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Newsline 26 September 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.

Education, not the veil, must come first in schools

Education, not the veil, must come first in schools

Opinion | Thu, 25 Sep 2014

Maajid Nawaz argues that a London girls' school is right to ban the Niqab on educational grounds.

British Muslims are facing yet another controversy. Camden School for Girls in London has introduced a strict dress code for its pupils. Part of the code states that pupils' faces should remain visible. As such, the school has insisted that a 16-year-old girl who gained admittance to study A levels must show her face when on school grounds.

A petition — yet another petition — has been started, claiming discrimination against Muslims and asserting religious freedom. The school must expect everything from protests and boycotts to sit-ins. But the real controversy is that this can even be a controversy. And I, like many other British Muslims, will once again collectively sigh: how on earth did we let it all come to this?

The answer is fear. We are all guilty, Muslim and non-Muslim, of decades of appeasing those with extreme ideas about "identity". As a result, other groups, mostly of the far right, have emerged with equal force.

The victims are the very powerless communities who we thought we were helping. They imagined they were being "authentically ethnic" while not realising they were in one of the most progressive countries in the world.

No, you do not have the freedom to wear what you like at school. There is a dress code, defined by the school itself. And just as pupils are not allowed to wear crash helmets or hoodies in schools, they are not allowed to wear the veil. Any policy but that would be discrimination.

Teachers must be able to verify, at all times, that everyone on school grounds is a pupil. For that, the face must be visible at all times. Teaching is about communication, and much communication happens through facial expressions. For that, the face must remain visible.

The religion of Islam, my religion, can be interpreted in many ways. The view that the face veil is obligatory is a minority position, heavily disputed by most Muslims. The first command in Islam was to "read", not to "cover up", and so education must always trump ritual. This country grants more religious freedom to practise Islam, or any other religion, than all the countries in which the face veil is enforced as law. We should say to any Muslim protesting against Camden School for Girls' decision: "You simply do not know how good you have it."

Maajid Nawaz is the chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank, and an NSS honorary associate. This article first appeared on the Times (£) and is reproduced here with the author's permission. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

A contested subject: religious education and faith schools

A contested subject: religious education and faith schools

Opinion | Tue, 23 Sep 2014

Reports of a Cabinet row over plans to require faith schools to teach more than one religion at GCSE level show that even baby steps towards greater objectivity in religious education will face fierce opposition, argues Alastair Lichten.

Secularists have had cause to be concerned about the Education Secretary's views on the relationship between religion and state; but Nicky Morgan's purported suggestion that faith schools should teach about at least two religions in GCSE religious education (RE) should be welcomed as a baby step towards much needed reform.

Objectively learning about different world views is an important part of a holistic education. For young people to understand the role religion plays in many people's lives and to decide for themselves what, if any, role they'd like it to play in theirs requires exposure to multiple viewpoints. This sends a message that they have the right to draw their own conclusions and make their own choices rather than have these dictated by adults – whether teachers, their parents or school authorities.

For both secularists and those that believe that state education should promote specific religious viewpoints, religious education is a key battleground.

One of the biggest concerns about faith schools is their ability to teach religious education from one specific viewpoint –which undermines both social cohesion and their pupils' right to an objective education.

Outrage about the biased approach towards religion tends to be more widespread when it happens is supposedly 'secular' schools, as in the case of some schools in Birmingham.

Following the 'Trojan Horse' affair, the Education Select Committee, among others, picked up on the problem of a "narrowing of the world view of the pupils" with religious education, at least in some of the schools, focusing exclusively on Islam.

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, believes that requiring all schools – including faith schools – to teach more than one religion will expose children to a wider range of views and help reduce extremism. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, whose disagreements with Ms Morgan's predecessor over tackling extremism reportedly contributed to him being moved on, is said to support the proposal.

It's unfortunate that this debate has been framed in terms of reducing extremism in schools. Although a good education probably does contribute to less extremism, framing the debate only in terms of counter extremism fails to recognise objective education as being important in its own right.

The Church of England, who this week admitted to serious weaknesses in the teaching of RE in Anglican schools, is said to be supportive of the new proposals.

The Church of England is the biggest beneficiary of state funding for faith schools and Christianity enjoys elevated status on the curriculum.

Being used to teaching about a variety of religious viewpoints – with theirs given special prominence - it's unsurprising that the Church feels less threatened by the proposals.

Catholic and Jewish schools, however, are more likely to teach RE from an exclusive position and both the Chief Rabbi and Archbishop of Westminster are reported to oppose the proposal. Even more than the Anglicans, Jewish and Catholic leaders may recognise that their faiths face an uncertain future in a country which is already majority non-religious and witnessing an unprecedented rise in the Muslim population.

It's not the first time that Ms Morgan's response to the problems highlighted by the 'Trojan Horse' affair have come under criticism from religious commentators. This week the Catholic Herald carried an editorial bemoaning that the promotion of 'British values' such as equality and tolerance would undermine Catholic schools' RE classes that teach the exclusive doctrine of "outside the Church no salvation".

Unsurprisingly, opposition from within the Cabinet has come from the Minister with a specific brief to apparently promote religious privilege. Eric Pickles, Community Secretary and new Minister for Faith, is, according to one Government source, concerned that this could: "Have a knock-on effect on the freedom of Catholic and Jewish schools to restrict their teachings to just their faith and preserve their distinctive ethos".

