Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Evan Harris Secularist Manifesto

source: Guardian
Evan Harris was an MP who lost his Oxford Libdem seat at the May 2010 Election. He did some great work for Humanism and Secularism whilst he was an MP. Harris is a humanist, and is a Vice President of the British Humanist Association. He was also a vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, before his defeat in the 2010 general election.In addition, he is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society

Secularism is unfairly characterised and attacked by religious leaders as a way of seeking to protect their privileges.
Secularism is not atheism (lack of belief in God) and nor is it humanism (a nonreligious belief system). It is a political movement seeking specific policy end-points. Many secularists are religious and many religious people – recognising the value of keeping government and religion separate – are secular.
Secularism seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religious and other belief, seeks to maximise freedom of religious and other expression and protect the right to manifest religious belief insofar as it does not impinge disproportionately on the rights and freedoms of others. This is essentially a summary of article 9 of the European convention on human rights. In addition secularism aims to end religious privileges or persecutions and to fully separate the state from religion which is a necessary means to that end.
A manifesto for secularist change would look like this:
1. Protect free religious expression that does not directly incite violence or crimes against others or publicly and directly cause someone distress or alarm.
This is why secularists:
• Led the battle against Tony Blair's over-broad religious hatred bill working alongside some religious people who wanted the freedom to attack other religions and against some religious organisations.
• Achieved a singular success with the abolition of EnglishChristian-only blasphemy laws.
• Seek to abolish public order offences that lead the police to question religious people for speaking their minds, short of direct abuse of someone else.
• Oppose a defamation of religion law that has been proposed at the UN by some Muslim-majority states.
• Oppose burqa bans except where it is necessary for security, safety or effective delivery of public services
• Support the right of Muslims to build mosques subject to normal planning rules
2. End discrimination against nonreligious belief systems or organisations by ending their exclusion from:
• Protected religious broadcasting slots.
• Committees that draw up the syllabus for religious studies.
• Bodies that advise the government on matters relating to religion.
3. End unjustified religious discrimination by:
• Stopping faith schools from sacking or rejecting a teacher based on his/her religion or marital status.
• Preventing state-funded faiths schools from discriminating against, and segregating, children on religious grounds.
• Allowing royals to marry Catholics by amending the anti-Catholic Act of Settlement.
4. Where religious organisations join others in delivering public services, ensure they do so without:
• Discriminating against their employees.
• Withholding services from users on religious or sexual grounds.
• Proselytising when delivering that service. 
5. Limit the right of religious people delivering public services (for example marriage registrars, judges, pharmacists, or care workers) to conscientiously object to carrying out lawful parts of their job to rare and specific exemptions (eg doctors and abortion) agreed by parliament.
6. Allow for reasonable adjustment to cater for religious practice in employment or in facilities (eg Sikh turbans in the police force, the hijab or kara in uniform policies, and prayer facilities in the workplace) but not to extend this to a blanket religious exemption based on subjective feelings, nor to impose religious practice on nonbelievers.
7. Cease religious inculcation by the state by ending compulsory worship in schools and making religious education the study of what religions and other belief systems believe, rather than instruction in what to believe.
8. Disconnect religion from the state by:
• Disestablishing the Church of England.
• Ending prayer in the parliamentary or council chamber.
• Abolishing bishops automatically sitting in the House of Lords. We are the only country outside Iran to have reserved seats in parliament for clerics. Religious people can and do stand for election in the normal way.
9. Resist the imposition of parallel legal systems based on scripture, or the legal presumption that religious people are any more or less moral than nonbelievers.
10. Work to end segregation of people based on religious dividing lines.
None of this involves anything to do with doctrinal matters such as women bishops, gay priests or Latin masses, which are matters for religions. Nor does it involve the banning of religious opinion from the public square.
None of it engages with what families get up to in their home, or religious leaders within their own families.
If you agree with all the above, while you may be an ardent secularist, you are in no way "militant" or "aggressive". If you agree with only most of that manifesto, you may well be a vicar. If you oppose it all then you are probably archbishop material.
The worst excesses carried out in the name of secularism – neither of which are supported by UK secularists – involve a proposed burqa ban in France and bans on religious dress in Turkish universities. They are wrong but they hardly rank compared to what is carried out by religious regimes.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Accord Coalition Quarterly Report

source: mailshot 2nd September 2010 from Accord Coalition - Quarterly Report No.7 September 2010

The fast pace of the new Government since the General Election - especially that of Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove - has left some people lost in admiration and others extremely worried.

