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Newsline 21 March 2014

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We must give up our faith in religious schools

We must give up our faith in religious schools

Opinion | Fri, 14 Mar 2014

If social integration is the aspiration, we should start in schools and remove faith schools' right to religious selection, argues Philip Collins.

The task of living together well is the dilemma of the diverse modern city. I saw this at its most acute in the years I lived near the West Bank. Not the landlocked area that forms the bulk of the Palestinian territories, which David Cameron visited yesterday, but the street of that name in Stamford Hill, London N16.

On my side of the bank, people mostly like me lived out their lives of cosmopolitan prosperity, spending their days in town and their nights in the restaurants of Church Street. On the other side, 100 yards away, the largest community of Hasidic Jews in Europe lived, worked and went to school in what they called their "square mile of piety". The men of the area walked the streets in the clothes their predecessors would have worn in the shtetl back in the Congress Kingdom of Poland.

No conversation passed between the two communities, no pleasant greetings were exchanged on the rare occasions somebody crossed to the wrong side of the bank. We lived our separate and incommensurate lives in our cultural redoubts, happily and peacefully ignoring each other. I wondered at the time, and I wonder now, whether we were the very model of multiculturalism or whether, in our ignorant tolerance of each other, we were the problem that multiculturalism creates.

The way this dilemma turns up in public policy is through schools. It is only in school that we all establish a daily relationship with others who are both providing and receiving a public service. Health and welfare are episodic experiences that we draw upon when need arises. It is only in schools that we are locked into a space with the same others day after day. The Prime Minister has spoken frequently of the importance of integration. Two days ago, he defended the religious practice of shechita on the grounds that Jewish people in Britain had taken great pains to integrate.

So, if integration is an important principle in the public realm and schools are the place where we most frequently come together, then the writ of integration must surely run in schools. Except that it doesn't, as we discovered when Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, chose a faith school for his daughter's education last week. Faith schools are the only state-funded institutions with a specific exemption from the Equality Act that permits them to distinguish between people on the grounds of belief. Fifteen per cent of children attend schools that select according to religious identity. Faith schools have 90 per cent of their capital costs and all of their running costs paid by public grant, and yet are still permitted to place restrictions on admissions, the content of the curriculum and school worship.

This was once justified as alms to the poor. The 19th-century Church provided elementary education in areas of great destitution where no other option was available. This was missionary work in poor places and one would have to be excessively secular at heart to say that no good was done thereby.

This defence, however, is no longer available. It is enough to restore your faith in miracles to see the pews of the churches fill with parents who find their lost faith, albeit briefly, in perfect alignment with the passage of Junior from primary to secondary. This is just selection on its knees in prayer. Church of England secondary schools admit 10 per cent fewer pupils eligible for free school meals than live in the catchment area. The other faiths are worse. The Roman Catholic schools have a deficit, on the same measure, of 24 per cent, Muslim schools of 25 per cent and Jewish schools of 61 per cent.

It is the selective intake, in which social class wears the disguise of a religious affiliation, that is the clue to the fact that faith schools are good academically. When the advocates of integration feel uncomfortable in their contradictory defence of schools that separate pupils by religion, they switch their defence to the success of the school. Does it really make sense, they ask, when the urgent task is to create more good schools, to close down some of the best ones in the land?

Well, no, put like that it makes no sense at all, but it is important to clarify what makes for a good school. After decades of experiments in schooling, after many ventures in reform, we know a great deal about the constituent parts of a first-rate school. In a fine book calledLessons Learned, Fenton Whelan has done the considerable service of distilling them. The most important factor of all is the quality of teaching. Recruiting the best possible people into teaching matters massively more than anything else. Schools need tough leadership and accountability to the discipline of inspection.

In exhaustive detail drawn from the Middle East, Singapore, Canada, China, the United States and the OECD countries as well as Britain, Mr Whelan finds these are always and in all places the categories that govern a good school. Faith, you will note, is not among them. The word faith is absent from Mr Whelan's index. It hasn't got anything to do with good education at all. The idea that, in good schools, "faith" is the determining factor defies a basic acquaintance with the evidence.

