When it comes to tackling segregation, ending ‘faith’ schools is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet

2015 07 23 Davd Cameron 2 CREDIT The Prime Minister's Office

David Cameron is looking right at the problem, but choosing to ignore it. Photo credit: The Prime Minister’s Office/Creative Commons license.

The Prime Minister’s speech on extremism on Monday has received a mixed reaction; unsurprising given the sensitivity and complexity of the issue.  However, as is so often the case, the mixed reaction was also at least in part a result of mixed messages. Specifically, the praise that should have been provoked by Cameron’s admirable emphasis on the need to tackle segregation in our education system was tempered by his contradictory reaffirmation of support for ‘faith’ schools.

The response of successive Governments to the increasing religious and ethnic diversity of the UK has been to provide more ‘faith’ schools, of more kinds, to cater for these different groups. In 1998 there were 24 state-funded Jewish schools, and no Muslim, Sikh or Hindu schools. In 2015, there are now 48 Jewish, 21 Muslim, 10 Sikh and 5 Hindu state schools, and growing. More children of all religions are being educated in ‘faith’ schools now than ever before.

There are many, the British Humanist Association among them, who are absolutely convinced that this approach to building a multicultural society will be remembered as one of the most ruinous and damaging to the fabric of our communities and our society that has ever been pursued. It is an approach which is impossible to fathom.

Presented with the challenge of integrating a complex mix of religions, beliefs, ethnicities, and social backgrounds into one cohesive society, we have two options. The first option is to continue with an education system which divides children in almost all imaginable ways. ‘Faith’ schools segregate along religious lines, along socio-economic lines, and along ethnic lines – the evidence for this is clear. This first option therefore involves accepting this sorry starting point and then working round the clock to think of ways to get these different groups to interact with and understand one another (Shared facilities and integrated teaching being the Government’s latest proposals).

The second option is simple. We make all schools inclusive, we bring all children together, we ensure that it is their similarities that are celebrated and which become ingrained in them, rather than their differences, and then we sit back and watch while all our work is done for us.

Regrettably, this is not the option that has been taken.

In his speech, the Prime Minister referred to the policy introduced under the Coalition Government of only allowing new ‘faith’ academies and free schools to allocate half their places on the basis of faith. That development was to be welcomed, but it didn’t go nearly far enough. More than a third of state-funded schools in England and Wales – over 7,000 schools – are religious schools and only a small proportion of these are free schools.  Clearly no religious selection at all would be preferable, but it is equally important to remember that discussions about religious selection should not detract from the fact that whether religiously selective or not, ’faith’ schools are inherently exclusive.

That is why Cameron’s expression of hope that ‘our young people can be the key to bringing our country together’, immediately preceded by a promise that he will not seek to ‘dismantle faith schools’, was so disheartening.

One has to ask, how we can expect our children to create the inclusive, integrated and cohesive society that we have thus far been unable to achieve, if we continue to define them and divide them by the religions and beliefs of their parents?

When it comes to tackling segregation and promoting integration, there is clearly no silver bullet. The process is difficult and there’s a long way to go. You can be absolutely sure, though, that an end to ‘faith’ schools and an end to the division they foster, is the closest thing to that silver bullet we have. If only our Prime Minister wasn’t so gun shy.

The evolution vs creationism debate, like you’ve never encountered it before

April saw the launch of Goodbye God?a graphic novel that explores evolution vs creation and calls for an end to the teaching of creationism in schools. Written by me, Sean Michael Wilson, and illustrated by long time luminary of the British comic book world, Hunt Emerson, it’s a 120-page book published by New Internationalist and made with the help of both the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the American Humanist Association (AHA). The book demonstrates how a concern for humanism, science, and reasoned logical thinking is crucial for the development of society.

The BHA's own Richy Thompson is featured as a character in Goodbye God.

The BHA’s own Richy Thompson is featured as a character in Goodbye God.

What is a graphic novel, I hear you ask? Or perhaps not, as the term, introduced in the late 70s, has become quite well known by now. Essentially its a word coined to get over the image of comics being just for kids. Which they never have been, that was just a silly cliche. And we humanists should be all about overcoming miss-information and cliches, yes? So, in the last 30 years or so the medium of the graphic novel has come to mean comic books for adults. And no, that does not mean pornography! It just means stories using text and visuals, on sophisticated themes, that adult readers can enjoy.

Why do this as a comic book? Well, actually the Goodbye God? book is more like an illustrated guide, rather than a traditional comic book or graphic novel. There are very good reasons to have the illustrated format. In recent years there has been quite a bit of research into how the visual and text mixture we find in comic books is a more effective way of conveying complicated information than text alone. For example,  Kobayashi’s 2011 study in Sophia University concluded that: ‘The findings indicated that the visual aid reduced the learners’ cognitive load in reading and promoted the retention of the text…’ So, comic books, graphic novels, whatever you want to call them are both an enjoyable way of taking in complicated information, and probably a more effective one.


Sean Michael Wilson: What book on critical of religion could be complete without a few appearances from Christopher Hitchens?

In part one of Goodbye God?, we look at creationism vs evolution. We consider some of the key aspects of what both are. We have a list of key claims from creationists and a cartoon version of the BHA’s very own Richy Thompson goes through them, one by one, noting the faults in argument and the mistakes in conclusions.

Later in the chapter Richy also takes us through the situation as regards the teaching of creationism in UK schools and the significant campaigns of the BHA in this area, the successes, but further work that needs to be done in the independent school sector. We also look at the situation in the US education system, with a cartoon Roy Speckhardt, of the AHA, making an appearance, as we consider the twists of terminology of US creationists reframing their approach as ‘intelligent design’ or ‘teaching the debate’.  Philosopher Stephen Law of the University of London and the Centre for Inquiry UK is in chapter one also, as we begin to broaden the focus to look at some of the ways that irrational belief systems are introduced and promoted.

In part two, the book pans out yet further to consider several aspects the negative impact of religion, with several well known humanist’s making an ‘appearance’, in illustrated form, to tell us about various related points. These include Richard Dawkins’ key points from his ‘letter to my daughter’ noting that we should be suspicious of reasons for believing things that rely on mostly on authority, tradition or revelation. We also have Democrat and author Sean Faircloth’s ‘10 points for a secular America’ shown in illustrated format for the first time.

We have some wise words from the BHA Chief Executive, Andrew Copson, regarding the important place played by humanists in the national cultures of the UK and USA. Then, what book on critical of religion could be complete without a few appearances from Christopher Hitchens? In Goodbye God?, we see him complaining about the horrendous idea of ‘compulsory love’ for god, laying down his infamous challenge regarding the question of morals and ethics, and of course, throwing in a few of his jokes! Hitchens, indeed, was keen on graphic novels, having recommended them in a couple of his own books. He also wrote the introduction to Joe Sacco’s graphic novel about the Bosnian war.

