Please don’t bash our media freedoms: one humanist’s plea for careful language

Tony Charlesworth is alarmed by what he sees as crude generalisations about ‘the media’ at the recent ‘Common Ground’ event between humanists and Muslims at Conway Hall.

Alom Shaha chaired four Muslim panellists in front of a mainly humanist audience.

Alom Shaha chaired four Muslim panellists in front of a mainly humanist audience.

People are not punchbags. Mutual comprehension is always preferable to conflict. ‘Jaw, jaw’, said Winston Churchill, is always better than ‘war, war’. So the recent ‘Common Ground Dialogue’ at Conway Hall between a panel of four moderate Muslims, chaired by BHA trustee Alom Shaha, and an audience largely made up of humanists was to be welcomed. And it proved worthwhile. The panel was composed of intelligent, reasoning people with interesting things to say.

Any initiative that says we should listen in a reasoned way to people with opposing ideas, rather than shouting at each other, is always to be welcomed. The organisers and the panelists are to be congratulated. And certainly it was useful to hear about the spectrum of ideas that exist within Islam.

The speakers asked probing questions about their own Muslim faith. They spoke about the treatment of women; the deep-rooted sectarianism within Islam; and about the problems that flow from literal interpretations of holy texts. Questions from the audience shed light on matters to do with ‘faith’ schools; homosexuality; and links between Islam and violence.

Given the issues that the panel members experienced with their own faith, it was a pity that they weren’t pressed more on what it is they continue to get out of this faith themselves and what it means to them as individuals. That was an opportunity missed.

And while we’re at it, we also need to be honest and acknowledge that very many humanists don’t feel quite so sanguine about this kind of ‘interfaith’ dialogue. I should stress that I am not one of them. But as a member of the BHA, I’m acutely aware that many of my fellow atheists feel that religion must be directly addressed rather than tolerated. They would argue that it’s a highly problematic circle to square: both to live harmoniously alongside the religious, whilst also being strongly opposed to religion. But that’s a big separate discussion for another time.

Loose language

So now let me come to the one major aspect of this Conway Hall event that troubled me greatly. And it’s a matter thrown sharply onto centre-stage by the recent freedom of expression discussions in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo affair.

The panel’s niceness and reasonableness (together with the niceness and reasonableness of the humanist event organisers) flew out of the window when it came to one important group: the media. As far as the media was concerned, instead of reasoned thought, we heard worryingly loose language from the panel and organisers, as well as lazy thinking, unquestioned assumptions, and sweeping generalisations. All things I would say are unforgivable for a humanist meeting.

This isn’t merely a peripheral matter. It was precisely those kind of sweeping unthinking generalisations about groups of people that this event was intended to tackle!

Let me start with the recent article in HumanistLife which reported on this event, written by Jeremy Rodell, one of the organisers.It was headlined: ‘Common Ground dialogue: how can humanists and Muslims live and work together in 21st century London?’ (Jeremy, by the way, is a friend of mine and he already knows my views.)

Jeremy’s opening introductory paragraph says that the purpose of the event was to ‘get behind the media stereotypes’ and ‘beyond the black-and-white “isn’t Islam terrible” rhetoric.’  But exactly what ‘media’, and which ‘stereotypes’ and what ‘rhetoric’ was he referring to? We’re not told.

He goes on to say that the purpose of the event was to ‘start to understand what real Muslims think’. But what actually is a ‘real Muslim’?  What would an ‘unreal Muslim’ look like?

By simply lumping together ‘the media’ as if it were a single monolithic entity, Jeremy and his fellow humanist event organisers, together with the panelists, fell straight into the intellectual beartrap of precisely the kind of undifferentiating generalisation that they criticize others for when they lump together people as:  ‘the Muslims’, ‘the Christians’, ‘the Jews’, and ‘the humanists’!

Lack of evidence

I’ve spent my entire career working as a journalist and TV producer for the BBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press. They differ markedly as organisations. Yet depressingly, this phenomenon of referring airily in general to ‘the media’ is something one comes across a great deal. When Jeremy and the panelists refer to ‘the media’ (and actually ‘the media’ are people too!), whom and what do they have in mind?  Is it:  the Financial Times?  Playboy?  Channel Four News? The Daily Mail?  Al-Jazeera?  The Sun?  Charlie Hebdo? The Chinese Peoples’ Daily?  Have I Got News For You?  The Guardian?  I could go on.

It was certainly striking that the humanist event organisers, the Muslim panelists and Alom Shaha as chair all tacitly indicated that for them ‘the media’ was a hostile force. Underlying this entire discussion was an unquestioned and untested assumption that ‘the media’ is to blame (partly or even perhaps wholly) for at least some of the current difficulties that Muslims find themselves in. A further unquestioned and for me objectionable underlying assumption throughout was that the work of ‘the media’ is somehow morally reprehensible.

