BHA: Government moves to ban organisations from exposing law-breaking schools unfairly restricting access to children and parents

From the British Humanist Association, 25 January:

Following a report published by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Fair Admissions Campaign (FAC) last year revealing that almost every religiously-selective school in England is breaking the law, the Education Secretary has announced she now plans to ban groups and organisations from officially raising concerns about the admission arrangements of schools. In a thinly veiled attack on the BHA, the ban, which was first suggested by a variety of religious organisations in a meeting with Department for Education (DfE) officials last year, is specifically targeted at ‘secular campaign groups’, according to Nicky Morgan. The BHA has described the proposal as an ‘affront to both democracy and the rule of law’, stating that it will allow religiously selective schools to continue abusing the system and unfairly discriminate against a huge number of children in the process.

Under current rules, any citizen or civil society organisation is allowed to lodge an objection with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) if they believe a school has failed to comply with the School Admissions Code. In the absence of a body actively enforcing compliance with the Code, these objections from parents, local authorities, charities, and other organisations, represent the only impartial means of ensuring that schools adhere to the law and do not attempt to manipulate their intakes.

Despite this, the Government is now proposing to prohibit organisations from lodging objections with the OSA, largely in response to a joint BHA/FAC report published last year. The report, entitled An Unholy Mess: How virtually all religiously selective schools are breaking the law, detailed the rulings of the OSA on the admission arrangements of a small sample of religiously selective schools, finding widespread violations of the Code in every case. These violations acted to prevent parents from gaining fair access to state schools and the consequent rulings added credence to long-standing concerns about the cynical way in which religious selection is carried out in ‘faith’ schools. These concerns were widely shared by parents and clearly indicated that more needs to be done to enforce the Code, not less.

The Education Secretary’s comments represent the first time Nicky Morgan has confirmed her plan to push ahead with the ban, stating: ‘we are ensuring only local parents and councils can object to admissions arrangements, which will also put a stop to vexatious complaints against faith schools by secularist campaign groups’. The Government have stated that they plan to launch a consultation on the proposals in the next few months.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented: ‘We all need to be clear about what is happening here. A near-universal failure to adhere to the law in a particular area has been identified. Instead of moving to enforce the law, the Government has responded by planning to make it harder to identify future violations of it. This is an affront to both democracy and the rule of law. It will reduce parents’ fair choice of state schools in the interests of the religious organisations that run them at taxpayers’ expense and demonstrates the Government is more interested in concealing the appalling record of religious schools manipulating their intakes than it is in addressing the serious problems this causes.

‘The report we published last year was provoked by the high volume of requests for help we receive every year from parents who are victims of the unfair system, and it revealed that a huge number of children are being unfairly denied places at their local schools due to the abuse of the admissions system by religiously-selective schools. Any restrictions on who can object will not only allow this to continue, it will encourage it by drastically reducing the accountability of the admissions process. The Government is due to consult on this draconian intervention in the next few months, and we will certainly be encouraging everyone who believes in a fairer, more transparent, and less discriminatory education system to respond and oppose the proposals.

‘In the past, civil servants from the Department for Education have often welcomed, indeed encouraged, ours and others’ exposing of schools that are frustrating Government policy by unfairly and unlawfully restricting parental access to and choice of state schools. This sudden change of attitude will be to the detriment not just of transparency in a vital public service, but also to the whole of society, and in particular to parents and children, in whose interest the publicly funded education system should surely be run.’

Notes

For further comment or information please contact BHA Faith Schools and Education Campaigner, Jay Harman, on jay@humanism.org.uk or 020 7324 3078.

Read the BHA/FAC report An Unholy Mess: How virtually all religiously selective schools are breaking the law: https://humanism.org.uk/2015/10/01/an-unholy-mess-new-report-reveals-near-universal-noncompliance-with-school-admissions-code-among-state-faith-schools-in-england/

Read the FAC’s briefing on the report: http://fairadmissions.org.uk/anunholymess-briefing/

Particularly notable findings of the report include:

