Friday, September 14, 2007

NSS newsline 14th September 2007

reposted from: NSS newsline 14th September 2007

National Secular Society (NSS) - Newsline,
''The primary meaning of Islam in Arabic is not 'peace,' but 'submission,' submission to the ideas and the values of Arab tribes living in the 7th century,''
(Ehsan Jami, leader of new Council of Dutch Ex-Muslims)

Government hands over school system to clerics
Schools Secretary Ed Balls has opened the way for the creation of hundreds of new sectarian schools at taxpayers' expense and has promised funds to take more than 100 private Islamic schools into the state sector.

But there were immediate warnings that setting up new "faith schools" could backfire by increasing religious tensions. The National Secular Society said the proposals would increase segregation and called them "plain madness". And a Muslim leader admitted the biggest obstacle to the opening of new Islamic state schools was public fears that they would "produce fundamentalists".

Mr Balls said the schools could be a "force for improving community relations" and warned that minority religions currently did not have enough free sectarian school places. The schools do not have to admit pupils of other religions if they are over-subscribed, and even if they are not, it is difficult to imagine more than a token attendance by those of other religions and none. They can follow their own curriculum for RE lessons.

The Government argues that bringing private minority faith schools into the state system would give Ministers greater control over establishments that currently operate with little supervision. A third of England's 21,000 state schools are already sectarian in nature, but the vast majority are Anglican or Catholic. There are 37 Jewish, seven Muslim, two Sikh, one Greek Orthodox and one Seventh Day Adventist. A Hindu school is due to open next year. Nearly 15,000 Muslim pupils and 11,000 Jewish ones are currently taught in private religious schools.

Concerns have been raised that some private Islamic schools are failing to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain. David Bell, when he was head of Ofsted, the schools inspection organisation, suggested some "faith schools" posed a threat to social cohesion. An Ofsted report on an independent Muslim school in Dewsbury found pupils were "not allowed to read newspapers or listen to radio or television programmes". Two Muslim schools in Scotland have been closed down because of inadequate standards.

And in April the Commission for Racial Equality said the UK was in danger of becoming a "mini America", with schools separated along religious and ethnic lines. It said Britain's segregated schools were a "ticking time-bomb waiting to explode".

Ministers have placed a duty on all state schools – including religious schools – to explicitly promote harmonious community relations, but that 'duty' is only voluntary. And they are encouraging faith groups to form alliances with other religions and run state schools together. They also say that new academy schools sponsored by faith groups should set aside half of places for pupils of different denominations or none.

Mr Balls' plan to make it easier for faith groups to set up state schools is outlined in a document published this week and it is, unsurprisingly, backed by those with most to gain – the leaders of the main religious sects (indeed, no-one else – particularly the non-religious – were consulted during the compiling of the report). It says the Government will "remove unnecessary barriers to the creation of new faith schools" of any denomination. Private faith schools would be offered cash to modernise and expand under the Government's £45billion school rebuilding programme. Mr Balls said the programme would allow communities to take a "long term view".

"There are 115 or 116 independent Muslim schools and seven maintained Muslim schools. All of those seven have transferred into the maintained sector from the independent sector," he said. "It should only happen if in the broadest sense the local community wants it. Where that is what the local community wants, it will provide the capital to make that possible."

Read the report

Editorial by Terry Sanderson
The abomination of sectarian schooling
Secularism in Britain took a mighty blow this week when the Government announced that it had been conniving behind closed doors with leaders of the "faith communities" to hand over hundreds more of Britain's schools to the clerical establishment. It will use taxpayers' money to achieve this multi-billion pound own-goal.

Ed Balls, the minister for education, published the results of his cosy chats with the bishops and imams, in the form of a report "Faith in the System". It was launched on Monday with the usual claims that more sectarian religious schools will somehow make community relations better and that private Muslim schools need to be brought into the state so that an eye can be kept on them.

He might as well have thrown in the claim that black is white and up is down.

How on earth can anybody argue that separating children on the basis of their parents' religion helps them understand each other? All the evidence shows that if you want to break down the destructive and dangerous barriers of race and religion, children from different cultures have to be educated together – on a daily basis – from a very early age. Unless this is done, as well as being inculcated with their parents' "faith", they are more likely also to inherit their parents' prejudices and sectarian tendencies.

And along comes Mr Balls (or more likely Lord Adonis, whose pious fingerprints are all over this document) to encourage that – using public money to do it. What on earth can they be thinking of? Votes, perhaps? For surely it is Labour who has most to lose if the Muslim community were to turn against it? It is in Labour constituencies that the concentrations of Muslims are most likely to be able to swing an election result.