At one point, one of the panelists spoke about the influence of ‘the global media empire’. I don’t recognize such an ‘empire’. It doesn’t exist. Such a phrase belongs to the most absurd kind of paranoid delusion. Yet nobody questioned it.

The evidence of reprehensible media influence adduced by the panel was pitifully weak and highly selective. The examples produced were: one interview with a radical cleric on BBC Radio’s Today programme; an opinion piece in the Spectator; unspecified headlines in the Daily Mail. We also had some fanciful speculation about how the Dr Harold Shipman case might have been reported had he been a Muslim. And a propos of nothing at all, a panelist spoke about disliking ‘wall to wall satellite news images of Muslim fighters in Chechnya’. Another panelist baldly asserted: ‘the headlines are always grabbed by the Muslims’. Really? Are they?

Thinking humanists (and thinking moderate Muslims) really need to do a lot better than this.

If none of this amounted to any kind of coherent case against ‘the media’ as a whole, perhaps most depressingly of all there was also no recognition at all given to the fair, objective job of reporting Muslim issues that professional, responsible, serious media organisations undertake in free societies.

At one point in the proceedings it was mentioned that one of the speakers had written several articles for various British newspapers. No details were given, but presumably she had been given a platform to present her views. Isn’t therefore generalized denigration of ‘the media’ a case of biting the hand that feeds?

The point is that ‘the media’ is a spectrum as varied and as diverse as any other social grouping, be it religious, political or whatever. But ‘the media’ became a convenient punchbag (a scapegoat even?) at this event. Let’s please be careful about crude simplifications!

The messenger is not the message

Media organisations in free societies in all their complex, highly varied pluralistic aspects communicate about, reflect on and report on the, often extremely shocking, events that are happening in our world.  But media organisations are not the people who are actually carrying out what is happening in our world. The messenger who carries messages to and fro is not the same  person as the person who is carrying out the actual events about which the messages are being communicated. Media organisations undertake communication of messages; they are not the people who decide the manner in which those messages are then received by an audience or how those messages should subsequently be interpreted by that audience. 

Furthermore, it is also self-evident that, as well as reporting on world events, media organisations in free societies do a huge amount to facilitate and provide a platform for precisely the kind of open debate and discussion on current issues and problems that is needed in our world. Yet the organisers of this event and the event speakers simply chose to ignore all of this.

Just like democratic politics, the fact that we have free uncensored media is something that has been hard-won and shouldn’t be easily taken for granted. Moreover, much media reporting in authoritarian unfree places (such as we see in parts of the Muslim world), where it exists at all, is often undertaken by journalists at no small personal danger and risk. But once again, none of any of this was ever remotely acknowledged by either the event organisers or the panellists.

Shining a spotlight

I can entirely understand that moderate Muslims may feel extremely sensitive and feel under (real or imagined) threat when it appears to them that a glaring media spotlight is being shone on them personally because of the activities of extremist Muslims. Likewise, ordinary Jews, for example, may also feel extremely uncomfortable about the hostility (real or imagined) directed towards themselves because of the activities of the current Israeli government with regard to Gaza. I personally felt extremely uncomfortable when some of my French friends said that British people were war criminals because our government had approved the invasion of Iraq.

But the fact that people are made to feel uncomfortable about what they see, read and hear from media organisations should never in a free and open society be any reason whatsoever for the often very unpalatable and disturbing things that are going on in the world not to be reported fully, unflinchingly and unsparingly by media organisations. Nor should it be any reason to suppress the publication of what some might regard as unwelcome opinions.

Free expression, the mark of open democratic societies, needs pluralistic, vigorous, robust, questioning, often insolent, hard-nosed media organisations to hold people accountable and to shine a bright spotlight on what is happening in our world. It is precisely the mark of authoritarian, unfree societies that everything there is presented as officially rosy, no one is made to feel uncomfortable, and nothing is questioned or brought to light.

Hard-won privileges

I’m not saying that media organisations are beyond criticism. Far from it. Appalling criminal activities, for instance, like the phone hacking and entrapment that have been practiced for so long by the Rupert Murdoch-owned press must be punished hard.

And I certainly support the British Humanist Association (BHA)’s recent call to Ofcom for the BBC to carry more humanist and specifically non-religious content.

‘We just want to be allowed to get on with our lives,’ pleaded one of the panellists. But actually where is the evidence that in Britain today, Muslim people are not being allowed to do just exactly that?  A sense of victimhood can become an identity.

No one should ever be racially abused. But racial hatred is now covered by British laws – unlike in the past, as Alom described it, when people were abused in the street and called ‘Paki’. There are also defamation laws that protect attacks on personal reputation. So while we’re at it, let’s also give two cheers (three’s probably too many!) for a legal system which we (unlike certain other countries in the world I can think of) are also fortunate to possess.