The book is designed to mix the serious points with humour, and the excellent illustrations of Hunt Emerson balance up the considerable textual parts with their artistic charm. It also includes back text sections by the BHA and the AHA, telling us more about the kind of work they do, and more about the issue of teaching evolution in schools. We also have an introduction by Professor Lawrence Krauss, who comments there that: ‘If our society is to function at its best, no notions should be sacred, beyond questioning, including religious notions. That is why we need books like Goodbye God? to help expose both religious and scientific nonsense that can get in the way of sound thinking, and to help produce a healthier and happier world with public policies that properly address the challenges of the 21st century. ‘

So, if you are interested in a unique way of presenting various issues of concern to humanism, in a way that is visually appealing yet still sophisticated, check out the Goodbye God? book.  More can be seen at seanmichaelwilson.weebly.com/goodbye-god.html.

What did the ruling in the London Oratory case actually mean?

On Friday in the High Court, Justice Cobb handed down the latest judgment in the long-running saga that is the legal dispute over whether or not the London Oratory School’s admissions policy complies with the School Admissions Code. The case started just over two years ago when the British Humanist Association submitted an objection, and the latest decision pertained to the legality of a determination issued by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) that was issued last summer. The school challenged ten different aspects of that determination.

Some parts of the press reported the judge’s decision as a ‘win’ for the Oratory, with the school describing its challenge as ‘successful’ and its head quoted as saying that ‘The Judge’s decision supports us in continuing to preserve the School’s ethos and serving Catholic families throughout the whole of London.’ But a thorough reading of the decision leads us to three different conclusions:

  1. The judge’s decision was, in our view, wrong in several places.
  2. At any rate, the school actually has largely lost the case, only generally winning in places that do not mean it can change its admissions policy back to what it was before the whole saga started.
  3. And even in places where the school won, the decision was often that the OSA’s reasoning was flawed. This does not necessarily mean the OSA’s conclusions were wrong and in fact in a few areas the judge ruled that a fresh decision must be taken – i.e. the case is not yet over yet.

So the school has really won very little at all.


In total the school was found by the OSA to break the Admissions Code in 105 different places. The school only challenged a handful of these, leaving the vast majority unperturbed. The main impetus for the school’s challenge was the decision that the school could no longer have a ‘Catholic service criterion’ as part of its admissions arrangements. This required three years of service to the Catholic church or other associated activities, with priority given on the basis of things like flower arranging. This was found to be uncompliant with the Code for a number of different reasons, including paragraphs 1.9e) (giving priority on the basis of practical support to a religious organisation), 1.9i) (taking into account religious activities not laid out as permitted by the school’s diocese), 1.8 (unfairly discriminating on the basis of ethnicity and social background) and 1.38 (not having had sufficient regard to the diocesan guidance).

In judicially reviewing the OSA’s decision, the school did not even challenge the finding with respect to paragraph 1.9e), so never had any hope of getting a ruling that fully contradicted the OSA’s decision in this area. On top of that, the school lost its challenge under paragraph 1.9i). This means that the main areas where the school won actually will have no impact on its admissions criteria: in effect it still has to change them in the way the OSA determined last year.

So we can see already that in the vast majority of cases, including with respect to the ‘Catholic service criterion’, the decision taken against the school has already been found to stand.

Beyond that, it is worth going through each of the school’s ten areas of challenge, with our three conclusions in mind.

(1) Failure to ‘have regard’ to the Diocesan Guidance

Paragraph 1.38 says that ‘Admission authorities for schools designated as having a religious character must have regard to any guidance from the body or person representing the religion or religious denomination when constructing faith-based oversubscription criteria’. The OSA found that the School had broken this, in part because ‘paragraph 1.38 is given greater force in relation to faith-based oversubscription criteria generally by paragraph 1.9i of the Code’, which says that the school must not ‘prioritise children on the basis of their own or their parents’ past or current hobbies or activities’, except when taking account of religious activities, as laid out by its diocese. If the school had properly had regard to the guidance, it would not have broken paragraph 1.9i).

In reaching his determination on this issue, however, Justice Cobb did not mention the role of 1.9i) at all (only considering it later under the school’s third challenge) and instead only focused on 1.38 and the meaning of ‘have regard to’, going through a range of relevant case law. Here he found that the OSA applied a too stringent test (in deciding that any reason for departing from the guidance must be ‘good’ and ‘compelling’), and therefore, while finding that ‘the School’s approach to the relevant test was also flawed’, he concluded that the OSA had not correctly found that 1.38 had been broken.

As a result he ruled that there will ‘need to be a further determination of the School’s approach to the Diocesan Guidance, its compliance with para.1.38 of the Admissions Code, and the adequacy of the reasons for departure, applying the appropriate test.’ So the school has not yet won here but only triggered a further case.

(2) Socio-economic discrimination

Paragraph 1.8 of the Code says that ‘Admission authorities must ensure that their arrangements will not disadvantage unfairly, either directly or indirectly, a child from a particular social or racial group.’

The London Oratory School is highly socio-economically selective. As we wrote in our paper which we submitted to the case in May 2014, the January 2013 School Census records that 6.6% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 38.7% in its middle super output area (i.e. immediate vicinity), 40.8% in the neighbouring MSOAs, 42% in its local authority, and 26.1% across London as a whole. The Fair Admissions Campaign’s map ranks this disparity between the school and its area as making it the ninth most socio-economically selective state secondary school in England.

Justice Cobb, however, starts off by agreeing with the adjudicator that there is ‘some inherent social selection of school candidates within the Catholic population as a whole’, before going on to find that ‘the data relied on by the School showed that six of the eight schools with similarly high percentages of Catholic pupils had similar levels of pupils entitled to free school meals to the School’. This, surely, simply shows that such discrimination is common amongst oversubscribed Catholic schools.

However, Justice Cobb also found that the adjudicator did not show that it was the faith-based oversubscription criteria that were causing this discrimination, nor that it was unfair. It seems to me to be quite obvious that if we first agree there is ‘some inherent social selection of school candidates within the Catholic population as a whole’, and then we select Catholics, then that faith-based selection is going to cause socio-economic discrimination. But no matter: the more significant point is that the decision did not address per se the conclusion that the school is socio-economically advantaged. It unambiguously is. It only found that the case had not been properly set out.

Finally, the school also argued that it was unfair that it had not seen the adjudicator’s evidence around socio-economic advantage prior to the determination. The judge agreed with this. I do not agree: 1. The BHA submitted such evidence during the course of the case, which the school chose not to look at; and 2. At any rate it is easily available in the public domain. The school should have been aware of these statistics; that it was not was negligent on its part.

(3) Catholic Service

To reiterate, paragraph 1.9i of the Code says that the school must not ‘prioritise children on the basis of their own or their parents’ past or current hobbies or activities’, except when taking account of religious activities, as laid out by its diocese. The judge correctly rejected the school’s challenge to the finding that the ‘Catholic service criterion’ breaks this paragraph. This essentially means that the success of challenges 1 and 2, above, are symbolic victories.

It is worth noting that the judge incorrectly states that the OSA ‘declined to state whether this criterion also breached para.1.9(e)’, when in fact the adjudicator did find that this paragraph was also broken.