And another pipe dream is the idea that currently the almost unsupervised private Muslim schools sector can be tamed if it is brought into the state sector. The imams must be rubbing their hands with glee at this development – no-one is more anxious than they to control the education of "their" communities, because they know that they can hammer home Islam in schools like nowhere else. If the state thinks it will change the direction of Muslim schools by bringing them into the state sector, it should think again. It is Muslim schools that will change the direction of the National Curriculum.

I will predict right now that as soon as these Islamic schools are brought into the state sector they will begin to demand exemptions (on grounds of "faith", of course) from the need to observe the National Curriculum. How long before their demands for no mixed sex classes, no swimming lessons, no music, no dancing, no science that contradicts the Koran, different lessons for girls and so on are acceded to?

Soon, Islamic education in the state sector will become exactly the same as it is in the private sector (it will have to be, or the parents who opted out of the state sector in the first place so that their children could have a strictly Islamic education will simply take their children back into the private sector, where madrassa-style 'education' can re-commence).

Regular readers of Newsline will know that enough evidence has now accumulated to show that religious schools are not all they are cracked up to be by the people with the greatest vested interest in their continuance.

Yes, they perform well in the league tables. But so do most selective schools. If you can pick and choose your intake, of course your academic achievement will be high. The performance of "faith schools" has been shown to be entirely connected to the selection criteria and has nothing whatever to do with "faith". And, of course, community schools are already victims of this cherry picking – they are the ones who have to take the problem kids and the unsupported kids who, unfortunately, don't qualify for "faith schools". Indeed, new evidence published this week contradicts claims by "faith-school" leaders that they are serving all sections of society. Rebecca Allen, of London University's Institute of Education, and Anne West, of the London School of Economics, said religious secondaries in London do not serve the most disadvantaged pupils. "Overall, religious schools educate a much smaller proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals and their intakes are significantly more affluent than the neighbourhood they are located in," they said. "Some London religious schools may have undergone a distortion of mission as happened with elite public schools, which were set up to educate the poor but then shifted their focus and catered predominantly for the wealthy."

Other injustices spring from these schools. The government has granted them shocking privileges in the way they select and employ staff. They are permitted to practise blatant religious discrimination in their employment policies, which is surely an affront to every human rights charter ever written. They force parents to lie and cheat in order to get their children in. They practically coerce people into attending church, sometimes against their conscience, in order to win places for their children which they have already paid for through their taxes. They force local authorities to make spiteful and petty decisions about who can ride on the school bus (see here and here).

They claim popular support, even though two polls within the past week (John Humphrys in the Times and the Readers Digest both commissioned YouGov polls) which both indicated that 52% of people think "faith schools" are a bad idea and should be stopped.

Parents clamour for places at "faith schools" because the system forces them to. If they want a place in a good school, they have to feign interest in the church and jump through humiliating hoops, in order to get the all-important vicar's letter. How has it come to this, that priests decide who can and cannot attend a state-funded school?

Keith Porteous Wood took part in a debate on Premier Christian radio with Jan Ainsworth, the Church of England's chief education officer this week. Ms Ainsworth insisted that no new church schools would be opened without the approval and consent of the local community. Where have we heard that before? I'll tell you – it was last time the government agreed to a large-scale expansion of "faith schools" five years ago. In actuality, such consultations with the local community are often over before anyone even knows they are happening. Or if parents do manage to find out about them before it's too late, their objections are dismissed out of hand.

An example of this was described this week in the Guardian, when it was revealed that the Marches Secularist Group had been told that it wasn't welcome to participate in a consultation on a new Church of England Academy because it was too closely associated with the National Secular Society. (Read the full story.)

Sectarian schools are an abomination, and they will benefit no-one but the clerics who want to use them to revive their dying religions. Ed Balls, Lord Adonis and Gordon Brown have done a massive disservice to this country with this pact with the churches. But then, they won't be around to pick up the pieces of the resulting conflict in generations to come.