  • Almost one in five schools were found to require practical or financial support to associated organisations – through voluntary activities such as flower arranging and choir-singing in churches or in the case of two Jewish schools, in requiring membership of synagogues (which costs money).
  • Over a quarter of schools were found to be religiously selecting in ways not deemed acceptable even by their relevant religious authorities – something which the London Oratory School was also found guilty of earlier this year.
  • A number of schools were found to have broken the Equality Act 2010 in directly discriminating on the basis of race or gender, with concerns also raised around discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and socio-economic status.
  • A majority of schools were found not to be sufficiently prioritising looked after and previously looked after children (LAC and PLAC) – in most cases discriminating in unlawful ways against LAC and PLAC who were not of the faith of the school, and in a few rare cases not prioritising LAC and PLAC at all. A quarter of schools were also found to not be making clear how children with statements of special educational needs were admitted.
  • Almost 90% of schools were found to be asking for information from parents that they do not need. This included asking parents to declare their support for the ethos of the school and even asking for applicants’ countries of origin, whether or not they speak English as an additional language, and if they have any medical issues.
  • Nearly every school was found to have problems related to the clarity, fairness, and objectivity of their admissions arrangements. This included a lack of clarity about the required frequency of religious worship and asking a religious leader to sign a form confirming religious observance, but not specifying what kind of observance is required.

The Fair Admissions Campaign wants all state-funded schools in England and Wales to be open equally to all children, without regard to religion or belief. The Campaign is supported by a wide coalition of individuals and national and local organisations. We hold diverse views on whether or not the state should fund faith schools. But we all believe that faith-based discrimination in access to schools that are funded by the taxpayer is wrong in principle and a cause of religious, ethnic, and socio-economic segregation, all of which are harmful to community cohesion. It is time it stopped.

Supporters of the campaign include the Accord Coalition, the British Humanist Association, Professor Ted Cantle and the iCoCo Foundation, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Campaign for State Education, the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education, the Christian think tank Ekklesia, the Hindu Academy, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrat Education Association, Liberal Youth, the Local Schools Network, Richmond Inclusive Schools Campaign, the Runnymede Trust, the Socialist Educational Association, and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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Judge: exclusion of humanism from religious studies is wrong

 

 

By Barry Duke in The Freethinker:

In a landmark ruling today, High Court judge Mr Justice Warby, above, found that the British Government was wrong to exclude humanism from the GCSE RS subject curriculum.

The exclusion, according to this report, flew in the face of the Government’s own consultation results, and went against the opinion of RE subject experts and religious leaders.

Judge Warby ruled in favour of  three humanist parents and their children who challenged the Government’s rejection of non-religious worldviews in the latest subject content for GCSE Religious Studies.

The families claimed that Education Secretary Nicky Morgan had “skewed” the teaching of religion in schools by leaving out “non-religious world views” from the syllabus.

The families, supported by the British Humanist Association, argued there was widespread concern about:

The failure [by Mrs Morgan] to comply with her duty of neutrality and impartiality as between religious and other beliefs.

In his decision, the judge stated that the Government had made an “error of law” that amounted to:

A breach of the duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner.

While the Government will not be immediately compelled to change the GSCE, religious education syllabuses around the country will now have to put non-religious world views such as humanism on an equal footing, and pupils taking a GCSE will also have to learn about non-religious belief systems.

The judge said:

In carrying out its educational functions the state owes parents a positive duty to respect their religious and philosophical convictions … the state has a duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner … the state must accord equal respect to different religious convictions, and to non-religious beliefs; it is not entitled to discriminate between religions and beliefs on a qualitative basis; its duties must be performed from a standpoint of neutrality and impartiality as regards the quality and validity of parents’ convictions.

The Department for Education will now have to take action in response to the judgement against it. Further meetings will now take place between the parties to decide what steps must now be taken to ensure non-religious world views such as humanism are included.

Kate Bielby, one of the parents acting as a claimant in the case, commented:

My daughter and I are delighted by today’s decision and the clear statement that it makes in support of equality of religion and belief. It is long past time that the beliefs of the non-religious were treated on an equal footing with religions in the school curriculum.

I am confident that whatever changes are introduced on the back of this judgement, Religious Studies will be a fairer, more inclusive subject, benefitting all children whatever their religious or non-religious background.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed the landmark decision, and its Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

We have made the case for many decades that the school curriculum on religions should include major non-religious worldviews such as humanism. It is great news that the Court has now said the law is with us.