This statement is a microcosm of the problem with how religious education is arranged, and raises two important questions: what is the purpose of religious education and whose religious freedom is really at stake in our publicly-funded schools?

Advocates of RE as an academic subject argue that religious beliefs form an important part of many people's worldview. Good RE, goes the argument, is therefore important and necessary to help pupils understand the views of others – and of course, pupils need not accept the religious viewpoints discussed.

The sincerity of such claims needs vigorous scrutiny, as there is no doubt that the promotion of 'religious literacy' is sometimes used as a smokescreen to facilitate deference to religion. Mr Pickles' comments show the naked desire, most others at least try and politely obscure, for state education to be used to promote specific religious views.

In no other subject would the way in which we organise RE be seen as acceptable. No other statutory subject has its curriculum decided at a local level. No other subject has its content decided through the wrangling of religious special interest groups.

Mr Pickles' statement reflects a mind-set that 'religious freedom" doesn't belong to individuals but to faith groups. Their freedom to receive state support to spread their beliefs seems to be the only concern.

What about the religious freedom of pupils to decide for themselves? Faith schools label children by their parents' beliefs, and abuse the trust placed in them to deliver state education by using RE to enforce this identity.

A young person's educational experience will differ depending on what school they go to for all sorts of reasons. But whether a young person finds themselves at an academy, community or faith school, this shouldn't materially affect their right to a broad and balanced education.

Freedom of religion and belief protects the individual – not beliefs – and it seems education is the area where entrenched religious privilege impacts most on people's day to day lives.

With RE taught in such an inherently biased way, we should of course defend pupils and parents' rights to withdraw. But secularists must also set out a positive vision for how pupils can learn about religious, non-religious and secular philosophies and worldviews in an objective and balanced way. The National Secular Society briefing paper on Religious Education addresses many of these issues and sets out proposals for how we can move forward.

Sixth formers: You have the right to withdraw!

Sixth formers: You have the right to withdraw!

Opinion | Fri, 26 Sep 2014

Sixth form pupils can excuse themselves from acts of worship – but it appears some schools aren't so keen on recognising their students' rights to religious freedom.

Sixth form pupils over the age of sixteen have, since 2006, enjoyed the right to withdrawal themselves from acts of worship in schools – including in faith schools and academies.

So it has been surprising in recent weeks to receive calls into the NSS office from sixth form students experiencing difficulty when attempting to exercise this right.

In the two most recent cases, both schools were faith schools, and both pupils were themselves religious, but neither shared the faith designation of the school they attended.

In one case a practising Christian who regularly attends a Baptist Church requested permission not to attend the school's Church of England services. Rather than respecting the student's decision, the school's Head raised the possibility of expulsion.

In a second recent case, a Muslim student attending a Catholic school was told in no uncertain terms that if he wished to be a part of the school, he would have to attend all religious services and "take part by singing and saying the words".

The NSS campaigned hard during the passage of the Education and Inspections Act to make parliamentarians recognise that young people, like everyone else, have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – and that those old enough to make informed decisions for themselves should be allowed to do so.

It could be argued that many pupils under the age of sixteen have sufficient understanding and intelligence to make their own decisions about their beliefs – and should be regarded as legally competent to decide for themselves whether or not to worship.

But the law sets the bar at sixteen. That means the right to withdraw a student below that age rests with the parents – but students over sixteen can decide for themselves.

But the schools in question took the view that if the pupils (or their parents) had difficulty in accepting the school's religious ethos then they shouldn't have chosen the school in the first place.

The point these schools miss is that an overwhelmingly majority of parents don't choose faith schools because they're faith schools – they choose schools based on locality and academic success.

When polled, 77% of parents said their choice of school is made on the basis of its academic standards. 58% said that the location of the school influences their decision. Just 5% say they would choose on the basis of giving a "grounding in faith tradition"; and only 3% for "transmission of belief about God".

So it's wrong for any school – including faith schools – to assume the religion of its pupils. These are publicly funded schools – not churches. The vast majority of young people are there to be educated, not preached at.

Even if there were no statutory protection, there is simply no moral justification for forcing young people to take part in acts of worship with which they do not agree.

I'm pleased to report that having being alerted to both the unreasonableness and unlawfulness of their actions, both of the above-mentioned schools, have since repented – and acknowledged their pupils' right to withdraw.

Let's hope that one day soon our lawmakers will recognise that religious worship doesn't belong in schools and abolish the 70-year old requirement. Instead, schools should be ensuring that their assemblies are relevant, respectful and inclusive of all their pupils, whatever their religious backgrounds.

Until that time, at least sixth formers can decide for themselves whether or not to take part in acts of worship – provided that is, that their schools obey the law.

Widespread socio-economic segregation caused by religiously selective admissions revealed

Widespread socio-economic segregation caused by religiously selective admissions revealed

The Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC) has revealed startling new insight about the extent to which selection by faith leads to greater socio-economic segregation in England's state funded school system.

Teaching religion in schools: should five-year-olds be taught to 'thank God for nature'?

Teaching religion in schools: should five-year-olds be taught to 'thank God for nature'?

This term, the children in Year One of our local primary school will be spending their weekly RE lessons 'thanking God for nature'. So says a letter that was sent home to parents at the beginning of this term.

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