Accord has changed from being 'the new kid on the block' who unexpectedly burst onto the scene in September 2008 to a well respected Coalition with a serious agenda.

However, it still occasionally happens that our purpose is misrepresented - either deliberately by those with a vested interest to protect, or through journalists being lazy - so when this occurred in the Church of England Newspaper recently, the following letter - friendly but firm - was sent to clarify our cause:

Sir, Further to your front page article (May 28th), it is important to correct your assertion that the Accord Coalition is 'anti-faith school'. Nor, for the record, are we anti-faith. We are an organisation that encompasses both religious and non-religious groups, and we are concerned about faith schools as currently constituted because of their impact both on the children who attend and on society at large. We believe that the exemptions given to faith schools in terms of their ability to discriminate over admission of pupils and employment of staff are neither right nor healthy. We are also worried that the failure by many faith schools to teach about religions and cultures other than their own denies their pupils the minimum level of general knowledge they should receive. We do not want a multi-faith society to become a multi-fractious one, and hold that more inclusive policies and a more rounded syllabus will produce better social cohesion.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain Chair, Accord Coalition


As promised in the Conservative Party's election manifesto, a Bill was brought forward to accelerate the transformation of schools into Academies. The Accord Coalition did not take issue with the concept of Academy Schools, but was concerned about the practical effects of certain aspects of the new proposals.

One was the lack of inspection from Ofsted to which the new schools would be subject. It meant that the Government's eagerness to give schools far greater operational freedom also freed them from regulations that help ensure the education they provide is properly balanced, broad and does not promote extreme views.

Another worry was that all schools with a religious character that become a new Academy would suddenly acquire wide ranging power to turn away both pupils and teaching staff on religious grounds. The Government labelled these powers as an 'exemption', but they could be more accurately described as 'discrimination'.

The following multi-signed letter was organised by us and sent to 'The Times' whilst the Bill was being debated in the House of Commons - and although it was not printed in the Times, its contents were widely distributed and covered elsewhere:

Sir, As members of ten different religious groups who welcome the government's desire to improve educational standards, we are concerned about possible side-effects of the Academies Bill going through the House of Commons this week. First, it is unclear whether foundation and voluntary controlled faith schools that become new Academies will still be obliged to adopt a locally agreed religious syllabus that teaches about many faiths, or instead if they will be able to focus solely on the school's particular religion - which we think would be a regressive step and should be resisted. Second, changing to Academy status will mean that faith schools that previously served the local community will now be able to select many more pupils according to faith and in effect create a religious ghetto. It would be detrimental to British society if children from different faith backgrounds were to grow up as strangers. Third, it is vital that Academies are not hijacked by those with an extreme agenda that militates against social cohesion or that promote religious obscurantism. If it is to give greater freedoms, the government must also have greater monitoring to ensure those freedoms are not abused.

Revd Jeremy Chadd (C of E) Rev Marie Dove (Methodist) Symon Hill (Quaker) Jay Lakhani (Hindu) Derek McAuley (Unitarian) Rev Iain McDonald (United Reformed Church) Manzoor Moghal (Muslim) Brian Pearce (Buddhist) Martin Pendergast (Catholic) Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain (Jewish)


The Government has indicated that there will be a major review of the National Curriculum this autumn. This will present us with a major opportunity to ensure that all schools will avoid the extremes of either teaching one faith or no faith, but will instead teach a broad syllabus that educates pupils of all backgrounds about those with dissimilar traditions but who are as much part of society as they are and with whom they need to interact positively. As part of the public aspect of this campaign, the following letter was published in 'The Times' on 21st August:

Sir, It is ironic that while atheists such as Richard Dawkins want Religious Education to be on the National Curriculum (report, Aug 18), there are many religious people who oppose it to safeguard their own particular interests. At the moment R.E. is in the anomalous position of being the only subject that is a statutory subject - i.e. it must be taught - but it is not on the National Curriculum - i.e. there is no set syllabus for it, just non-compulsory guidelines. This had led to wide variations according to local agreements or the category of schools, with many instances of only one faith being taught. It is vital that all children should know about the history, beliefs and traditions of the many different belief systems (including Humanism) that makeup multi-faith Britain today, whatever their own personal religious orientation. It is a matter both of general knowledge and social cohesion. The Accord Coalition - which unites those of faith and no faith concerned about religious education - urges the government to take this step during its review of the curriculum next month, and thereby ensure that the next generation can be not only diverse, but also informed and at ease with itself.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain Chair, Accord Coalition

The Government's curriculum review will also provide us with an opportunity to highlight some of our other key concerns, such as the failure of schools to teach good quality Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education. PSHE includes age appropriate Sex and Relationships Education (SRE).