This is a stunning victory for the three humanist families who stood up to the Government on this issue. It is also a victory for the vast majority of people who believe in the importance of a religious education curriculum that is inclusive, balanced, and pluralistic, and which contributes to mutual understanding between people of all religions and none.

We look forward to working with the Government to ensure that the changes required by the judgement are implemented and hope they will use this as an opportunity to improve the GCSE for the benefit of all children. Continuing to exclude the views of a huge number of Britons, in the face of majority public opinion and all expert advice, would only be to the detriment of education in this country and a shameful path to follow.

NSS: Government’s anti-extremism plans will have ‘chilling effect’ on free speech

The National Secular Society has expressed concern at the Government’s new proposals to challenge extremism and radicalisation.

Home Secretary Theresa May has announced renewed plans to introduce “extremism disruption orders” that would target those spreading extremist ideology.

David Cameron said: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.”

The Guardian reported in 2014 that the EDOs, then blocked by the Liberal Democrats under the Coalition Government, would include “a ban on broadcasting and a requirement to submit to the police in advance any proposed publication on the web, social media or in print.”

NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood commented: “The Government should have every tool possible to tackle extremism and terrorism, but there is a huge arsenal of laws already in place and a much better case needs to be made for introducing draconian measures such as Extremism Disruption Orders, which are almost unchallengeable and deprive individuals of their liberties.”

The NSS is concerned that the plans are currently very vague, and would have a chilling effect on free speech. The Society is calling for a stronger civil society response to counter extremism, and is critical of an approach that relies too much on new legislation.

The Christian Institute also criticised the proposed “Extremism Disruption Orders”. Simon Calvert, spokesperson for the Christian Institute, said: “While everyone applauds the principle of tackling Islamic extremism, comments by David Cameron and other senior members of the Government suggest EDO’s will exceed even Labour’s notorious religious hatred Bill or Section 5 of the Public Order Act.”

The NSS and the Christian Institute worked together, along with other civil liberties organisations to defeat the then-Labour Government’s proposals to criminalise “deliberately insulting a religion.”

Mr Calvert continued: “Last year the Government was forced to back down on proposals to outlaw ‘being annoying in a public place’. Now it looks like they are returning to their theme with a vengeance.

“The Christian Institute warns the Government not to rush through these measures, but to engage with groups with a track record of defending free speech.

“In the current climate, there is a real risk that EDOs will be used to clamp down on legitimate expressions of dissent.

“If the Government does not ensure that there are adequate safeguards, then, because of the low burden of proof, it is perfectly plausible that comedians, satirists, campaign groups, religious groups, secularist groups, and even journalists could find themselves subject to these draconian measures.”

A Telegraph editorial called on the Government to safeguard free speech, and argued that “In trying to protect democracy, the Government should be careful not to water down further our most precious value: freedom of expression.”

The Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank, was also critical of the Government’s plans.

Media coverage of BHA’s letter in response to the Prime Minister

The British Humanist Association organised an open letter which was published in the Telegraph on Easter Monday, challenging recent statements by the Prime Minister which referred to Britain as a ‘Christian country’. The letter’s lead signatory was BHA’s President, the physicist and broadcaster Professor Jim Al-Khalili, and it was co-signed by almost sixty other public figures – including Nobel Laureates, peers, philosophers, campaigners, authors, broadcasters, and academics.

The story was then picked up by hundreds of media outlets both in the UK and around the world. Several of the signatories appeared on TV news programmes, and BHA’s Chief Executive, Andrew Copson, spoke on different local radio stations including Radio Shropshire. A selection of TV and radio clips can be found here.

David Cameron fosters division by calling Britain a ‘Christian country’

Letter from some public figures in the Daily Telegraph on SundayMonday, 210 April:

SIR – We respect the Prime Minister’s right to his religious beliefs and the fact that they necessarily affect his own life as a politician. However, we object to his characterisation of Britain as a “Christian country” and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.

Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a “Christian country”. Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.

At a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society.

Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society. Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. This needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili
Philip Pullman
Tim Minchin
Dr Simon Singh
Ken Follett
Dr Adam Rutherford
Sir John Sulston
Sir David Smith
Professor Jonathan Glover
Professor Anthony Grayling
Nick Ross
Virginia Ironside
Professor Steven Rose
Natalie Haynes
Peter Tatchell
Professor Raymond Tallis
Dr Iolo ap Gwynn
Stephen Volk
Professor Steve Jones
Sir Terry Pratchett
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Richard Bartle
Sian Berry
C J De Mooi
Professor John A Lee
Professor Richard Norman
Zoe Margolis
Joan Smith
Michael Gore
Derek McAuley
Lorraine Barratt
Dr Susan Blackmore
Dr Harry Stopes-Roe
Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC
Adele Anderson
Dr Helena Cronin
Professor Alice Roberts
Professor Chris French
Sir Tom Blundell
Maureen Duffy
Baroness Whitaker
Lord Avebury
Richard Herring
Martin Rowson
Tony Hawks
Peter Cave
Diane Munday
Professor Norman MacLean
Professor Sir Harold Kroto
Sir Richard Dalton
Sir David Blatherwick
Michael Rubenstein
Polly Toynbee
Lord O’Neill
Dan Snow

The Telegraph has published an article on this:

David Cameron is sowing sectarianism and division by insisting that Britain is still a “Christian country” an alliance of writers, scientists, philophers and politicians has claimed.

In a letter to The Telegraph, 55 public figures from a range of political backgrounds accuse him of fostering “alienation” and actively harming society by repeatedly emphasising Christianity.

The group, which includes writers such as Philip Pullman and Sir Terry Pratchett, Nobel Prize winning scientists, prominent broadcasters and even some comedians argue that members of the elected Government have no right to “actively prioritise” religion or any particular faith.

Read more…

Prime Minister repeats ‘Christian Britain’ fallacy, promises to expand role of religion in Britain

BHA logoFrom the British Humanist Association (BHA):

Echoing the deeply mistaken comments of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles MP earlier this week, the Prime Minister David Cameron has today repeated the assertion that ‘Britain is a Christian country and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so’ at a reception for Christians at Downing Street. Like Mr Pickles’, the Prime Minister’s remarks misrepresent the true nature of Britain and give further cause for concern that government is seeking to politicise religion and misrepresent the demography of the country for political ends.

More worryingly, the Prime Minister also promised that it was his mission ‘to expand the role of faith and faith organisations in this country.’ He claimed that this has been a ‘consistent theme’ of his government and that ‘there’s more [government] can do to help make it easier for faith organisations.’ He spoke out in favour of more ‘evangelism’ in the UK, and stressed the need for ‘more belief’.

In recent years, Government has made a number of attempts to ‘make it easier’ for religious organisations, and has ignored calls from equalities and human rights groups for changes to the contracting out of public services to religious groups, who under current law are immune from Equality Act and Human Rights Act requirements even when carrying out services on behalf of the public.

The Prime Minister celebrated the ‘Free Schools’ initiative for ‘allowing Church schools to expand.’ Religious schools are unpopular with the public and the BHA has been campaigning steadily in opposition to Government policy. The Fair Admissions Campaign, in which the BHA plays a lead role, has also been putting pressure on the Department for Education to change its policy regarding ‘faith’ schools, and it has repeatedly turned up evidence that the expansion of the role of religion in our education system is disadvantaging local communities through discriminatory admissions policies.

Commenting on the Prime Minister’s remarks, BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson stated, ‘The vast majority of British people – who are not believing practising Christians – will deeply regret the comments of their Prime Minister today. He is wrong when he says that Britain is a Christian country: most of us aren’t Christian in our beliefs and our society has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. He is equally misguided in wanting to increase the role of religious organisations in our society. This divisive activity is unpopular and undemocratic and has negative consequences for the rights and freedoms of many in Britain. More generally, people certainly don’t want  religion to have more influence in government – in a 2006 IpsosMori poll, “religious groups and leaders” actually topped the list of domestic groups that people said had too much influence on government.’

In response to the Prime Minister’s comments on the persecution of Christians around the world, Mr Copson continued, ‘There is a consensus in modern Britain that everyone should have freedom of thought and belief and that persecution of anyone for their beliefs is wrong and should be stopped. It’s right that our country should take a lead in speaking out for oppressed minorities wherever and whoever they are. What is regrettable is that our Prime Minister should try to exceptionalise Christians in this way – Jews, non-religious people, Muslims, Buddhists and others are equally at risk in a range of ways that deserve our urgent attention.’

