Andrew Copson finds danger in Blair's education reforms
Labour's latest attempts at education reform, laid out in the recent White Paper, have been opposed by almost everyone (except Conservatives) for a wide variety of reasons, but the particular area of the government's proposals that have been the focus for humanist campaigners, as you might expect, are those that allow the increased control of education by religious interests. The danger is concentrated in the proposals that deal with structural change. The system of trusts that is proposed as the mechanism for the establishment of new schools will be an easy route for religious sponsors to take over community schools (we've already seen that demonstrated by the third of current city academy sponsors that are religiously motivated). Not only will it be easier for religious interests to assume control, but the Schools White Paper suggested that local authorities would be positively compelled to assist them in doing so. Parents were to be encouraged to "ask for a new primary or secondary school to meet a lack of faith provision" and local authorities would be under "a duty to be responsive" the Schools Commissioner would also be mandated to give these parents assistance. Once these self-governing institutions were up and running, there is the additional danger that their governing bodies would come to be dominated by religious fundamentalists of all kinds, embedding and perpetuating a narrow ideological focus from the very top of new institutions.
But these structural issues are not the only ones that should concern us. The government's proposals also contain implications for what children are actually taught in these new schools. We already have the example of creationism taught in academies, but an equally serious issue may be the sort of 'beliefs and values' education that schools controlled by religious interests offer a step back from the progressive reform that has characterised RE in the last 40 years.
The majority of pupils today are still educated in schools controlled by a Local Education Authority, and these schools are required by law to teach religious education according to the locally agreed syllabus. Increasingly these syllabuses will be based on the new National Framework for RE, which includes secular perspectives such as humanism, and is a testament to the (admittedly slowly) evolving nature of RE.
But what of the 'independent' trust schools proposed by government? There will apparently be no compulsion on them to follow such a balanced curriculum just as there is no compulsion on city academies to do so. Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights has rightly highlighted this as a potential infringement of both the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right not to be indoctrinated under the Human Rights Act an infringement that may be hard for those who are the victims to bring to court, given the 'independent' nature of the new trust schools.
In the face of such a potentially damaging increase in religious influence within our education system, politicians (of all political persuasions) have not been silent. Denied the opportunity by government these last few years to debate the 'faith' school issue specifically, they have been calling debates on their own initiative. An adjournment debate for MPs was called by prominent humanist campaigner Graham Allen, a Labour MP: another was held on a question tabled in the lords by Lord Taverne, a Liberal Democrat peer and opponent of segregation in schools by parental religion. It was in this second debate that Lord Baker, the former Conservative Education Secretary, declared his opposition to the expansion of faith schools, and gave ample evidence that this emphasis on and encouragement of religious influence is a new development in government: "When I was Secretary of State for Education, I had no requests from either the Anglican Church or the Catholic Church for new schools. In fact, several were being closed at the time. I did receive requests from evangelical Christians, from Muslims and from Jews. I turned those requests down." Added to the concerns expressed by peers and MPs from all parties, and the growing public concern of educationists such as Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn, authors of A Comprehensive Future, these words of a former Education Secretary should surely give us all pause for thought.
But no debate in parliament and no reform proposed by Government has yet gone to the heart of issues of concern to humanists around religion and schools. Why should Christianity have a privileged position in RE and in school assemblies (still known legally as 'collective worship', in spite of the wide-ranging content of most contemporary assemblies) even in our community schools?
Why should children be labelled as Hindu, Christian or Muslim from the earliest age, simply because their parents have an affiliation to the religion why can they not choose for themselves? Why should the teaching of values labelled as 'religious' ones be distinct from the wider education given in beliefs, values, and philosophies in our schools? Until serious consideration of these questions forms a part of their 'reforms', humanist campaigners can have very little faith in any of the education proposals the Government has on offer.
Andrew Copson is the Education Officer at the British Humanist Association. You can find more information about the BHA's campaigns on religion and schools at http://tinyurl.com/8oato