(4) Catholicity: Parent or Parents

The fourth challenge by the school was to the OSA’s finding that its arrangements were unfair in requiring two Catholic parents to both be religiously observant.  The judge agreed with this finding with respect to the school’s 2014 admission arrangements. But he disagreed with respect to the 2015 arrangements due to the new statement in the 2015 arrangements that references to ‘parents’ should be read as ‘to one parent if the child resides with only one of the parents’. But this new statement does not deal with the case where the child has two Catholic parents but only one is observant: this child/observant parent is put at a disadvantage to a child who only has one Catholic parent. The judge got this wrong in a way that threatens the widely established principle that ‘faith’ schools can only require one parent to be religiously observant, something that is a very basic question of fairness. The Code might now need clarification.

(5) Request for parents’ baptismal certificates

The school asks for parents’ baptismal certificates. The OSA said that this breaks paragraph 2.4 of the Code where it says that the school must not ask for ‘any personal details about parents and families, such as maiden names’ – as maiden names will be revealed by baptismal certificates. But the judge ruled that 2.4 ‘is not to be read in such a way that would place a Governing Body in the position of being unable to apply a legitimate oversubscription criterion in practice just because it was prevented from requiring the necessary evidence’ – and therefore the request could stand. I do not agree that this is a correct reading of 2.4 and think the Code could now do with being clarified.

However, the judge also writes that this part of the decision is dependent upon the ultimate outcome of challenge (1) above, i.e. ‘is dependent on a future finding that there is a clear and proper reason for departing from the Guidance in these respects’ – as if the school did not have good reason from departing from the diocesan guidance in this area, then the oversubscription criterion is not legitimate so paragraph 2.4 does in fact apply. So this is only a preliminary finding.

(6) Previous Catholic education

In its arrangements the school gave priority to those attending Catholic primaries in 2014, and then those having received a Catholic education (including through primaries) in 2015.

Paragraph 1.9b) says that schools must not ‘take into account any previous schools attended, unless it is a named feeder school’. Paragraph 1.15 adds that ‘The selection of a feeder school or schools as an oversubscription criterion must be transparent and made on reasonable grounds.’ The school was found to break both of these paragraphs of the Code.

The judge upheld the decision with respect to 1.15, but overturned it with respect to 1.9b) on the basis of the reasoning that ‘the primary information sought from the candidate’s parent(s) is whether the candidate has attended a Catholic School (not which school), even though the name of the school is requested as proof of that education’. This seems to me to be an extremely strange reading of 1.9b) – taking into account a type of school (e.g. all Catholic schools) is still taking into account previous schools attended, even if the specific individual schools are not taken into account. Perhaps the Code now needs clarifying in this area.

The judge also writes that ‘there is no prohibition within the Admissions Code… upon a Governing Body asking the name of previous schools’. But paragraph 2.4 says that schools must only ‘request additional information when it has a direct bearing on decisions about oversubscription criteria’. So in fact there is such a prohibition.

At any rate, this is again a departure from the diocesan guidance, and the judge again writes that this part of the decision is dependent upon the ultimate outcome of challenge (1) above, i.e. ‘is dependent on a future finding that there is a clear and proper reason for departing from the Guidance in these respects’. So again this is only a preliminary finding. But what is more the school sought to justify its taking into account Catholic education by reference to canon law. Therefore such consideration plainly falls under the remit of paragraph 1.9i). It is not laid out as permitted by the diocese for a school to take into account Catholic education as a religious activity. This fact is not discussed in the judgment and could well be grounds for a future successful challenge to the school’s admissions arrangements, if such a criterion continues to have a place in them.

(7) Choristers

(8) Statement of ‘Medical and social need’ on Religious Inquiry Form

(9) Parents’ signature(s)

These three challenges concerned points of clarity and the judge concluded that the OSA’s determination was fine. However in the third (allowing two parents to sign the form) he wrote that the adjudicator’s determination ‘verges on the pedantic’. I do not agree: as a matter of fairness it is important that schools make clear throughout that only one parent is considered in religious oversubscription criteria.

(10) Consultation on admissions criteria

The last issue related to whether or not the school consulted parents of 2 to 18 year olds, which is required by the Code and regulations. The OSA wrote that the school had ‘no evidence … which … constitutes a meaningful attempt to bring the school’s proposed arrangements to the attention of the group in question’. The judge did not agree with this, and so quashed this part of the decision, but did agree that insufficient steps had been taken and so rejected the school’s reasoning. This therefore is a partial victory for the school at best.


As can be seen, therefore, in almost every case where the school won, the victory was partial, temporary, and/or of no practical consequence. In this light the school’s statement that the judgement was a great victory on its part was erroneous. This fact should be reflected in its subsequent admissions arrangements.

Religion should not dominate in our schools

Graham Walker reflects on the latest controversy at the Durham Free School, and reflects on the need for inclusive schools across the state sector.

The beautiful city of Durham, where the latest scandal of religion in education arose. Photo: Flickr/mrgarethm

The beautiful city of Durham, where the latest scandal of religion in education arose. Photo: Flickr/mrgarethm

Many will remember the education scandal associated with the so-called ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ in 2014. A letter was given to the authorities which purported to be evidence of a plot by hardline Islamists to replace leadership in Birmingham schools with a high proportion of attendees from Muslim backgrounds, in order to instil a much more religiously conservative ethos and curricula. Though the letter was widely suspected to be as a hoax, it triggered several investigations into 21 different schools in Birmingham.

This triggered at-the-time Education Minister, Michael Gove to demand that we must start teaching ‘British values’. There was much controversy at the time of what constituted British values, and for some these questions have not been satisfactorily answered. In its response to Mr Gove’s consultation, while remaining generally positive towards the proposed requirements, the British Humanist Association (BHA) pointed out that ‘none of the values listed are uniquely British’. It is interesting to reflect with this that David Cameron, also in 2014, called England a ‘Christian country’, which many saw as an archaic view of the country not acknowledging the cultural diversity of the UK, nor the fact that 48% (later that year revised to 51%) of the British population identified as having ‘no religion’.

These points raise serious questions about the role of religion in school. In a multicultural and pluralistic British society, can we identify the country as having one religion? Is it worth stating a religious identity at all? And either way, what does this mean for our education system?

These questions and others like it have become a lot more difficult to answer with Ofsted delivering, on 19 January, one of its worst ever reports to ‘The Durham Free School’: a school with a strong ‘Christian ethos’. The school received inadequate (the worst rating) in all areas covered in the inspection. Many of the inspector’s comments give significant cause for alarm, in relation to schooling generally but also in relation to the role that religion played within the school. In the report we find comments such as:

‘Reviewing the curriculum so that there are appropriate opportunities to teach students about sex and relationships and to promote respect for different faiths, beliefs and values so that they are fully ready to function as young citizens of modern Britain’

‘Governors place too much emphasis on religious credentials when they are recruiting key staff and not enough on seeking candidates with excellent leadership and teaching skills’

‘The religious studies curriculum was too narrow and did not give students enough opportunities to learn about different faiths and beliefs. Consequently, students’ understanding of different faiths and beliefs is sketchy with some holding prejudiced views which are not challenged.’

It is clear that the school’s management and teaching staff, and the governors have all, to some extent, allowed their own personal religious beliefs to negatively impact on the opportunity for the pupils of this school to receive an adequate education; a very sad state of affairs.