Thomas Sutcliffe, Independent: "Faith in the System doesn't actually include a single piece of hard evidence that faith schools will 'promote community cohesion'. Nor does it seriously address any of the important issues about conflicts between religious teaching and the National Curriculum, or between employment rights and doctrinal prejudice. It simply offers a number of anecdotal examples of faith schools which attempt to redress their own cultural homogeneity with exchange visits, comparative religion studies and outreach programmes."
Dr Evan Harris MP: "If we have to have tax-funded faith schools then they should not be allowed to set religious tests for admissions and they must have religion-blind employment policies. Faith schools make existing racial segregation worse and when you adjust for social class their results are no better than community schools."
John Dunford, general secretary of headmasters' union ASCL: "The inherent danger of increasing the number of faith schools is that more schools will become monocultural and less able to promote inter-cultural understanding."
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster: "I welcome the public recognition of the contribution made by faith schools to the harmony of our society. An ongoing partnership between the Catholic Church and the Government based on the right of Catholic parents – under the Human Rights Act – to choose a Catholic education for their children is a proven way of forming youngsters as good British citizens."
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury: "Church schools offer not a programme of indoctrination, but the possibility of developing a greater level of community cohesion through the understanding of how faith shapes common life. This matters for the lives of individuals, whether they are believers or not – because the failure to understand how faith operates leaves us at sea in engaging with our neighbours at local and global level."
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers: "We question whether faith schools, particularly those where staff and children are chosen on a faith basis, provide an environment for 'interaction between different faiths and communities'. And we question why schools, in which the majority of funding comes from the state, should, as the Government proposes, nurture young people in a particular faith. Surely, the job of schools is to nurture children and young people as individuals and as responsible and compassionate global citizens, and the promotion of a particular religious viewpoint should remain the province of religious groups. Our members believe that we need schools which embrace the diversity within our community, not a diversity of schools dividing pupils and staff on religious grounds."
AC Grayling, The Guardian: "The secular majority in this country should bitterly oppose the use of their tax money for this misconceived policy. Religion, the bane of the modern world in so many respects, has got to be relegated to the private sphere and kept there."
See also: Ghettoes of superstition
The unbelievable privilege of faith
New school course on Islamophobia

52 per cent say "no" to faith schools and religious symbols
Muslim headscarves, crucifixes and Sikh bangles should be banned at schools unless they can be incorporated into the dress code, most parents polled in a survey by Reader's Digest said. Eighty-three per cent feel such religious symbols are unacceptable, while more than half (52 per cent) of parents also disapprove of faith schools, according to the poll by Reader's Digest
2nd Leader by Terry Sanderson
Religious education is not essential

Forgive my cynicism, but news that a new study into the "aims and effects of Religious Education in our schools" is to be carried out by a team of UK academics led by the University of Glasgow leaves me pretty queazy. Is this yet another way to slip more religion into our schools? Is the result of this "study" already decided? Is it just another excuse for the Government to turn our schools into centres of theology, rather than academic learning?

The £365,326 three-year project – led by Professor Jim Conroy, Dean of the Faculty of Education in the University of Glasgow and jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – aims to create "the single most comprehensive study to date of the state of RE across the UK."

Dr Paul Gilfillan, lead ethnographer on the study said: "This programme is a timely recognition of the importance research councils, academics and governments attach to religion and questions of culture, identity and meaning today in the quest for more cohesive communities. The findings of study will help inform the substantial public conversation on whether the inclusion of religious education as a compulsory subject in the curriculum contributes to social cohesion and diversity or is constitutive of social division."

Well, let's open that "public conversation" right now with this opinion: religious education in schools is not necessary and should be chucked out.

The argument from the proponents of more and more religion in schools is that – to paraphrase – "religion has become such an important topic these days that we cannot ignore it. Children need to know about the world's religions in order to function properly."

Poppycock. Far from needing more religion, they need less – far less. And what the enthusiasts for religious education really mean is that they want the freedom to proselytise in schools under the guise of "essential education."

The kind of religious education that happens in Britain's schools is patchy, but it is still under the control of the religious establishment. In state community schools, the content of religious education lessons is decided by local groups called SACREs (Standing Advisory Committees on Religious Education). Some of these try hard to make the lessons objective and informative, while some of them simply use them as a jumping off block for evangelising ("Let's find out how lovely Jesus is, boys and girls"). All SACREs are completely dominated by religious personages. Occasionally a humanist will be given a place, but they are not allowed to vote on anything and their presence can be counterproductive, in that it is used to justify decisions made by the vicars and priests on the committee who can then say: "Well, we've consulted everyone in the community, even the non-believers, and they're all happy with it." It makes opposition very difficult.

Is the gaining of a few minutes' acknowledgement of humanism in RE lessons worth the hundreds of hours of covert evangelising that will then be handed to the religious in schools, with the claim that RE is "all-inclusive?"

In voluntary-aided schools with a religious character, religious education is decided within the school, and that's when the religious establishment can really go to town. Nobody can stop them slanting their lessons in the direction of their particular religious viewpoint, and they all do.