The BHA Census Campaign

British Humanist Association ‘lf you mean “No Religion” for god’s sake say so!’

Why does it matter?

The Census gives the official figures about various aspects of the population. Data is used by government both locally and centrally as evidence to back up their policy decisions. If the number of people who appear to be religious is inflated, policies regarding service delivery, equality work and many other areas will be affected.

The previous government used census figures in the preamble of their document Face to Face and Side by Side, which set out a number of policies which disadvantaged non-religious people and secular groups in the voluntary sector.

Local authorities use census data when making decisions about resource allocation and the types of organisation which they want to deliver services.

The 2001 figure stating that 72% of the population are ‘Christian’ has been used in a variety of negative ways, such as to justify the continuing presence of bishops in the House of Lords, to justify the state-funding of faith schools (and their expansion), to justify and increase religious broadcasting and to exclude the voices of non-religious people in Parliament and elsewhere.

If the 2011 census creates a similarly inaccurate figure, it may lead to further discrimination against non-religious people and greater privileging for religious groups and individuals, particularly if this is the last Census held.

Is there a Humanist box to tick?

No, Humanism is not one of the worldviews listed which has its own box. Instead, Humanists have two options. You can tick the ‘No Religion’ box or tick the ’Other’ box and write in ‘Humanist.’ Either way, you will be counted in the ‘No Religion’ category for the top-line results. However, in more detailed analysis, writing in ’Humanist’ may actually damage our argument as only very few people will write it in. This might make it look like there are only a few thousand Humanists in the UK, when we know there are millions! It is therefore best from our perspective to tick ‘No Religion.’

l wrote in ‘Jedi’ last time- should I do this again?

We understand that many people wrote in ‘Jedi’ as a form of protest at being asked about their beliefs. We are encouraging people to tick the ‘No Religion’ box instead for 2 reasons -1) in the top line analysis, a ‘Jedi’ would be counted as ‘No Religion’ anyway, 2) the more people who positively identify as non-religious, the better chance we have of ensuring secular services and policy.

I’m an agnostic- is there a box for me to tick?

No, but you can tick ‘other’ and write it in if you want to. lf you are agnostic on the question of God but otherwise non-religious, we would say you should tick the ‘No Religion’ box.

The question is not compulsory- shouldn’t I just refuse to answer it at all?

You can do, if you feel that that is the right thing for you to do. But we are strongly encouraging people to tick the ‘No Religion’ box if they are not religious as this will lead to more accurate results and better evidence to use in policy making.

What can we do as a local group?

The main work around the Census will be happening between October 2010 to March 2011 (the Census will be held in March.) During that time you can:

  • Support the campaign online – we will provide a link which you can upload on to your website to spread the word.
  • Support the campaign in the media – we will provide template letters and press releases to local media.
  • Support the campaign locally- we can provide you with contacts for your local authority who will be working on the Census. You can contact them and help them reach Humanists via your group.
  • Support the campaign publicly- we can help you run a public meeting on the issues to discuss the Census generally and the ‘religion’ questions specifically.

We are still in the planning stage of this new phase of the campaign. We want to hear your thoughts and ideas. Contact BHA to tell us what you think: pepper@humanism.org.uk 0207462 4992

The background

In 2001, the Census included a question on religion for the first  time. The question was ‘What is your religion?’ and has been widely criticised for being too leading. It resulted in just 14.6% of respondents in England and 18.63% in Wales ticking the ’None’ box despite other surveys and studies showing a much higher percentage of non-religious people. The Scottish figure, where respondents were asked about the religion they were brought up in, as well as their current religion, showed  significantly more respondents ticking ’None’: 27.55%, in spite of far higher figures for Church attendance in Scotland.

The BHA worked with the office of National Statistics (ONS) to try and improve the question for the 2011 Census. However, despite agreeing to the testing of alternative questions, and admitting that the existing question was flawed; the ONS took the decision to keep the same inadequate question for the 2011 Census.

What does it measure anyway?

There has been some debate about the usefulness of the question in  terms of what it hopes to achieve. There are so many aspects to the term ’religion’ and so many different interpretations of the meaning of the question, that it is difficult to work out if the final figure relates to the number of people who believe in the doctrines of a particular religion, actively practice the religion, personally identify themselves as a member of that religion, or simply have a vague cultural affiliation with a certain religion.

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