With two serious incidents in education from schools where religious values are put before teaching the role of religious schools within Britain has to be called in to question.

Hardly anyone should be saying that schools should be wholly secular, with no religious education; this is not a way to foster understanding and compassion for people and their beliefs. The BHA, which was pivotal in supporting whistleblowers to blow the lid on what was going on at the school at the centre of the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal, argues for a comprehensive, broad-based religious education system which teaches about religious and non-religious views such as Humanism side-by-side. Religion should not, however, dominate the school’s management structure, nor should it compromise the quality of education in things like sex education and biology.

America has always believed, constitutionally, in the firm separation of church and state, and while Britain has never enjoyed this same state secularism, there has always been a healthy scepticism from the public at attempts to politicise religion, or crusade politically on a religious basis. Schools are a bedrock of any healthy society, and so reasonably they should fall under the same dictum that religion does not have a place within the governance of our schooling systems.

Graham Walker is a student and blogger. Graham has studied psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy, and is currently studying for an MSc in occupational therapy. He blogs on various issues that he feels are important. You can follow him on Twitter at @think_damn_it.

On the death of Debbie Purdy

The BHA has long campaigned for a humane assisted suicide not just for the terminally ill, but for the incurably suffering as well - people like Debbie Purdy, Jean Davies, and Tony Nicklinson

The BHA has long campaigned for a humane assisted suicide law not just for the terminally ill, but for the incurably suffering as well – people like Debbie Purdy, Jean Davies, and Tony Nicklinson

Everyone at the British Humanist Association (BHA) was deeply saddened to hear about the death of Debbie Purdy just before Christmas, after taking the decision to starve herself. Debbie was an inspirational campaigner for reforming the law on assisted dying, and hers was an enormously dignified voice in public debate over many years. It was her brave campaigning that led to the publication of new legal guidance on the prosecution of family members who help loved ones to end their lives.

This was a step forward, but only a very small one because the new guidelines did not change the law. In spite of all Debbie’s courageous efforts and campaigning until the very end, assisted dying remains against the law in the UK. This means that thousands of terminally ill and permanently and incurably suffering people across the country are unable to enjoy their lives as much as they can, because they cannot rely on receiving the assistance they may need to end their lives in circumstances of their choosing, in dignity and free from pain.

Much recent media attention has focused on Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, currently before the House of Lords. If passed, the Bill would allow terminally ill patients to request life-ending medication from their doctor. This represents another step forward, preventing unnecessary, prolonged suffering by providing those who are terminally ill with choice and control over how and when they end their lives.

But though this is a step in the right direction, it does not go anywhere near far enough. As Debbie Purdy pointed out in her final article before her death, the Bill only extends to terminally ill people judged by a doctor to be within six months of the end of their life. That excludes people who are permanently and incurably suffering – people like Debbie as well as the late Tony Nicklinson and Jean Davies, whose illnesses were not terminal but who had reached a point where they simply could not tolerate continuing to suffer any longer.

As Debbie made clear, the Bill must be passed – but it is just not enough. It does not provide a solution for people like her who seek permission to get support to end their lives in dignity, should living become truly unbearable. The BHA has long wished to see an assisted dying law which is responsive to the needs of people like Debbie who are permanently and incurably suffering, as well as those who are suffering from a terminal illness – and the majority of the public agrees.

Now is the time to act, by reforming the law to legalise assisted dying both for people suffering from a terminal illness and for those who are permanently and incurably suffering. If the law is not changed, people will continue to die after suffering for prolonged periods, in pain and robbed of their dignity. We owe it to courageous people like Debbie Purdy to make sure that this is no longer the case.

Last year your donations bought all this…

The British Humanist Association is once again fundraising for the salary of its Faith Schools Campaigner, Richy Thompson, at JustGiving.com/nofaithschools. We very much want Richy to continue his work in 2015 and keep making real headway in the fight against ‘faith’ schools and on education policy more broadly – because all schools should welcome pupils, parents and staff of all faiths and none, and because all young people are entitled to broad and balanced education.

2014 10 07 LW v3 Richy text heavy fundraiser memo


Please donate at www.JustGiving.com/nofaithschools so this campaign can continue at full steam in 2015.

In April, the BHA published three whistleblowers’ allegations about Park View School. How many of them are now proven?

Here Joe Moss and Richy Thompson compare and contrast what was alleged about Park View School in January and what was found to be the case this week…

Peter Clarke’s extensive report for the Department for Education into the ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations was released on Tuesday, and found ‘co-ordinated, deliberate and sustained action, carried out by a number of associated individuals, to introduce an intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos into a few schools in Birmingham.’ The report highlights the role of the British Humanist Association (BHA) in January facilitating three whistleblowers to make complaints to the Department of Education, regarding standards and the state of staff and student welfare in Park View School, over a month before the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter was mentioned in the press. In April we published most of their claims, which we summarised as ‘inequality and gender discrimination, homophobia, alleged extremist views, creationism, bullying, and unfair employment and disciplinary practices’. The majority of these issues had not been publicly aired at the time; today we can see which allegations have been confirmed in the Clarke Report.

  • Creationism within Science

Our whistleblowers claimed that ‘Creationism and intelligent design have been taught in science lessons by at least one science teacher.’ The Clarke Report says that ‘Evolution is mentioned only briefly and students are simply directed to the page in the textbook. A teacher who did this went on to tell students that they were looking at the textbook merely to comply with the syllabus but that “that was not what they believed”… Staff have said that creationism has been taught as fact in science lessons and in assemblies at Park View School. A member of staff at Park View reported that pupils had said: “I’m made of clay[…]There is no evolution. I’m made of clay because that is what Mr Hussain [the acting headteacher] told us in assemblies”.’

  • Sex education worksheet about consent within marriage

Our whistleblowers claimed that ‘There have been rumours that in sex and relationships education (SRE) lessons given by the same teacher that boys were told that “girls must obey their husbands” and that ‘”wives are not allowed to say ‘no’”. A worksheet was handed out to year 11 boys with a section “The Wife Obeying Her Husband”, which says ‘A woman must obey her husband as long as he does not tell her to perform any haraam (unlawful) acts…’

The school strenuously denied that this worksheet ever existed, but Clarke found that ‘[SRE] lessons for boys centred on the rights of men and women within marriage. On the lesson worksheets it was written that if a woman said ‘No’ to sex with her husband, the Angel Gabriel would strike her down and condemn her to an eternity of hell. Following these lessons, there was commotion in the corridors, with boys telling girls that they couldn’t refuse them and saying “We have been told this”. An assembly following the lessons was supposed to put right the SRE teaching but again the boys were in effect told that “this is what it says in Islam but it is different in the eyes of British society”. Staff reported that one of the teachers who gave the lessons said: “Luckily we were able to hide all the controversial worksheets very, very quickly and managed to get rid of all of them between the two Ofsted inspections”.’

  • Students demonstrating positive views regarding 9/11 and 7/7, and no soldiers visiting the school

Clarke’s report makes no mention of 9/11 or 7/7 but does note some teachers claiming that the Boston bombings and the murder of Lee Rigby were ‘hoaxes’ in social media conversations between different staff.  There is also a conversation where several teachers disparage the British armed forces, including the charity Help for Heroes.