On the basis of no educational necessity, therefore, we avert our eyes from Academy chains that sneak in creationist teaching, or the London Oratory School, which gave extra weight to parents who had sung in the choir, served at the altar or arranged the flowers in church before Mass. Back on the West Bank, the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls' School in Stamford Hill wrote Shakespeare out of the curriculum on account of his anti-Semitism. The school was also found to have blacked out a question on evolution in a GCSE science exam.

Schools are selecting pupils on criteria irrelevant to education, and offering a curriculum with a gloss of obscurantism. Nobody worries about indoctrination in the vast majority of Church of England primary schools. It is where two peoples living parallel lives, on either side of a bank and a divide, are being schooled separately that the problem arises.

Religious certainty is incompatible with open inquiry; religion offers a closed answer to an ineffable question. What you believe in your own time is your affair but it is not relevant to the public education of children. It would be an easy matter simply to remove the right to religious selection. No schools would close and nothing would get worse. It would just be a modest removal of an irrelevant obstacle to good schools for children whose parents kneel before the wrong deity.

Philip Collins is a columnist and chief leader writer for The Times. He is also the chair of the board of trustees at the independent think tank Demos. Before joining The Times he was the chief speech writer for the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. This article was first published in The Times, and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Sharia law is well and truly operating in the UK – thanks to the Law Society

Sharia law is well and truly operating in the UK – thanks to the Law Society

Opinion | Fri, 21 Mar 2014

Sadikur Rahman, of the Lawyers Secular Society, fears a practice note issued by the Law Society could compromise the Code of Conduct for solicitors and increase the application of Sharia law in the UK.

It was with incredulity that I saw this practice note issued by the Law Society last week.

Lawyers will know that practice notes issued by the Law Society are guidance on best practice for specific topics or areas of law.

This practice note provides guidance to lawyers specialising in areas such as wills, succession and inheritance, and in particular how to accommodate the wishes of clients who want to ensure their assets are distributed according to 'sharia law principles' on their death.

I'm not a wills lawyer, but according to memory in the UK unless you draw up a will, on death your estate will be distributed according to the rules of intestacy. I'm sure most lawyers will also say that clients can do whatever they want with their assets, and it has always been the case that a lawyer must follow the client's instructions on such issues.

But what this guidance does is legitimise discrimination towards women and "illegitimate children" – if that term still has any meaning in English law. In an astonishing few paragraphs the guidance states (at Section 3.6):

"The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class. Non-Muslims may not inherit at all, and only Muslim marriages are recognised. Similarly, a divorced spouse is no longer a Sharia heir, as the entitlement depends on a valid Muslim marriage existing at the date of death.

"This means you should amend or delete some standard will clauses. For example, you should consider excluding the provisions of s33 of the Wills Act 1837 because these operate to pass a gift to the children of a deceased 'descendent'. Under Sharia rules, the children of a deceased heir have no entitlement, although they can benefit from the freely disposable third.

"Similarly, you should amend clauses which define the term 'children' or 'issue' to exclude those who are illegitimate or adopted."

Now, of course a person has always been able to distribute their assets in any way they wish and a Muslim may completely legally have distributed their assets according to sharia principles, without letting the lawyer know the basis of the instructions. The difference now is that a solicitor could offer this service to a Muslim client and the Muslim client can say they want to distribute their assets in a certain way because of their religious requirement.

This guidance essentially provides legitimacy to use a system of law that is discriminatory towards women, particularly in the area of inheritance provisions. There seems no recognition of the fact that solicitors are being asked to use and accommodate instructions which in any other circumstances would be socially unacceptable or at which a solicitor may balk. Suppose a client instructed that their assets should not go to a relative because they happened to be of a different colour?

