representative an authority must satisfy itself that humanism is an 'other religion' that is part of the make-up of the principal religious tradition in the area, that humanist representation would reflect the strength of humanism in the area and that the person has authority to represent that tradition."

This statement is really quite preposterous and pretty much sums up everything that's wrong with religious education. RE should equip children with knowledge about and understanding of all the major religious and philosophical traditions, beliefs and values which have shaped human culture and history. It is particularly important for pupils to learn about religious cultures which are different from their own. What Mr Smalley advocates is the exact opposite and will lead at best to the reinforcement of particular religious beliefs and at worst to the inculcation of particular religious dogmas. This is the antithesis of education.

The current NSS campaign 21st Century RE for All seeks to give every pupil the same entitlement to high quality, non-partisan education about religion and belief. We want all children to appreciate the diversity of religious and non-religious worldviews in modern Britain. We believe that local determination should be ended and the SACREs abolished. Our view is that the construction and content of any nationally taught subject covering religion or belief should be determined in exactly the same way as other subjects, involving consultation with teachers, subject communities, academics, employers, higher education institutions and other interested parties, none of whom should have undue influence or veto.

Of course it is right that non-religious worldviews such as humanism should be included in any such curriculum. But in order to give it its proper place in the curriculum, humanists should not seek to create an 'other religion' and participate in the failing and discredited system of SACREs, but rather join us in calling for their abolition and the establishment of a universal national RE entitlement.

The PM must be held to account for her faith school obsession

The PM must be held to account for her faith school obsession

Opinion | Thu, 20 Jul 2017

Theresa May's plans to expand faith schools in Britain are ill-judged. In response, Chris Sloggett argues, it is up to secularists to make a principled case: state education must be grounded in reason and free intellectual enquiry.

Books in the library promoting rape and violence against women. Girls complaining that they were being prevented from integrating into wider society. An apparent culture of discrimination against LGBT people.

Welcome to the Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham, where boys are separated from girls from the ages of nine to 16. Last week, during an eye-opening case at the High Court, we saw what can happen when a conservative Islamic ethos takes hold in a school.

Then this week Sir Nick Weller, the executive principal of a chain of academies in Bradford, said there was an "unhealthy" degree of segregation in the city. Two groups of people lived "separate lives". Their children were educated at different schools.

"Bradford is almost two communities: the Muslim community and the white community," he said.

So what better time could there be for Theresa May to utter this gem at Prime Minister's Questions: "It's important to enable more faith schools to be set up and to expand"?

The Government, she added, will publish its response to a consultation on the issue soon. All the indications suggest the rules on admissions will be relaxed. Faith schools will become even more exclusive than they already are.

According to the Bishop of East Anglia, Alan Hopes, this is a welcome trend. "More faith schools will mean more diversity and more inclusivity in schools," he said yesterday. But extending schools' right to admit children based on their parents' religious views, and push a religious agenda on them once they are there, is an odd way to promote inclusion.

"Diversity" was also the argument advanced by some proponents of faith schools on last night's Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4. But when he was pressed on what that meant, one speaker said schools should be able to teach that homosexuality is wrong. Another said he advises his children that sexual encounters should be "within the context of marriage".

We should trust children to hear a broad range of intellectual perspectives, but opinions like these do not have a special right to be protected. In secular schools they would be subject to the same exposure and testing as any other idea. If that means they are defeated, we should welcome it.

And when some state-funded schools teach that rape in marriage is "wrong" and others teach that "well, maybe it isn't," perhaps a lack of diversity is not the problem. A strong society must accept an element of difference – but it must also be guided by a clear set of principles.

Advocates of faith schools tend to have two other main fallbacks. First they say that parents should be allowed to choose the education they want for their children. It is unclear how many of those who make this argument would react positively if taxpayers' money was spent on atheist schools where children attended collective recitals of The God Delusion or watched Christopher Hitchens videos every day.

But more importantly faith schools prevent plenty of parents who want to send their children to inclusive community schools from doing so. Faith schools use up scarce resources, and in many local authorities this leaves insufficient places elsewhere.

Lastly the faith schools lobby says: look at the statistics. These schools produce good results in public exams and Ofsted inspections. There is no need to change them.

But is that surprising when some schools are given a special right to manipulate their intake? Do we expect parents who take advantage of the system to raise their children in the same way as those who do not? And do the metrics reflect the purpose of education?

A faith-based ethos does not make a school successful. Clear, reasonable expectations do. Strong partnerships between teachers and parents do. Leaders who value responsibility, community and personal development do.

The case against faith schools is strengthened by the fact the UK is no longer a religious country. There is overwhelming public opposition among people of all faiths and none to relaxing the cap on religious admissions. And yet the Prime Minister is hardly being held to account for her position.

Her remarks made no more than a brief appearance in the Catholic newspaper The Tablet. Last year Labour's shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, made a passionate speech arguing against grammar schools, where segregation is based on ability. But she had nothing to say on dividing children on the far more nonsensical grounds of their parents' religious views. There was no mention of faith schools in Labour's general election manifesto.

So this is not simply a "Tory" problem. Both major parties seem to think it is too risky to take on faith groups and communities. Rolling back faith schools would be a step towards an education system which values everybody equally. But both the Conservatives and Labour are pandering to the interests of particular groups.

In these angry times, social cohesion is not in fashion on either side of the political spectrum. Identity politics is king. From the left comes the culturally relativist argument that minority communities need their own enclaves and rules, with the damaging implication that secular principles are no better than those held by religious fundamentalists. Translation: we must not touch Muslim schools, lest we be considered racist.

From the right we hear that British institutions are our defence against radical Islam. This means Christian faith schools should not have to pay the price for the sins of institutions such as Al-Hijrah. Perhaps we even need more of them, to assert 'our' own identity and give us strong moral guidance.

So on education, as on so many other issues, it is left to secularists to make the principled case based on universal values. Education should encourage a spirit of free intellectual enquiry. Children should be taught about ideas which have shaped the world, while also being given the chance to make their own minds up about existential questions. And young people should not be separated by their parents' religious leanings.

Chris Sloggett is the communications officer at the NSS and a former teacher. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

Ofsted head criticises segregation as Islamic school is taken over

Ofsted head criticises segregation as Islamic school is taken over

News | Tue, 18 Jul 2017

The chief inspector of the schools inspectorate Ofsted has spoken out against gender segregation in mixed-sex schools.

Pakistan puts pressure on Facebook to help punish 'blasphemers'

Pakistan puts pressure on Facebook to help punish 'blasphemers'

News | Fri, 21 Jul 2017

The Pakistani government is punishing people for social media posts which it considers blasphemous, and placing pressure on social media companies to help it do so.

Bradlaugh lecture to mark end of NSS’s anniversary celebrations

Bradlaugh lecture to mark end of NSS’s anniversary celebrations

News | Fri, 14 Jul 2017

A lecture at Manchester Art Gallery will pay tribute to the National Secular Society's founding president Charles Bradlaugh on 9 September.

If Pride means anything, LGBT+ must defend the rights of ex-Muslims

If Pride means anything, LGBT+ must defend the rights of ex-Muslims

By Emile Yusupoff and Robbie Travers, on Conatus News

The freedom to criticise religious homophobia does not end with Jesus. Criticism of Islamic homophobia must not be forced out of LGBT+ spaces. It's time for Ex-Muslims to be heard.

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