At the moment PSHE is not compulsory and some schools do not teach it, while in others its provision is of a poor standard. The provision of SRE in the UK lags far behind that of many other developed societies and it is of little wonder that the UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Western Europe. Last week's report from the Health Protection Agency showing that rates of sexually transmitted infections have risen yet again came as little surprise to me.

We want all children to have an entitlement to high standard SRE, regardless of which school they attend, and will be urging the Government to make PSHE compulsory in all state maintained schools. Our failure to ensure that schools provide thorough, accurate and balanced SRE continues to place our children's health and wellbeing at risk.


The Accord Coalition Co-ordinator, Paul Pettinger, and I both attended one of the hustings for the Labour Party leadership campaign. We made sure that the issue of faith schools was raised and asked the candidates as to how they would ensure that faith schools could be more inclusive and enhance future citizenship.

Our questioning promoted an encouraging reply from Andy Burnham MP, who is the only openly religious candidate. He stated that while he was in favour of faith schools in principle the schools '... should be open to all and that RE should be on the National Curriculum'.


When the Accord Coalition came into existence, it quickly became clear that there were a lot of opinions swirling around about faith schools, but little hard data that was widely available. One of the tasks we set ourselves was to create a database of research carried out by reputable bodies, which we have made publically available for supporters, researchers and journalists to find out about the consequences of current policy on faith schools.

One of the pieces of research that we have assembled includes a report by the House of Commons in 2009, which looked at the relationship between admissions and performance at faith schools. It showed that all denominational schools admitted fewer children in receipt of free school meals (FSM) and fewer with special education needs (SEN) on average than schools without a religious character. Moreover, the report showed that faith schools were disproportionately established in poor areas, and therefore their low FSM figures were even more surprising when compared to the areas in which they were located. This raises questions about their admission policies and suggests that some form of covert social selection in state-funded faith schools is taking place.

In this and all other cases, it is important that such concerns are examined using meticulously researched information and are not just political slogans bandied around at will. This ensures that we have hard evidence on which to base our opinions and thus our campaign and lobbying work. It is important that we continue to update our database and we would appreciate hearing from anyone involved in recent or on-going research so that we know to include the latest studies.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE Chair, The Accord Coalition.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Faith Schools and the Academies Programme

On 11 September, two stalwarts of Dorset Humanists, Chair David Warden (“yes”) and Education Officer Chris Street (“no”) will debate the question: “do faith schools have a place in modern society?” This post puts the debate in the context in a major development in education, which has occurred as a result of the “regime change” and from which the issue is inseparable: the academies programme.

But first, we must consider the meaning of the question itself: do faith schools have a place in modern society? It begs several other questions: What is “society?” What is “modern society?” What does it mean to have a “place in society”? Stripping out the rhetoric (“a place in modern society”), we have the underlying question: “there ought to be faith schools: true or false?”

But the statement: “there ought to be faith schools” is neither true nor false; it is an evaluative judgment. We can debate, till Kingdom Come, the merits and demerits of faith schools: whether or not they produce greater academic success and, if so, whether or not (and, if so, how) there is a causal connection between faith and success; whether or not they possess, and instil into pupils, some indefinable – almost mystical – “ethos”; whether or not they are, in some sense, “divisive” or “discriminatory”. But, ultimately, one person (“A”) can say “true” and another (“B”) can say “false”. Neither is right but neither is wrong; these are purely subjective, evaluative judgments, and neither is objectively superior to the other.

The real question is this: if A says “there ought to be faith schools” but B says “there ought not to be faith schools”, is B entitled to impose his or her judgment on A (or vice versa)? The answer cannot be “yes”. Therefore, A must be allowed to send his children to a faith school, and B must be allowed to send his or her children to a non-faith school.

Suppose there is an independent, fee-paying faith school (the Benedictine Ampleforth College is a prime example) which receives no state funding. Parents, who can afford it, are free to send their children there. Only on the most authoritarian view would such a freedom, or the school’s freedom to exist, be denied. So, the issue here is only about faith schools within the state education system. But, the academies programme completely changes the concept of state education.