The only solution is to dump the concept of religious education altogether. Get clerics out of the picture, and bring proper educationists in. If we're going to tell children about religion in schools, let's do it objectively. Let them hear the full story, in all its violent, corrupt glory, rather than the sugar-coated version they are fed at present. Incorporate discussion of religion into history and geography and literature lessons, where – as well as pointing out its moments of glory – it can be shown in its other, destructive mode.

Religion is important as a political and ideological phenomenon. That isn't what the proponents of religious education want to tell children about. They want to fill their heads with the idiotic fairy tales about miracles and gentle Jesus that are hard to shake off once they've taken hold in vulnerable young minds.

The poll reported below shows that 72% of 16–19 year olds say that religion is "not relevant to them". Why should it be? And why should schools be used to try to persuade them that it should be? No child will be in the least bit disadvantaged if they leave school not having studied the dubious lives of the Prophet or the Messiah or the Buddha. They can learn all that in their own time if they want to in church (there's one on every street corner), temple or synagogue.

However, they (and the rest of us) will be distinctly disadvantaged if they leave school imagining that religion is inevitably a force for good, and must be free from critical examination, whatever it does.

Half of teenagers are atheists
Nearly half of teenagers in Britain are atheists, according to a new Mori poll commissioned by the British Library.

43% of 16–19 year olds say they have no faith. In those over 20 it is 20%, and that goes down to 8% in the 65+ age group. Overall, 21% of the 2,030 people questioned say they have no faith. Of those who do not follow a religion, around one third say they used to be Christian (32%), while three in five have never followed a religion in the past (58%).

"Does this mean people tend to find faith or become more religious as they get older – or, alternatively, does it mean that the younger generation are increasingly less likely to follow a religion or have any belief?" said a British Library spokesperson. Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, responded: "This British Library spokesperson clearly hasn't been paying attention, or they would know that academics have resoundingly concluded that it is the latter. An exhaustive study of Scottish census data confirmed this."

Among those with a religion, around half "try to practise it a great deal or a fair amount in everyday life" (49%), although a similar proportion say they "do not practise religion very much, if at all" (50%).

Those aged 20 or over are more likely than those aged 16–19 to practise religion (50%, vs. 35%); women are also more likely to practise religion (54%, vs. 44% of men), as are those in higher socio-economic groups – 57% of ABs say this, compared to fewer than half of C2DEs (45%).

Looking at the different religions, Muslims are twice as likely to say that they try to practise religion "a great deal" or "a fair amount" in their day to day lives than Christians (92% vs. 46%).

Similarly, Muslims are much more likely to see religion as "relevant to their life" than Christians (95% vs. 54%), with fewer than half of the people polled saying this overall (43%). The 16–19 year olds are most likely to describe religion as "not relevant" (72% vs. 54% of those aged 20+). Nearly a quarter of those polled say that religion is relevant at all times in their lives (23%); this increases to a third among those aged 65+ (33%) , but falls to 14% among 16–19 year olds . Around a quarter of all people asked say that religion is never relevant (23%).

The event most likely to make religion more pertinent to people's lives is the death of a family member (45%). A further third cite weddings as important (31%), with a quarter mentioning the birth of a child (24%).

NSS Speaks Out
The Government's plans for more faith schools brought many opportunities for the NSS to comment: the BBC; The Press Association; the Times; the Sun; the London Evening Standard; the Daily Mail; the Daily Mirror and Ekklesia as well as the Birmingham Mail the Daily Star and the Church of England Newspaper.

Scottish representative Alistair McBay had a letter in the Times on Wednesday.

Keith was quoted in this story in the Daily Telegraph about the Sexual Orientation Regulations.

The NSS was quoted in a story in the Dorset Echo.

Keith debated with Anne Widdecombe about whether morality is collapsing in this country on BBC Radio Kent. He was also on Radio Norfolk.

Terry Sanderson took part in a debate on BBC Asian Network about religious symbols in schools on Friday.

Honorary Associate Dr Evan Harris MP spoke on the new ethics programme The Big Questions on BBC1 on Sunday morning.

Annual Reunion of Kindred Organisations at which the NSS, RPA, GALHA, BHA and other secularist organisations get together to socialise and tell each other about their activities and developments during the year. Keynote Speaker: Maryam Namazie, who is an NSS honorary associate and 2005 Secularist of the Year. Her topic: Apostates, ex-Muslims and the challenge to political Islam. Refreshments will be available. Ethical Society, Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Lonon WC1R 4RL. Sunday 30 September, 2.30pm.

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