It’s very easy to take our media freedoms for granted. Just like we can take our democratic political institutions for granted. But these are precious, hard-won things. Much of the world doesn’t have any of our privileges. We should be celebrating these things, not denigrating them. And as humanists especially we always have the clear duty to beware of loose language, unquestioned assumptions and sweeping generalisations wherever they are found.

Tony Charlesworth is a former journalist and television producer on the staffs of the BBC, Reuters and Associated Press.  He runs Tony Charlesworth Associates, a television and communications agency, and is a member of the BHA.


Support for humanist marriage is broad and overwhelming – so why is the Government delaying?

As the Government continues to delay reporting on the legalisation of humanist marriages, we are seeing increased expressions of the political consensus in favour of it. Two dozen members of the House of Commons today have signed an Early Day Motion to urge the Government to move towards legalisation. They already include MPs from Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, Green, Conservative, and even SNP making a rare venture into English and Welsh matters. They include Christians as well as humanists, and there are more signatories to come.


This is a follow-up to a triple cross-party strike from a Labour, a Liberal Democrat, and Conservative MP on 11 November, who pressed the justice minister from three corners of the chamber as to what was taking the Government (which had originally told the British Humanist Association that the whole issue might be taken care of by about eight months ago!) quite so long:


And on 4 December the Labour front bench, who were forced to compromise on humanist marriage at the time of the Marriage Bill last year when the Government threatened to delay same-sex marriage if the case for humanist marriage was taken to a vote, were showing their frustration:


And it’s not just in the Commons. Last week, on 1 December, there was a mini-debate in the House of Lords in which there was not a single voice raised against humanist marriage and in which, again, there was cross-party support from Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat, as well as independent peers. Again, support crossed belief lines with Christians such as cross-bencher Baroness Butler-Sloss also urging the Government to get on with legalisation. She and Baroness Thornton got pretty much as forthrightly critical of the Government as it is possible to be in the polite atmosphere of the Lords:


Unfortunately, it does seem that the Government is just not listening. Even when the subject was raised directly with the Prime Minister by an MP of his own party at Prime Minister’s Questions on 19 November, there was no answer forthcoming on the substantive matter of humanist marriage, just the same ‘wait and see’ response, while Parliamentary time between now and the next general election bleeds away:


When the Marriage Act was going through Parliament, it was clear that there was majority support for the legalisation of humanist marriages in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The British Humanist Association, though obviously much much smaller and poorer than the wealthier and more powerful lobbies against humanist marriages, at least was able to make its arguments and expose the disingenuous ones of critics in the light of day. Now that the matter is being considered behind closed doors, there is no such opportunity.

All that can be done is to state yet again the case for legal recognition, against which no coherent or just case has ever to this date been made.

In England and Wales, members of literally dozens of religions from Scientology to Methodism and from all the denominations of Judaism to the Spiritualists and the Aetherius Society (Yes – honestly!) can all have a legal marriage in the place most special to them, conducted by one who shares their beliefs, and in the form that embodies their most deeply held beliefs and values. Those with humanist, non-religious beliefs and values don’t have the same choice.

In Scotland, where humanist marriages are legal, they have proved hugely popular – so popular that they have contributed to a growth in marriages overall. Giving legal recognition to them in the whole of Britain would be fair, inexpensive, easy, uncontroversial, and beneficial for both individuals, wider society, and the economy. What can possibly be being discussed behind closed doors that weighs against all that?

Our commitment to challenging faith-based homophobia

Cutting Edge Consortium founder Maria Exall writes about the impact of faith-based homophobia on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in this country and around the world. 

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell at London Gay Pride, highlighting the role religion plays in propagating homophobia around the world.

Human rights activist Peter Tatchell at London Gay Pride, highlighting the role religion plays in propagating homophobia around the world.

For lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith, official Church teaching on sexuality and gender identity is cruel. Despite the welcome tolerant stance of Pope Francis at the recent Synod on the Family in Rome and the increasingly warm words from Archbishop Justin Welby, there is a long way to go before the diversity of sexuality and gender is promoted by religious leaders as a positive aspect of human life.

Despite the development of a progressive consensus on LGBT rights over the past two decades in the UK, the leadership of the vast majority of the Churches are islands of continuing prejudice, with some honourable exceptions including the Quakers and Unitarians. Such positions are not, of course, the sole prerogative of Christian leaderships. They are often reflected in the kind of violent statements and actions which have emanated from some Muslim and Orthodox Jewish leaders and organisations, but the situation in the Christian Churches is a source of continuing concern.