“Academies” stand in contrast to “maintained schools”. They we established by Tony Blair in 2000 (although only 203 were founded under New Labour) and the wholesale conversion, of maintained schools into academies, is now the Coalition’s flagship education policy.

Even maintained schools are not mere branches of the State; they are separate entities, to a greater or lesser extent private and self-governing (many of them having a “religious character” – so-called “faith schools”), but which are “maintained” by the State (in the form of the local authority) and regulated by statute. To “maintain” essentially means (although this varies according to the type of school: community, foundation, voluntary-aided, voluntary controlled) to defray the cost of maintaining; in other words, to fund.

Underlying the academies programme is the notion that the local authority drops out of the state education loop. Academies are independent schools, entirely self-governing and hardly regulated by statute, but the State (now in the form of central government) provides the funding for them (although much of this is still raised locally, by way of council tax) and they are free to parents at the point of delivery.

In principle, the funding (which is the basic per-pupil cost of education) follows the pupil, to whichever school the parents choose to send him or her. In practice, because this amount is effectively capped (under the preferred “Swedish” model, academies will not be permitted to charge top-up fees to parents) and probably inadequate, this will not happen immediately. There will be state-imposed rationing of resources, and the local authority will continue to do this by retaining, for the time being, its principal function of “co-ordination”, the allocation of pupils and resources to form the education structure in its area.

The notion, of the local authority (at least, in principle) dropping out of the loop, calls into question the very meaning and purpose of state education. A local authority’s overarching duty, in relation to state education is laid down by statute as follows:-

A local authority shall (so far as their powers enable them to do so) contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community by securing that efficient primary education, and secondary education are available to meet the needs of the population of their area.
So the statutory definition and purpose of state education, which has its origins in the 1944 Education Act. Is, in effect:-
The spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community.
The word “spiritual” is deeply objectionable; the word “moral” is, at best, highly problematical. Leaving those issues aside, however, the essence of state education is the development of the community; not the pupil, the community. That is why the local authority – as supposed representative and builder of the community – has traditionally been regarded as an essential part of the state education loop. With the local authority removed, no equivalent duty is place on either of the remaining players, central government and academies. Therefore, the academies programme marks a fundamental shift from the traditional “communitarian” view of state education to an “individualist” view.

What is probably (he must correct me if I am wrong) David’s central thesis is expressed in the following:-
Religious parents are taxpayers just the same as non-religious parents. For the government to fund non-religious schools but not religious schools is clearly a case of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the allocation of public funds.
… religious parents, who pay their taxes just the same as everyone else, should be able to choose to send their children to such a school if they want to and that a liberal democratic state has no business withholding funds from such schools.
A sizeable proportion of taxpaying parents prefer to send their children to schools with a religious ethos. I believe that a liberal, democratic society should accede to this preference unless there are overriding reasons not to do so.
Implicit in this is the idea that parents pay taxes in return for the state education of their children. That is not so; parents (and all taxpayers) pay taxes because, if they did not, their property would, ultimately, be appropriated by the State. There is nothing – state education or anything else – in return for taxes.

But there is a common fiction that people do, in fact, pay taxes for things – including state education – in return, and we will pretend that this is the case. But there is a problem: as we have seen, state education is not regarded as the development of pupils (the parents’ children); it is the development of the community.

Former pupils contribute to the community through the provision of goods and services to others, who are taxpayers. If a taxpayer receives a benefit from the “development of the community”, he has paid twice for it: first in taxes which have funded the education of those former pupils, and secondly in the price of those goods and services. The cost, of that education of those who provide them, is part of the cost of the goods and services. So, the “development of the community” is a flawed notion.

So, taxpayers are paying tax in return for the state education of children (but not necessarily their specific children). The community drops out of the loop and so does the local authority. That is reflected in the academies programme.

Academies are independent schools, funded by the state out of taxation and free to parents at the point of delivery. But we can look at this in a different way (the difference being merely a matter of accounting): parents pay fees to the academy for their specific children’s education; to the extent that they cannot afford to do so, those fees are subsidized by the State out of the taxation of others who can afford to pay. This is precisely what will happen; tax, paid by the parents, will off-set the per-pupil cost which follows the pupil to whichever school the parents choose to send him or her.

On that analysis, parents do, indeed, pay taxes in return for the state education of their children.