This raises serious questions about professional ethics and the role of the Law Society. The guidance seems not to recognise that there is a serious potential conflict between the Code of Conduct for solicitors and the guidance. Here is what the Code of Conduct – which all solicitors must abide by – says about equality and diversity (at Chapter 2):

"This chapter is about encouraging equality of opportunity and respect for diversity, and preventing unlawful discrimination, in your relationship with your clients and others. The requirements apply in relation to age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

"Everyone needs to contribute to compliance with these requirements, for example by treating each other, and clients, fairly and with respect, by embedding such values in the workplace and by challenging inappropriate behaviour and processes. Your role in embedding these values will vary depending on your role.

"As a matter of general law you must comply with requirements set out in legislation – including the Equality Act 2010 – as well as the conduct duties contained in this chapter."

The Code of Conduct makes it clear that solicitors cannot discriminate, yet this guidance is encouraging us to facilitate discrimination in advising Muslim clients on their wills. Even accepting that testators have the right to act in a discriminatory fashion with their assets if they choose to, this guidance encourages solicitors to adopt a different approach to clients who are deemed "different" – in this case clients who are Muslim. It creates a damaging assumption that Muslims on their death will want to distribute their assets in accordance with sharia law – with all the discrimination that comes with that. This is the "racism of lower expectations". Furthermore, the Law Society has set the scene for further disharmony: the guidance states at Section 1.2 that "There are specific differences between Sunni and Shia rules on succession. These differences are not covered in this practice note…" In time will the Law Society publish different guidance notes for different branches of Islam? Should it be the role of a secular organisation such as the Law Society – an organisation which occupies precious ground in our democracy – to take a view on theological matters?

The language in the guidance is innocuous and very technical, suggesting somehow that it is nothing unusual and just another area of legitimate expertise for solicitors. It is nothing of the sort. It is a dangerous precedent: legitimising a discriminatory practice, which without this guidance clients may have been embarrassed to ask about. But now that the Law Society has said it's perfectly fine for lawyers to draft wills in this manner, I'm afraid it will become increasingly prevalent in England. It also sows the seeds for more sharia law in other areas.

The guidance should be withdrawn. Solicitors are still officers of the Court and have a duty as clearly stated in the Code of Conduct to abide by the Equality Act. How solicitors can do this and still draft "sharia compliant" wills is beyond me.

Sadikur Rahman is a member of the Lawyers Secular Society. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the LSS or of the NSS.

The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis

The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis

Opinion | Wed, 19 Mar 2014

In England, Catholic leaders have fostered the impression that the English church has been relatively scandal-free, and that such problems as did exist were eliminated by the Nolan reforms. A new book by Richard Scorer, head of the abuse unit at Slater & Gordon lawyers, interrogates that claim.

The excellent campaigning work by the NSS on the Catholic abuse crisis has focussed on the Vatican, and with good reason: the Vatican stands at the apex of the worldwide Catholic Church, a uniquely centralised institution, and the Vatican must bear primary responsibility for the culture of denial and cover up which has now been exposed in Catholic institutions around the world. But in challenging the Vatican, we should not overlook events nearer home. In England, Catholic leaders have fostered the impression that the English church has been relatively scandal-free, and that such problems as did exist were eliminated by the Nolan reforms, a raft of changes to child protection introduced in 2001. In my book, Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis, published on 27 March, I interrogate that claim. By examining the detail of cases over a 50 year period, I show that the patterns of institutional denial and cover-up that have characterised the Catholic abuse scandal in other parts of the world have been pervasive here too.

I also examine whether the Catholic Church in England has dealt successfully with past problems, as it claims. Underlying this issue is a tension between the secular approach to child protection and the approach mandated by canon law, the internal law of the Catholic Church.