Church leaders in the UK could speak out in their worldwide communions for more tolerance, but they have remained quiet when anti-homosexual legislation was introduced in Nigeria, Uganda, and Russia, and they fail to stand up for LGBT asylum seekers when they are treated disgracefully by the UK Border Authority. And it should not be forgotten that the leadership of the Anglican Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Alliance, and many other Christian organizations opposed at every stage the comprehensive equality legislation on sexual orientation and gender identity brought in by UK Governments over the past two decades.

Now however there appears to be a heeding of the ‘sign of the times’. There is a real possibility of a shift towards a pastoral approach that embraces the principle of the dignity of the human person in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, the most numerous Christian denominations in the UK. But that very possibility has fired up the increasingly desperate opposition. In an attempt to stem the liberal tide they are now focused on disciplining their clergy and theologians.

The situation of Jeremy Pemberton, the Anglican priest denied a license to practice as a hospital chaplain by his Bishop because he is married to another man, is the most recent sign of this. And there is no evidence this paranoia will end in the near future with the withdrawal of Reform, the inappropriately named conservative grouping, from the internal Anglican talks on homosexuality.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the theologian Tina Beattie has been banned from speaking in church premises by the Diocese of Edinburgh due to her support for the right of Catholics to vote for same-sex marriage legislation.

But the homophobic and transphobic stance of these Church leaders is not supported by the majority of lay Christians — the faithful have moved on. As the work of Linda Woodhead and others has shown, Christians in the UK overwhelmingly accept the diversity of human sexuality and gender identity in our society with the views of older churchgoers and those with conservative evangelical theologies the only significant variance.

LGBT people of faith deserve the blessing of their churches for their loving relationships and their rainbow families. The eventual acceptance of LGBT equality by the Christian Churches will be a step change in fighting homophobia and transphobia in the UK and will help in the struggle for LGBT rights worldwide. This fight for tolerance within religion is a fight we all have to win.

Maria Exall is founder member of the Cutting Edge Consortium, an alliance of LGBT faith groups, humanists, trade unionists, and community activists all campaigning against faith-based homophobia and transphobia.

Register now for the Cutting Edge Consortium Conference 2014 at Conway Hall on 1 November by visiting the website. Speakers include humanists Andrew Copson, Peter Tatchell, and Lord Michael Cashman,

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 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 so this campaign can continue at full steam in 2015.

Is it a full moon tonight?

Earlier this year, in another role, I was surveying the residents of Bosworth on local issues. Amongst the questions I was asking them was this impartial gem: ‘Given that David Tredinnick has spent hundreds of pounds of taxpayers’ money on astrology software to aid him in his constituency duties, how does this affect your likelihood of voting for him in future?’ Mr Tredinnick has also advised surgeons not to operate when there is a full moon, and is a keen supporter of homeopathy. Many of his questions raised in the House of Commons have concerned the virtues of alternative medicine.

David Vázquez.

Does the moon really cause people to behave differently? No. That was easy. (Photo: David Vázquez.)

His constituents were stunned. There were a few of course who stood staunchly by him, the colour of his politics being to their liking. But many interrupted me with guffaws of ‘what the?!’ and a fabulous selection of expletives. That many members of the British public cannot name their MP sadly comes as no surprise. However, how many of us constituents know what our own MP gets up to in Parliament? What causes they put their weight behind? The audience they command to voice their own idiosyncrasies?

David Tredinnick is Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Integrated Healthcare. He is on the health committee and science committee. He is not in those capacities as a medical professional or scientist, but he does hold a great deal of sway. He has the power to shape policy driven by his own opinions, not research or fact. He is putting his trust in mere sorcery, over established medical practice, and innovative medical and scientific research. He has spoken out recently in support of astrology within healthcare, citing 20 years of research.

On the one hand, his comments are quite amusing. Politics loves vivid characters, and this survey produced hysteric giggles in my office, and much joking for weeks afterwards about our astrological compatibility in the workplace. The other viewpoint is dismay and disgust. This is not funny. This is an MP who puts superstition on a pedestal and takes it into the heart of Government. His position on the APPG influences policy. There are fewer important areas of policy, with the potential to touch us all, than healthcare.

People in office are powerful – their mere opinions can have great consequences. Their opinions. Not research, or results, or proven processes. Governments need to be held to account. The BHA, its members, and the voting public have a duty to hold MPs to account. We may disagree on key issues, my local MP might not be from my favourite party, however when an MP voices support for a matter as trivial as astrology, I as a constituent would be gravely concerned.

Horoscopes are fun. Superstition, mostly harmless. Years ago in the police force, my colleagues and I would observe, ‘it’s a full moon tonight,’ expecting a troublesome night ahead. But no one could seriously justify extra staff on a lunar monthly basis, without clear evidential proof correlating a rise in crime with the phases of the moon. It’s madness. Some alternative therapies can yield results. Several provide comfort. If a new treatment could demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt its medicinal effect, it deserves recognition.  Research and results are the only dependable source. The bizarre homeopathy David Tredinnick champions, and his reliance on astrology, are not things the taxpayer should be footing the bill for. Mr Tredinnick is welcome to consult his horoscope in the daily papers, but he is foolish if he wishes to take it into work with him. Especially when that work is in Government.