  • ‘Homework’ to convert non-Muslim staff

Our sources alleged that ‘In RE, pupils were given a list of non-Muslim members of staff and set homework to try and convert them.’ This hasn’t been found, although our own research pointed to a number of concerning aspects of the RE syllabus, which seemed to be taught from an Islamic perspective, and the report found that ‘Only modules in Islam are studied from Years 9 to 11.’

  • Compulsory prayers

Our whistleblowers alleged that ‘The school has legally determined to have Islamic instead of Christian collective worship, with students sitting segregated side-by-side based on gender. It has also encouraged students to pray by putting posters up in school corridors. Some of these read ‘If you do not pray you are worse than a Kafir’ (i.e. non-Muslim). There is a call to prayer every lunch time.’

The Clarke Report pointed out that it has been alleged that ‘an assembly where pupils were told that if they did not pray they were worse than a kaffir (a derogatory term for non-Muslims), supported by a poster with the same message’, and ‘We have been told by staff at Park View that a tannoy to broadcast the ‘adhan’, the Muslim call to prayer, was installed. It could not only be heard across the whole school site, but also by residents in the local community, and was used every day to call students and staff to prayer. However, it was switched off immediately before Ofsted visited the school and also on the days when the Department for Education and Education Funding Agency officials visited. I was informed that a member of staff at Park View used a microphone from a high window to shout at students who were in the playground, not attending prayer. Some girls were embarrassed when attention was drawn to them because girls who are menstruating are not allowed to attend prayer. But still, the teacher called to them.’

  • Segregation by gender

It was alleged that ‘Certain male teachers expect boys to be at the front of the class and girls at the back, and ignore girls when they want to answer a question.’ Indeed, Clarke found that ‘In Park View maths lessons, where all the teachers are men, the girls were separated at the sides and back of the classroom, while the boys sat in the centre, towards the front. In many other subjects, students sat on different tables with boys and girls segregated. Single sex classes exist across the entire age range in PE, RE and PSHE at Park View.’

With regard to PE, it was alleged that ‘Girls are not allowed to take part in PE or sport activities with boys, even non-contact sports or where a male coach is present, the reason given for this being it makes male Muslims feel uncomfortable.’ The Clarke Report found that ‘The Park View girls’ tennis team was taken to a local schools’ tournament by PE staff after school. When they arrived they found men present. The teacher had to return the girls to school and was suspended by governors until she had written a letter of apology. When interviewed, Mr Hussain explained to me that the girls had to return to the school because it was tennis “coaching”, where there would inevitably be physical contact between the male coaches and the female pupils.’ The Council’s report also cited ‘curtains being fitted in the sports hall for girls’ PE lessons’.

  • Other discrimination against women

It was also alleged that ‘Members of staff have shown prejudice against girls not wearing a headscarf, with some girls being forced by staff to do so. If a boy and girl are seen together more than once parents are called in.’ Clarke found that ‘At the recent Year 11 Prom, staff report that they were surprised to see the girls arriving with their heads uncovered. They expected them to be covered, as they had been at school, and realised that this was really their normal way of dressing. Girls at Park View complained to staff that their parents are too readily contacted if they are seen speaking to a boy. They also say that conclusions are drawn about conversations which are completely unfounded. They feel that they are being harassed.’ He also said that prefects are allegedly expected to ‘report to the headteacher the names of staff and students who exhibit behaviours which are deemed unacceptable by conservative Muslims. These include behaviours such as boys and girls talking to each other or touching each other; boyfriend and girlfriend relationships’. And he included instant messages between teachers discussing how to better segregate pupils.

Finally, it was alleged that ‘Female members of staff and pupils are often treated as inferior by male Muslim staff members. Complaints about this behaviour are not taken seriously.’ Clarke found that ‘Inequalities for female staff include lack of progression and promotion, lack of opportunities for training, attacks on their manner of dress and being ignored or disrespectfully treated by senior male staff and governors. Female pupils also suffer inequalities.’

  • Unchallenged homophobic views

It was alleged that ‘Many pupils have expressed homophobic views and these are not challenged… teachers who have wanted to try and address the homophobia have been told they are not allowed to.’ Clarke reports on Park View governors expressing ‘Openly homophobic views’ at meetings whilst social media messages between teachers at the school were both unchallenged and derogatory, referring to those supporting same sex marriage as ‘animals’ with ‘satanic ways’ and seeing the acceptance of LGBT couples as ‘a sign of the end times.’ ’Senior staff have been shouted at in governing body meetings when they attempted to discuss the LGBT agenda. Male and female staff have reported that they have to hide their sexuality. Students say that their teachers do not talk to them about such matters.’

  • Sexual health

It was alleged that ‘The school nurse is not allowed to discuss sexual health issues with pupils.’ Clarke did not report on this matter. But below you can see two posters – one provided by the Department for Education for schools to use to advertise their nursing services, and one from Park View School in 2012. It’s not hard to spot the difference.

School-Nurse-publicity-YP-version-PRESS-final-21st-of-aug-page-001 2014-05-16 18.55.49 (1)

  • ‘Cheating’ during Ofsted inspections

The original allegations made claim to the fact that schools were cheating in Ofsted inspections by ‘telling children answers in Urdu’ which they would then repeat in English to the inspector, or deliberately teaching about religions other than Islam whilst inspectors were in the school. Clarke’s report does not cite these examples but does make reference to other allegations for example about the SRE worksheets being hidden, the call to prayer tannoy being switched off, and that at Golden Hillock ‘Staff state that senior leaders checked their classrooms and removed Islamic display materials before the Department for Education visited.’

  • Improper handling of staff recruitment and issues

In April, our original allegations included the promotion of friends and relatives of governors and the appointment of male Muslim teachers with extreme views, with jobs not advertised to other interested staff or the general public as a whole. Further, staff who complained or had issues with the school had investigations brought against them leading to resignations. Clarke’s report extensively corroborates all of these issues, making note that there was evidence of staff harassment and bullying, as well as certain positions being unfairly filled by people who knew the governors and by people with certain views.


These are distressing allegations. Clarke’s report largely confirms the initial claims made by our whistleblowers, with conservative Muslim practices being taken to an extreme within Park View School, creating a volatile environment for both staff and students in which science, RE and sex education are improperly taught and a culture of harassment and bullying exists. In such a climate, the initial whistleblowers who brought this issue to the attention of the BHA who passed it on to the DfE, and Ofsted, and who subsequently worked with us to speak out across the media to the wider public, should be commended for the bravery of their actions, especially given the risks to their careers and reputations they faced in bringing the scandal to light. Their actions have led to a widespread inquiry into the nature of teaching and management in Britain’s state school sector, and will have a lasting impact on the sector for years to come.

Ten facts about ‘faith’ schools

One third of state-funded schools in England are legally designated with a religious character. Here are ten facts about what that means.

1. Most don’t have to teach about other religions in Religious Education

The majority of ‘faith’ schools are required to teach religious education ‘in accordance with the tenets of the religion or religious denomination’ of the school. In other words, it’s up to the religious body as to what is taught (or not taught) in RE and if a school just wanted to teach about one religion only then it can legally do so. This is compounded by the fact that ‘faith’ schools have an exemption from the Equality Act 2010 when it comes to the curriculum and also the fact that their RE provision is not directly inspected by Ofsted (see no 4 below).