At the heart of modern child protection is the 'paramountcy principle'. This is the legal principle that the interests of children have primacy and so (for example) if a person is suspected on credible evidence of abusing children he/she may be suspended from contact with children whilst a full investigation takes place. Canon law operates very differently: a priest cannot be suspended without a full canonical trial and a verdict meeting the standard of 'moral certainty'. That canonical trial, of course, would be presided over, in secret, by the suspect's fellow priests, so as a mechanism for dealing with abuse allegations canon law is inherently unsuitable.

The history of Catholic abuse scandals in England and Wales shows why the secular approach to child protection is so necessary. Time and again, allegations about priests were simply dismissed or the priest was moved elsewhere where he would be free to abuse again. The protection of the institution was paramount, not the protection of children.

As a result of various scandals, in 1994 the Catholic church of England and Wales issued guidelines for dealing with abuse. These guidelines included, in theory, support for the paramountcy principle, but the guidelines had no legal force within the church and so were completely ineffective. In my book I give examples of cases where the guidelines were simply ignored by Bishops, resulting in paedophile priests being allowed to carry on abusing children.

Continuing scandals throughout the 1990s forced the English church to introduce the Nolan reforms, a further and, on the face of it, more comprehensive raft of changes to child protection in 2001. Nolan endorsed the 'paramountcy principle'. Since 2001, the Catholic Church has maintained that it has 'gold standard safeguarding' in England and Wales. So how safe is Catholic safeguarding now?

It is true that the Catholic Church is England is now better than it was at reporting new allegations to the statutory authorities, although many victims some would say the level of media attention leaves it with little option. A mandatory reporting law, which we urgently need, would ensure that there is no scope for backsliding. But there have also been flaws in the Nolan process. For one thing, Nolan did not cover the whole Catholic church, so we have seen continuing scandals in Catholic institutions in the past ten years: at one Catholic (Benedictine) school attached to a monastery in West London, a monk was found by a civil court in 2006 to have abused a child, but the monk continued to have access to children and subsequently went on to abuse another boy, offences for which he was later convicted. Secondly, the church continues to resist support and fair compensation for victims, exploiting every possible legal loophole. Thirdly, the church has failed to laicise (defrock) convicted priests speedily and transparently as recommended by Nolan. To give just one example, 2 priests convicted and jailed in 2005 of sexual abuse of children at Ampleforth were still appearing in the official list of priests of England and Wales in 2008, some 3 years after their convictions and seven years after the Nolan reforms were supposed to have taken effect.

Moreover, the paramountcy principle is still not embodied in the law of the church. In a review of the Nolan reforms in 2007, Baroness Cumberlege urged that the paramountcy principle and the rest of the Nolan package be given 'recognitio' by the Vatican, i.e. recognised as part of the formal law of the church. Seven years on, this has not happened, so the Nolan reforms remain merely 'recommendations', not obligatory legal norms, and can be disregarded if a Bishop so chooses - precisely the problem with the previous set of guidelines in 1994.

It is unclear why 'recognitio' has not yet been secured. When I raised this point last week, Danny Sullivan, of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, told The Tablet that he is currently in discussions with Rome about the 'possibility' of recognitio. But we are seven years on from the Cumberlege report which urged this. Why the leisurely pace? We can only guess, but given past history survivors cannot start to have confidence in current safeguarding arrangements until modern child protection principles have legal force in the Church.

Purchase Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis, published by Biteback Books

The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Last chance to buy tickets for Secularist of the Year

Last chance to buy tickets for Secularist of the Year

News | Fri, 21 Mar 2014

With just a week to go until Secularist of the Year, time is running out to get your tickets for the highlight of the secular social calendar.

NSS Speaks Out

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood was quoted in a BBC feature about how chancel repair liability is causing distress all over the country.

Our campaigns manager Stephen Evans was quoted in the Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail, Independent, Breitbart News BBC, and Pink News after the BBC dropped a debate about homosexuality from a live BBC Three panel discussion show following objections from Birmingham Central Mosque in which the programme was being filmed.

Terry Sanderson discussed the BBCs actions on Radio 4's Today Programme, and also took part in a discussion on LBC about religious education in schools.

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