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.

Why the faithful need secularism

Jeremy Rodell discusses the meaning of ‘secularism,’ among other things. Note: this article first appeared on Sarah Ager’s Interfaith Ramadan blog.

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

What is Secularism?

Let’s start with what secularism means to secularists.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) defines secularism as ‘the principle that, in a plural, open society where people follow many different religious and non-religious ways of life, the communal institutions that we share (and together pay for) should provide a neutral public space where we can all meet on equal terms. State Secularism, where… the state is neutral on matters of religion or belief, guarantees the maximum freedom for all, including religious believers.’

The UK’s National Secular Society (NSS) adds that it’s ‘not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.’

So a secular state does not mean denying the role of Christianity and other religions – for both good and ill – in history and culture. It does not mean that religious people must forego their principles if they enter public life. Perhaps most important of all, it does not mean a society lacking in values. There’s a fairly clear set of liberal, human values shared by the majority in the UK and most other western countries, including freedom of speech, thought and belief; respect for democracy and the rule of law; equality of gender, age and sexual orientation and the view that fairness and compassion are virtues. Many of these values are enshrined in law.

The BHA and the NSS really ought to know what they’re talking about here. Unfortunately, many people, usually people who are not themselves secularists, use ‘secularism’ interchangeably with ‘atheism’ or ‘Humanism’.  The previous Pope even talked of “militant Secularism”, meaning “militant Atheism” (despite the fact that the weapons used by ‘militants’ like Richard Dawkins are writing books and giving lectures, not planting bombs). But you can be religious and secularist. In fact the unequivocally Muslim, anti-Islamist campaigner, Maajid Nawaz, has just become an Honorary Associate of the NSS.

The reason for this confusion is that western countries have only become secular – to varying degrees – after many centuries in which the Church was a major power in society and there were constraints on freedom of thought and expression. Much of that power has been eroded since the Enlightenment, but battles are still going on. For example, 26 unelected bishops remain sitting as of right in the British Parliament, and many state-funded schools can discriminate in their admissions simply on the basis of parental belief. It’s no surprise that the protagonists in these battles are usually churches on one side, and humanists and other atheists on the other. If you’re on the side of the churches, it probably feels that secularism and atheism are the same thing – The Enemy.

That’s a mistake. Not only does it ignore the common ground between Christians and humanists, but it focusses on loss of religious privilege and influence, ignoring the fact that Secularism also guarantees freedom of religion and belief, and the freedom of thought and expression that goes with it. That’s important, given the realities of faith and belief in much of the modern world.

Growth of pluralism

According to the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, 51% of the British population are now “Nones” – people who do not consider themselves as belonging to any religion. It was 31% in 1983. Only 16% are now Anglicans, the Established Church (40% in 1983), 12% non-denominational Christians, such as African Pentecostal (3% in 1983), 9% Catholics (10% in 1983) and 5% Muslims (0.6% in 1983), with Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and other types of Christians making up most of the balance (all under 2%). Within each of these groups there is a lot of diversity: at least 10 different sects comprise the 5% Muslims, and the 0.5% British Jews range from ultra-Orthodox to Liberal. So we’re seeing both a big decline in religiosity and an increase in pluralism. It’s hard to imagine a more plural global city than London.

In many non-western countries, the inter-connectedness of the modern world, and wider awareness of differing beliefs – including Atheism – is also tending to increase pluralism, or at least the desire for pluralism. At the same time, it is increasingly under threat, often because of war and the active spread of an intolerant Wahhabi strain of Islam.

Secularism versus oppression

Secularism is as necessary to protect believers from other believers as it is to protect atheists.

You can currently be put to death simply for the ‘crime’ of atheism in 13 countries, according to the International Humanist andEthical Union’s 2013 Freedom of Thought Report. Saudi Arabia has now passed a law declaring atheists to be terrorists. In Mosul, in northern Iraq, there has been a Christian community for around 1600 years. In 2003 there were 70,000 Christians living there. Now ISIS have taken over and they have all fled. In Burma the government seems to be doing little or nothing to stop extremist nationalist Buddhist groups from massacring Rohinga Muslims. In Pakistan there’s growing evidence of ethnic cleansing of Shia Muslims by Sunni terrorist groups – the word ‘genocide’ is appearing – and it is illegal for Ahmadiyya Muslims to claim to be Muslim. Often they are simply killed. In Malaysia, Christians have been legally forbidden to use the word “Allah” to refer to God, even though they have been doing so for hundreds of years. In Iran there is institutionalised persecution of Baha’is .