To be more specific, there are two ‘models’ of ‘faith’ school – the voluntary aided model and the voluntary controlled model.  Religious Voluntary Aided schools, Free Schools and sponsored Academies follow the voluntary aided model while religious Voluntary Controlled and Foundation schools follow the voluntary controlled model. Religious converter Academies stick to the model they followed prior to conversion.

Over three fifths of ‘faith’ schools follow the voluntary aided model (including all Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools and about 45% of Church of England primaries and 70% of Church of England secondaries). Only some Church of England, Methodist and generically Christian schools follow the voluntary controlled model.

Schools with no religious character and those religious schools following the voluntary controlled model must follow an RE syllabus that ‘reflect[s] the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain.’ But as we said at the start, schools following the voluntary aided model can teach faith-based RE.

In our experience most ‘faith’ schools do teach about other religions – although we do occasionally see exceptions. And non-Anglican/Methodist ‘faith’ schools do often offer GCSEs that only include modules on their particular faith, for example a Catholic theology GCSE or a GCSE only studying Islam.

2. When they do teach about other religions, they often don’t teach about them properly

Following on from the previous point, there is no requirements attached to how exactly RE is taught. Recent Government guidelines on RE such as the 2004 subject framework and the 2010 guidance are non-statutory but at any rate are targeted at schools with no religious character and those following the voluntary controlled model not the voluntary aided model. The RE Council’s 2013 curriculum framework does say that ‘all types of school need to recognise the diversity of the UK and the importance of learning about its religions and worldviews, including those with a significant local presence’ – but again this is non-statutory and the guidance is primarily not for schools following the voluntary aided model.

Instead what ‘faith’ schools following the voluntary aided model can do is teach that the faith of the school is literally true and that all other beliefs are false. Indeed, the 2013 framework says that ‘The REC recognises that in schools with a religious character, there is likely to be an aspiration that RE (and other aspects of school life) will contribute to pupils’ faith development.’

Furthermore, in its policy document Christ at the Centre the Catholic Education Service says ‘The first key reason why Catholic schools are established, then, is to be part of the Church’s mission in education, to place Christ and the teaching of the Catholic Church at the centre of people’s lives. “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”[Pope Benedict XVI, 2008] This evangelising mission is  exercised  through  the  diverse  interaction  of  Catholic  schools  with  their  local  parishes, families, societies and cultures they serve.’

And the Church of England has produced two major reports on its schools this century – the Dearing Report and the Chadwick Report. The 2001 Dearing Report says that ‘The Church today still wishes to offer education for its own sake as a reflection of God’s love for humanity. But the justification for retaining and aspiring to extend its provision, as recommended in this report, cannot be simply this, when the state is willing to provide as never before and when there are so many calls on the Church’s limited resources. It is, and must be, because that engagement with children and young people in schools will, in the words of the late Lord Runcie when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, enable the Church to: “Nourish those of the faith; Encourage those of other faiths; Challenge those who have no faith.”’

Meanwhile the 2012 Chadwick Report cites as a ‘key premise that appl[ies] equally to children of the faith, of other faiths and of no faith’ to ‘Work towards every child and young person having a life-enhancing encounter with the Christian faith and the person of Jesus Christ’.

3. They don’t have to teach about non-religious people and beliefs

Following on from the fact that schools following the voluntary aided model don’t have to teach about other religions, similarly they don’t have to teach about non-religious beliefs either.

Actually many schools with no religious character don’t do this either. We think that equality and human rights legislation means that the legal requirement for RE syllabuses to include Christianity and ‘other principal religions’ also means that the syllabuses should include non-religious worldviews as well. This is increasingly common and the 2013 RE curriculum framework put non-religious worldviews on an equal footing to the principal religions. When such a high proportion of young people are not religious, this inclusion is vital. But at the same time, some areas such as Birmingham refuse to include any teaching about non-religious beliefs in their syllabus (other, perhaps, than purely to act as critiques of religions).

Turning to ‘faith’ schools, our experience is that many Church of England schools do include non-religious worldviews – particularly where those schools decide to teach the same RE syllabus as is taught in local schools with no religious character, for example in the Diocese of Wakefield.

But a number of CofE schools and many others too do not include teaching about non-religious worldviews in their own right, perhaps only including them as challenges to religion(s) or not including them at all. We have already quoted the Church of England’s Dearing Report setting out Anglican schools’ aim to ‘challenge those who have no faith’. Against this backdrop it is hard to argue that such schools teach about non-religious beliefs properly.

4. Their RE teaching isn’t even inspected by Ofsted. The religious bodies inspect it themselves

Schools are inspected under section 5 of the Education Act 2005. But this says that ‘An inspection which is required under this section must not extend to— (a) denominational education, or (b) the content of collective worship which falls to be inspected under section 48.’

In other words, faith-based education of the sort given in schools following the voluntary aided model is not inspected by Ofsted. Instead, as section 48 of the Act specifies, it is inspected by ‘a person chosen… by the governing body’. In practice this means dioceses for Church of England, Roman Catholic and Methodist schools, and for other faiths it is typically the relevant national religious organisation. What is more, the state pays the religious body to carry out these inspections.

For Anglican and Methodist schools, the inspection is carried out under the ‘SIAMS’ framework. One question asked is ‘How effective is the Religious Education? Within the context of a distinctively Christian character’. This does include a grade descriptor asking ‘To what extent does RE promote community cohesion through an understanding of and respect for diverse faith communities?’ But non-religious beliefs are not included and another grade descriptor asks ‘To what extent does RE promote the distinctive Christian character of the school?’

When Ofsted inspects ‘faith’ schools following the voluntary aided model it will sometimes look at RE lessons as part of its overall assessment of teaching and learning – so in this sense the subject can be indirectly looked at. But it does not inspect or report on the subject specifically (indeed such schools were explicitly excluded from the last subject-specific report on the basis that ‘separate inspection arrangements exist’) and would not mark a school down for teaching from a faith-based perspective or failing to include non-religious beliefs.

5. ‘Faith’ schools do not have to provide much in the way of sex education and can choose to only teach abstinence until marriage

There are very few requirements on any schools in terms of what they must teach about sex education. Maintained schools (i.e. state schools other than Academies and Free Schools) have to follow the national curriculum, which in Science includes puberty and the biological aspects of reproduction. Maintained secondary schools also have to, at a minimum, teach sex education that includes education about sexually transmitted infections, HIV and AIDS. But beyond that there are only requirements to have regard to guidance on the matter and to publish policies.

And Academies and Free Schools only have to have regard to guidance.

This means that a school could, if it wishes, choose to take an approach of only teaching an abstinence until marriage, instead of providing full and comprehensive sex and relationships education that includes teaching about relationships, consent, the advantages of waiting for sex, contraception, abortion and issues related to sexual health other than STIs. The evidence shows that full and comprehensive SRE is what leads to the best outcomes in terms of ensuring that relationships are consensual, preventing unwanted pregnancies, preventing abortions and preventing STIs. So taking an abstinence only approach is unhelpful.