Sadly, there are many other examples where the response to pluralism is oppression. Often it’s entwined with political power, driven by fear of losing power – or simply of change – and lack of confidence that the favoured belief will succeed in a plural environment.

Secularism is the alternative response to pluralism. Ideally it’s complemented by the type of mature democracy that avoids “winner takes all” outcomes such as we saw in Egypt under President Morsi.

The faithful need secularism because it guarantees their freedom, and in some cases their survival. It is the only alternative to oppression in a fast-changing, inter-connected plural world.


‘Militant atheism’

Blogger Christian Franz shares his strongly-worded, individual perspective on charges of ‘militant atheism’ in Britain and elsewhere, and more besides.

Is there really such a thing as militant atheism? Photo: Ashley Basil

Is there really such a thing as militant atheism? Photo: Ashley Basil

If you believe what some politicians would tell you, the UK is developing a new problem; a social evil so menacing that it threatens to eclipse ‘Islamophobia’ any day now: militant atheism.

There is a certain progression to be observed: first come accusations of ‘special rights’, then we hear dire warnings of a slippery slope, invariably ending in persecution of religious people and death camps for believers, run by – you guessed it – militant atheists.

This calls for some explanation – on more than one account: by and large, ‘militant atheists’ are about as threatening as ‘fundamental hippies’. Coining the phrase is demonstrably an attempt to tarnish a term of non-description (‘atheist’) by combining it with a word evocative of conflict, violence, automatic weapons, scimitars, and death: ‘militant’. And yet, this attempt is about as successful in suggesting lethality as the term ‘combat doe’.

The most ‘militant’ of atheists was Christopher Hitchens. He earned that distinction by publicly assailing men of the cloth with remarks as cutting as ‘you are an idiot!’

The world’s second most ‘militant’ atheist would be Professor Richard Dawkins. Soft-spoken and infuriatingly polite, he’s known for book signings where, on occasion, he brings along a sharp pen.

So it’s not by their actions that militant atheists have gained the ‘militant’ epithet; there is a decided lack of streets overflowing with blood, no posters yelling ‘massacre those who insult atheism’, and to my knowledge no atheist has yet blown up a church on the grounds of advancing atheism.

So, for better understanding, we need to turn to the source. Recently, a number of British exponents have complained about the exploits of militant atheism:

In a highly publicized BBC-produced episode of The Big Questions (and a same-day publication on their web page), Voice For Justice UK speaker Lynda Rose raised awareness about the alarming fact that militant atheism is the reason why Christians are now persecuted in the UK.

A few days later, UK Minister of Faith (an office I have difficulty mentioning while keeping a straight face  it’s way too Phythonesque) Baroness Warsi voiced similar sentiments.

Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister David Cameron went on record saying that living in a religious country was easier for people of competing faiths than in a country run by (presumably militant) secularists.

And just a few days after that, former MP Anne Widdecombe  in a strangely pre-emptive evocation of Godwin’s Law bemoaned the fact that today Christians have it more difficult to live in the UK than Nazis.

What is going on here? From a rational thinker’s point of view it surely seems as if they left a lot of lead in the pipes feeding the drinking fountains of Westminster Palace. Let’s take a closer look.

VFJUK’s Lynda Rose complained:[i]

But now, apparently, the newly claimed sexual rights of a minority are being prioritised over all other traditional rights, to the extent that ‘religious’ rights are now being assigned a separate, and seemingly subsidiary, category.

It’s a bit disconcerting that Lynda – who is a lawyer – makes this mistake: there are no ‘rights of a minority’. She was referring to a couple in the UK who had their existing right to their sexuality enforced. Lynda not only makes it sound as if a sexual minority (gay people) have special rights; she then asserts that there is something called ‘traditional rights’. First, of course, there are no special rights, and in fact, everyone has the same rights. And further to this, no civilized country in the world recognizes ‘traditional rights’. After all, once it is determined that something is unethical (such as slavery, or the right to discipline your disobedient wife), it is done away with, all ‘tradition’ be damned. ‘Traditional’ never trumps ‘just’. Most importantly, though, there scarcely any special rights attained only through adherence to a particular religion in the UK, restrictions on ascending to the throne notwithstanding. Today it is one law for all. Or at least it should be, anyway.

What we do see here – and we’ll see this again – is the feeling of entitlement: people are loath to give up privileges that they used to have. In this case, it is the privilege of imposing one’s own view of sexuality on others, something which Christianity has enjoyed for over two millennia, but has now been curtailed.

We next turn our attention to Minister of Faith, Baroness Warsi. In trying to make sharia law more acceptable in the UK, Warsi first remarked that[ii]

There is no doubt that the word ‘sharia’ carries huge challenges in relation to public relations. If you talk about anything [related to] ‘sharia’, the first vision people get is chopping off of people’s hands, having four wives and all sorts of unusual practices which, in today’s world, are not compatible with the values which we live by.