We regularly hear from people who say that they were taught through an abstinence only approach. We also occasionally see issues with respect to religious schools’ approach to teaching about abortion, contraception, sexual orientation and same-sex marriage.

6. Some religious schools have extremely complex admissions policies

The School Admissions Code says that schools must not ‘give priority to children on the basis of any practical or financial support parents may give to the school or any associated organisation, including any religious authority’ or ‘prioritise children on the basis of their own or their parents’ past or current hobbies or activities’. However many high profile ‘faith’ schools have this year been forced to change their admissions policies after taking into account activities such as ‘Bell ringing’, ‘Flower arranging at church’, ‘Assisting with collection/counting money’, ‘Tea & coffee Rota’, ‘Church cleaning’, ‘Church maintenance’, ‘Parish Magazine Editor’ and ‘Technical support’.

In fact the Catholic Diocese of Brentwood’s priest’s reference form asks parents, ‘If you or your child participate or contribute to parish activities, you may wish to indicate below.’ In other words, every Catholic school in the diocese is currently gathering examples of this kind of activity. This breaks the Code either because it is being taken into account or because it is being asked about needlessly.

Furthermore, since the London Oratory School was told to remove its ‘Catholic service criterion’ (where parents could get two points towards entry for three years of activities such as flower arranging) there has been a looming threat that the school will judicially review the decision.

Meanwhile, one Jewish girls’ school in Hackney specifies that ‘Charedi homes do not have TV or other inappropriate media, and parents will ensure that their children will not have access to the Internet and any other media which do not meet the stringent moral criteria of the Charedi community. Families will also dress at all times in accordance with the strictest standards of Tznius (modesty) as laid down by the Rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.’ – before giving priority in entry to ‘Charedi Jewish girls who meet the Charedi criteria as prescribed by the Rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations.’  This doesn’t seem to us to be a sensible basis on which to decide who does and does not gain entry to a state funded school.

7. They can turn down children whose parents don’t share the school’s religion, no matter where they live

‘Faith’ schools that are voluntary aided, foundation, Academy or Free Schools set their own admissions policies, whereas voluntary controlled schools have their admissions policies set by their local authority.  Again they have an exemption from the Equality Act 2010 when it comes to discrimination in school admissions. The result is that many schools can – and do – give preference to those of a particular faith over others in their admissions. They can only do this if sufficiently oversubscribed, Free Schools can only do so for up to half of places, and only about a quarter of local authorities allow some of their Voluntary Controlled schools to select.

Last year the Fair Admissions Campaign looked at the admissions policies of every religious secondary school in England. In total it found that 99.8% of places at Catholic schools, 100% of places at Jewish schools and 94.9% of places at Muslim schools were subject to religious selection criteria. At Church of England schools only 49.7% of places were subject to such criteria – but if you only focus on CofE schools that are in no way selected in terms of how much they can select (for example because they are VC schools) then the figure rises to 68%.

In total the Campaign estimated that some 1.2 million places are subject to religious selection criteria. This is a quarter more than the number of places in grammar, private and single-sex schools combined.

The problem is particularly acute in some parts of the country. For example, in Kensington and Chelsea, some 60% of secondary places are religiously selected. In Liverpool it’s around half.

8. Priority is often given to other religions over the non-religious

In our experience, a typical Catholic school priority list goes:

1. Catholic
2. Other Christian
3. Other faith
4. Distance from school – which, of course, means non-religious people.

That schools are allowed to prioritise those of other faiths over others is justified on the basis that ‘It would, for example, allow a Church of England school to allocate some places to children from Hindu or Muslim families if it wanted to ensure a mixed intake reflecting the diversity of the local population.’ However, this kind of admissions policy is extremely rare in practice. Much more common is putting those of no religion below those of religions other than that of the school. Voluntary aided model Church of England schools also frequently engage in this practice.

9. Most ‘faith’ schools can require every single teacher to share the faith of the school

The Equality Act 2010 has provisions that prevent discrimination by employers against employees. But there is an exemption from the Act to allow ‘faith’ schools, uniquely, to discriminate much more widely. In the case of those three-fifths following the voluntary aided model, this means that every single teacher can legally be required to share the faith of the school. For the rest it means for up to a fifth of staff.

How much does this happen in practice? Catholic schools are an interesting case in point. The Catholic Education Service’s stats show that not every teacher in a Catholic school is a Catholic. But their standard teacher application form asks applicants to give their ‘Religious Denomination / Faith’, adding ‘Schools/Colleges of a Religious Character are permitted, where recruiting for Teaching posts, to give preference to applicants who are practising Catholics and, therefore, one [referee] should be your Parish Priest/the Priest of the Parish where you regularly worship.’

And in their policy document, the CES says that ‘Preferential consideration should… be given to practising Catholics for all teaching posts and for non-teaching posts where there is a specific religious occupational requirement, i.e., chaplaincy post. In England and Wales statutory provision allows for such preferences to be made.’ In other words, the advice is that Catholic schools should only hire non-Catholics for teaching roles if a Catholic cannot be found. This could be for maths teachers, PE teachers, science teachers or any other role.

(Incidentally, ‘faith’ schools’ broad ability to discriminate in this way is possibly a breach of the European Employment Directive, which limits the extent to which schools can discriminate to where it can be said that there is a genuine occupational requirement (GOR). An example of a GOR is requiring a priest to share the faith of his or her church. There cannot possibly be said to be a GOR on every teacher at a school. For this reason, in 2010 we complained to the European Commission and said that UK law is in breach of European law in allowing such widespread discrimination. In 2012 the Commission took this up as a formal investigation.)

10. Until recently, if a science exam question conflicted with a religious belief, the question could be removed

Last year a state-funded and one independent Charedi Jewish school were found to have been blacking out exam questions on evolution in its GCSE science exams. The state school claimed that the practice of censoring questions had ‘successfully been in place within the Charedi schools throughout England for many years’. Most worryingly, when this came to light, Ofqual and the exam boards initially decided to support the practice.

However, after public pressure, Ofqual and the exam boards thankfully decided to reverse their previous decision and the practice is now banned.

More generally we do occasionally see concerns about the teaching of evolution or creationism in state schools – and the problem is widespread in private schools, many of which are getting state funding through their nurseries.

How are the schools funded?

Voluntary Aided schools have 100% of their running costs and 90% of their building costs met by the state, with the remaining 10% building costs being paid for by the religious organisation. But this comes to about 1-2% of the schools’ total budget and so is typically fundraised off the parents in much the same way that all schools fundraise. Furthermore it is waived for big building projects (through both the Building Schools for the Future and Priority School Building Programme schemes). And other types of ‘faith’ school do not have to pay a penny – including Academies which have converted from being Voluntary Aided.


In sum, these religious schools are virtually 100% funded by taxpayers, even though 58% think they should not be and 70% think we shouldn’t be funding the promotion of religion in schools at all.

Not all religious schools discriminate in all of the ways we have set out. But the fact that some of them do so must surely be of grave concern. We think it’s wrong that schools segregate children on the basis of their parents’ religion, can similarly discriminate against teachers and can also teach a curriculum that comes from a perspective that is narrow and unshared by those of other faiths or those of none.

Instead we would like all state schools to be equally inclusive of those of all religious and non-religious beliefs. It is only if this is the case that we can pass on to future generations a tolerant, harmonious and cohesive society in which everyone is treated fairly and equally.

The sanctity of life

Emma C Williams casts an eye over the Irish sea, and discusses the rights of women in Europe

Emma C Williams casts an eye over the Irish sea, and discusses the rights of women in Europe. Photo: Steve Rhodes.

Behind every scandal lies hypocrisy and deceit. Behind the walls of a septic tank in County Galway lie hundreds of tiny skeletons, each one of them a shameful relic of man’s inhumanity to man.

St. Mary’s at Tuam was run by the Sisters of Bon Secours in the mid-20th century. Over the years they took thousands of pregnant young women, oversaw the delivery of their babies and were supposedly charged with their care. It is debatable whether the rate of infant mortality was higher at St. Mary’s than it was anywhere else across Ireland at the time; but the ghastly mass grave of 796 babies, a significant number of which were found in a sewer, shows contempt for the dignity of human life.

It is hard not to be emotive in the light of such discoveries, especially when apologists such as Caroline Farrow are prepared to waste their time and their energy on defending the indefensible. The nuns at Tuam were all part of an institution which claims to value the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. Yet conservative Catholic doctrine denied baptism to the babies of unmarried mothers, something which perhaps gave licence to their assumption that these unfortunate children were inherently worthless and undeserving of respect.

The sanctity of life is a cornerstone of Catholic doctrine; despite this, the case in Country Galway is by no means the only example of the heinous offences against women and children committed by members of the church.

Let us not forget the estimated 10,000 young women imprisoned in workhouse laundries in Ireland between the 1920s and the 1990s, a scandal which the Catholic journalist Tim Stanley thinks is greatly exaggerated. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Originally a place for “fallen women,” the workhouses imprisoned girls who fell pregnant, daughters born out of wedlock and girls who were supposedly “promiscuous” or simply considered a burden to their family. They worked for no pay, were given little or no freedom, and those who died in service were buried in unmarked graves.

Let us not forget the theft and trafficking of thousands of babies by nuns, priests and doctors in Spain, a practice which started under Franco and continued right up until the 1990s. Some of the babies were born to unmarried girls, some of them to married women with families. The mothers were told that their babies had died, and some were even shown a substitute corpse. In truth, their babies were sent to new families, some of them abroad, and many of them were sold for huge sums of money.

Let us not forget Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old married professional, who was admitted to hospital in Galway in the early stages of a miscarriage in October 2012. Despite her condition, her request for an abortion on medical grounds was denied and she died of septicaemia one week later.

Sadly, Catholicism is not the only religious institution which continues to interfere with the reproductive rights of women. While the landmark decision leading to the legalisation of abortion in the test case of Rose vs. Wade still stands, the evangelical pro-life movement in the US continues to grow at an alarming rate. Several states including Wisconsin, Texas and Alabama have made subtle but significant moves towards reducing access for women in recent years, and many Americans are now forced to travel hundreds of miles for a termination, assuming they can afford the journey.

To deny women autonomy over their own bodies is an aberration most commonly driven by religious dogma, and I suspect it will be some time before religion stops blaming women for all the world’s ills. Until we can break free from the tenets of these archaic and patriarchal institutions, we will continue to be controlled by them.

Latest figures showing agnostics and atheists outnumbering Christians in the military does not tell the whole story

Defence Humanists has been campaigning for a representative of non-religious people at Remembrance Day for over five years now. Photo: Phil Parsons

Defence Humanists has been campaigning for a representative of non-religious people at Remembrance Day for over five years now. Photo: Phil Parsons

Recent Ministry of Defence statistics reveal that the number of non religious personnel is growing. Atheists and agnostics will outnumber Christian personnel by 2032. The military losing its faith is no bad thing. Indeed, it is a reflection of our changing society and move away from the knee-jerk reaction of many to list ‘C of E’ as their religion on joining the forces. The UK as a whole has growing number of non-religious people. The British Social Attitudes survey shows 48% of the UK population is non-religious, so these figures are not surprising. The military should be a cross-section of society. This should be the case in other areas such as race, sexuality, and gender. Indeed, the military has taken steps to recognise other faiths but continues to drag its feet where non-religious needs are concerned. The prevailing attitude seems to be that the non-religious do not require recognition. Perverse myths prevail in the forces, such as you will be last to be considered for time off at Christmas if you are not religious, or an unpleasant duty will be arranged for you if you refuse to attend a church service. Such attitudes, combined with a “cultural” link to Christianity mean the numbers of personnel listing their religion as Church of England will invariably swell. This is indicative of the military’s general ‘it’s just what you do’ desire to fit a uniform, overtly conservative pattern.

But this is changing. Service personnel no longer chose religious affiliation by default. The number of atheist and agnostics is not just a growing trend, it reflects the number of personnel who are making an actual informed choice. The number of non-religious in the forces is likely greater than reported, for the reasons stated above. Church of England dominance as the state religion, from school onwards, influences our identity to the detriment of society, creating a false bias. The military loves uniformity, and encourages homogeneity, leading to an erroneous pull towards Christianity as a default setting, rather than an informed choice.

The forces need to adapt and cater for the non-religious. This matters because there are several issues a lack of faith affects. Pastoral support is provided invariably by padres and chaplains. They do an excellent job, but if an atheist civilian would not turn to a reverend in time of trouble, why should the atheist soldier? Denying oneself support in what is undoubtedly a stressful profession is a disgrace, and the MoD should be providing pastoral support that accommodates the full spectrum of beliefs represented in the forces. There is a pressing need to provide impartial humanist ‘chaplains’ for secular support.

I’m a former RAF officer and I served from 2008 to 2011. It was a short career but I’ve had over a decade of forces involvement. When I joined the regular forces I chose the non-religious oath which raised some eyebrows; I’m fairly certain I was the only cadet out of 120 who didn’t swear on the Bible. Apparently ‘it’s not what you do’. I chose to serve my country without a need to serve god, and the promise I made was a solemn one.

The Defence Humanists has campaigned for the past five years for humanist, non-religious representation at the Cenotaph this, and every, Remembrance Sunday.  Everyone who has served our country deserves to be recognised. The service should be a secular one, with provision for all religion or belief groups. The growing number of non-religious personnel has already made a Christian service redundant. The military cannot continue to sit on its hands and say, ‘we’ve always done it this way’. These latest statistics demonstrate our case is a valid one, and all other elements of service life need to reflect the growing non-religious population.

The Defence Humanists was established in 2011 and is an expanding section within the British Humanist Association, with over 300 members and supporters, outnumbering Sikhs and Jews combined in the services. The number of non-religious personnel is significant. Matters of faith and belief are personal, and should be respected. But above all, the most important defining characteristic is the choice our armed forces personnel made to join up and serve our country. Whether you serve a god or not is arbitrary. The change in the military demographic reflects our dynamic society. This is progress. This is a positive change, and the military needs to recognise it.