Above is an astute observation. The word ‘sharia’ does have a bad reputation: much like the words ‘apartheid’ and ‘Spanish Inquisition’. Personally, I believe that this is well deserved, on all accounts.

Now, Warsi, for reasons fully understood, complains that acceptance of ill-reputed Sharia law into UK’s courts is impeded by secular fundamentalists[iii]:

The most aggressive post I get is [sic] from people who are secular fundamentalists.

Of course atheists are vehemently opposed to these ideas, ideas that would introduce superstition and medieval morals into present-day jurisdiction – but I would submit that vehement opposition is to be expected not only from ‘militant atheists’, but from everyone who can count to eleven without having to remove a sock.

Warsi’s efforts to impose her preferred version of law are frustrated by people who do not share her ideology. She believes that she is entitled to bring Sharia law into UK’s courts, and spots the enemy among what she believes to be militant atheists – those people who publish so many ‘aggressive post[s]’.

Not being outdone by amateurs, David Cameron enters the fray asserting that[iv]

it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country.

The reason? Militant atheists, of course. He goes on to extol the virtues of a religious society  blithely ignoring that each and every social advance of the past two hundred years has come at the cost of lives among humanists, and in the face of strong opposition from the Church. To me it seems as if Cameron is building up a straw man and defending religion for one reason only: because the devout in his constituency are starting to grumble that their privileges are being taken away, that they can no longer tell the gays what to do.

More frighteningly, though, Cameron concludes his speech with this:

Greater confidence in our Christianity can also inspire a stronger belief that we can get out there and actually change people’s lives, and improve both the spiritual, physical, and moral state of our country, and even the world.

I guess it does take a pesky militant atheist to point out that if you replace ‘Christianity’ with ‘Islam’, Cameron would be saying exactly what the Taliban and Boko Haram are saying: they, too, believe that by stronger adherence to belief, that by following scripture more closely, this world will become a better place. The Taliban in particular are quite explicit about this; they state that their intent is to improve this world by changing the way people behave: by making them stronger believers.

Changing people’s lives based on faith is a terrible idea. Ask any woman in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. When we talk about ‘improvements’ based on religion, we almost always talk about restrictions: no gay marriages, no abortions, no women’s education, no blaspheming, no work on the holy day, etc. The more confidence people have in their religion, the more likely they are to impose their religious ideology on others. Ironically, there is only one group who can’t do that: (militant) atheists – who, by definition, don’t have a religion.

Ann Widdecombe’s rant takes the cake, though[v]:

Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it’s that you can’t display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can’t say ‘God bless you’, you can’t offer to pray for somebody, if it’s an even bigger stance on conscience that you’re taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves.

So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate.

A former MP, Ann has unfortunately developed a distinct habit of being economical with the truth. She did so when during the ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate she claimed that everyone who joined the Waffen-SS had to sign away their religion. The exact opposite is a documented, fact. People who joined the SS had to sign a paper stating that they were gottgläubig  believers in God  and affirmed that they were not atheists.

Widdecombe does it again here when she claims people can no longer wear religiously-themed jewelry, say endearing well-wishes, or promise piety to other people.

In reality Ann is angry at another fact: she has lost the privilege of an automatic religious bonus. People now openly scoff when someone offers prayer as ‘help’, and do not look impressed when someone openly wears a crucifix, crescent, or Star of David. Her importance and status as an openly devout believer have diminished – which is what irks her. In short, she’s angry that she’s become unpopular, and wants to assign blame.

That, in short, is what ‘militant atheism’ is all about: a scapegoat for one’s own misgivings and shortcomings, a scapegoat for the perceived injustice of privileges revoked, a scapegoat for being called upon one’s own moral failings.

Well, at least the believers are staying true to form – if there ever was an Abrahamic ritual, it’s the scapegoat.

Is it really that simple? Are politicians really trying to shift the blame from them to a minority? After all, much of what was said is monumentally stupid. Wouldn’t the political elite be more careful to avoid putting their foot into their collective mouth? Obviously, no. The reason for that, though, can be explained:

As we know, any sufficiently advanced stupidity is virtually indistinguishable from religion. That is what is tripping up politicians: they are increasingly coming down on the wrong side when they try to decide: ‘Is this still stupid or already religion?’

And then they do something ‘militantly’ stupid.


[i] “Human vs. Religious Rights“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[ii] “Sharia-conform blood diamonds“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[iii] “Sharia’s bad rap“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[iv] “Come on, Cameron!“, No Blogs, No Glory 

[v] “MP’s race to IQ bottom“, No Blogs, No Glory 

Christian Franz is a secular blogger and the author of No Gods, No Glory – Unpreaching the Choir. You can also visit his blog , No Blog, No Glory – further unpreachings.

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.

What can social psychology tell us about ‘teaching British values’?

by Graham Walker

Is pursuing 'British values' the best way to go about pursuing social cohesion? (Flag by Nicolas Raymond. Handshake by Aidan Jones.)

Is pursuing ‘British values’ the best way to go about pursuing social cohesion? (Flag by Nicolas Raymond. Handshake by Aidan Jones.)

Many will already know something of the so-called Operation Trojan Horse: the apparently organised attempt to change the leadership of a number of Birmingham schools. The letter was purported to be evidence of a plot by hardline Islamists to replace school 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 is now widely suspected to be as a hoax, it triggered several investigations into 21 schools different schools in Birmingham. Long before the letter, the British Humanist Association already forwarded concerns raised by whistleblowers about narrow nurricula at the school to the Department for Education, before notions of political ‘extremism’ caught the media’s eye.  In the end, Ofsted found evidence of poor practice in six schools in Birmingham, with allegations that members of school leadership had been ‘marginalised or forced out of their jobs’. All of this, and more has unsurprisingly sparked strong reactions in Westminster. One reaction, made by the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, stated that schools in England should start teaching ‘British values’. For me, this is an absurd and unhelpful knee-jerk reaction without necessary thought for implications and consequences. What are ‘British values’? How does one teach these? How will people react to this idea and these teachings?

England is a complex multicultural society. There is more religious, political and cultural pluralism than ever before in Britain and these factors absolutely need addressing to ensure the beneficial flourishing of all members of the population. I am not blind to the heinous crimes dictated by certain antiquated, but still followed doctrines. But, a doctrine of promoting nationalist values would be ultimately divisive; it would lead to unhelpful comparisons between apparently incompatible sets of values; and to resentment towards a prescribed syllabus which would difficult to rationally defend.

Looking through the annals of history, creating an ‘us and them’, ‘your values, our values’ belief system has never led to peaceful co-habitation. A brief glance at the literature in social psychology and this is further confirmed with the psychologist Muzafer Sherif showing, almost 50 years ago now, that in-group favouritism and prejudice towards out-groups can be created by grouping people in such trivial ways as, for example, one which favours one artist and a second group which favours another. When these artificially created groups were given goals that pitted the groups against one another, it led to instant intergroup competition and conflict.

Such studies have been shown to scale up to an international scale, as well, and go a long way to suggesting that overemphasis of ‘differences’ widens in-group favouritism and out-group prejudice. What does this suggest about Gove’s idea of teaching ‘British values’? For me, it will needlessly divide people in to ‘my values/ your values’ groups. But also, as value systems inherently determine a person or group’s goals, it could well lead to split focus on conflicting goals in our society. This could well lead to the sorts of competition and conflict seen in the social psychology studies.

Having said this, addressing values in schools is not though an inherently poor idea. The question remains: how can this be done effectively?

One way is to teach young to think critically, to critically engage with what they believe in and about what they are told to do, or to believe, by their peers and elders; and to think logically and compassionately. A ‘British person’ (whatever that is) may then see the value in acting with neighbourly love expecting nothing in return; something seen much more in Eastern collectivist societies and not in individualised Western societies. Others may see the value in treating both men and women with total equality and fairness; a fair wage for all, no violence towards women based on unscrutinised texts that breech basic human rights, and so on. Such things have been intimated by Ofsted as occurring at the Birmingham schools.

Interestingly, psychology offers insight in to the impact of this. The founder of ‘positive psychology’, the study of wellbeing and flourishing, hails the teaching of ‘character strengths’ to children in schools. These character strengths include curiosity, forgiveness, perseverance and compassion. The research suggests that not only can these strengths be measured in children and adults but lessons in character strengths can lead to measurable improvements. Reflecting on these strengths one might notice that they reflect universal character strengths, but also that they are also founded on basic human rights, without any hint of nationalist agenda.

Social psychology literature suggests that to minimise differences between groups, and to create goals which everyone would benefit from achieving, and which can only be achieved through teamwork, leads to group cohesion and inter-group harmony. The teaching of values which do not sew division between social groupings, and which create goals based on shared benefit to humanity, would hopefully therefore lead to the kind of cohesion and harmony which some of these experiments suggest could be achieved.

So what lesson does Mr Gove need to learn? I say it’s this: Take the good parts of all cultures, and build something based on basic human rights, and fair and equitable treatment for all. If the primary goal of an individual is to ensure its own wellbeing and flourishing, shouldn’t society’s be to ensure just that for society as a whole? Teaching values which adhere loosely to an idea of a country which may or may not even exist, and perhaps may have never existed, will not achieve this. But setting aside differences, and finding common ground – with listening and change on all sides – is the template that history and psychology has shown us we should follow and aspire to achieve.

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.

See Martin Seligman’s website ‘Authentic Happiness’ for a huge amount of information on Positive Psychology: