Tag Archives: Secularism

SPIELMAN’S MESSIANIC MISSION

Late last year, I went to a meeting with Ofsted’s Director of Strategy. During that conversation, I discussed my concern that Christians who simply want to exercise their freedom to live by biblical principles and to teach their children accordingly, are being accused of indoctrination. That view extends to any but the most anodyne teaching, or expression, of the Christian faith in schools. A significant part of the problem, I explained, is that the media simply lumps Christianity, Judaism and Islam together, labelling them all as extremist. Language like ‘hate-filled’ and ‘toxic’ is a regular part of reporters’ rhetoric and Ofsted is playing a considerable role in encouraging this perspective. I was given an assurance by the person concerned, who happens to be Amanda Spielman’s speech writer, that care would be taken in future.

So, you can imagine my disgust when I read Spielman’s speech to the Church of England Foundation for Education Leadership last week. To be fair, it’s helpful in that it does lay out the full extent of her messianic mission, including her antipathy to all but the most warm and fluffy expressions of faith – the type that John Major evoked with his description of ‘warm beer, long sleepy afternoons watching cricket on the village green, and old maids cycling to Evensong’. The extent of her anger with any opponents of Sunday School inspection was also very evident, even though primary legislation is the concern of a democratically elected Parliament, not of Ofsted.

Her solution – ‘muscular liberalism’ – merits interrogation. Presumably she has to define it as muscular liberalism because, as Tim Farron recently pointed out, liberalism has eaten itself  so the ideologues need something altogether, well, muscular. As is well documented, Spielman enjoyed a privileged education, which will have been balanced, diverse and pluralistic. It’s an education that afforded her ample opportunity to make up her own mind about what she believes and she’s clearly chosen secular feminism as her worldview – that’s fine. We live in a democratic country. She can believe whatever she wishes as a private individual. What she cannot do is abuse her role as Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills by imposing her views on society. To do so is to deny todays’ children and young people the right to understand, engage with and respond to any views other than her own.

When it comes to Christianity, she says that freedom of belief is acceptable in the ‘private sphere’ but not in the public square. The same, Ms Spielman, must therefore be true of your personal worldview. Fine for your private sphere – not acceptable in the public square. And most certainly not acceptable from a government employee heading up a department which purports to value freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law and adherence to the Equality Act 2010. Just in case you need reminding, Ms Spielman, faith is a protected characteristic. The motto of the organisation you represent is ‘Raising Standards, Improving Lives’. Lives are improved when people have the opportunity to determine their own beliefs, not have them inculcated by aggressive secular dogmatists. You’re on record about the inculcation strategy, by the way.

The problem was neatly defined by the Christian Institute – ‘Just because somebody is religious and has socially conservative views, that does not mean that they have their first foot on the escalator to violent extremism’. A spokesperson from Anglican Mainstream (which, unlike the Christian Institute, is actually Anglican, Ms Spielman, just to clarify) pointed out that extremism is ‘a violent response involving physical harm to people’ and to confuse that with work in defending marriage and sexuality is’ illiterate’. If you need some lessons in literacy, Ofsted, we are happy to oblige.

Other concerns were expressed by the Safe at School Campaign, who saw the implications of the speech as so sinister that they called for Spielman’s resignation. As their press release pointed out, Spielman was acting way beyond her remit by:
•usurping parental rights in saying that she would back heads against parents
• manipulating British values in limiting freedom to speak about belief, which is an essential part of a liberal democracy
•accusing schools which teach basic Christian principles on marriage, sexuality and the sanctity of life of ‘indoctrinat[ing] impressionable minds under the guise of religious belief’.

The problem with the imposition of social control, as many dictators have discovered throughout history, is the immutability of Newton’s third Law of Motion. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. So, Ofsted, you won’t solve the intractable, and very genuine, problem of extremist worldviews by imposing aggressive secularism, masquerading as muscular liberalism. You will simply drive the real problems further underground and out of reach, whilst alienating vast tracts of a reasonable and balanced society.

To paraphrase Pink Floyd (should you happen to be reading this, Ms Spielman) ‘Hey, Ofsted, leave our kids alone’.

TILTING AT WINDMILLS

Damian Hinds was appointed as the Secretary of State for Education last week. The smouldering debate over faith schools also flared into flames again last week. The connection? Damian Hinds is a Catholic.

It took Humanists UK, outraged at the appointment of a person of faith to public office, less than 24 hours to get an article in the media claiming that the Catholic church, by supporting an intern, was guilty of ‘pernicious and deeply inappropriate political lobbying’ and that Damian Hinds was guilty of a conflict of interest.

It was a ludicrous claim, easily dismissed and widely ridiculed on social media. A range of organisations pay for interns to gain invaluable experience of political work: it is quite proper for the Catholic church to support a Catholic graduate to work alongside a Catholic MP. Damian Hinds followed protocol and declared the payment in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. So what is Humanists UK’s problem? Simply that Hinds is a Catholic. They can’t say so, of course, because that would breach the Equality Act.

The urgent concern of Humanists UK is that Damian Hinds might remove the 50% cap on faith school admissions, which currently prevents the Catholic church from opening any free schools. The cap removal was promised in the Conservative manifesto at the last election, but the pledge was broken soon after the Conservative government was re-elected and that was pretty much how opponents of faith education liked it. A consideration of the facts might help them to understand why lifting the cap could be a good thing.

The Catholic church would open between 30 and 40 new free schools if the cap was removed, creating between 15,000 and 20,000 new places. The growth of Catholic populations in some areas of the country, as a result of immigration, is considerable. A free school can only be opened where there is proven need and the pressure on places clearly demonstrates an urgent need. For the government this is much less about Catholic education than about not having to foot the bill for building new schools or finding 20,000 additional places in already overcrowded schools.

It’s a win-win situation for everyone, except those implacably opposed to faith education who are never going to send their children to these schools anyway. But because they don’t want them, they insist that nobody else should want them either. The arguments, of course, have to be political, because the Equality Act prevents them from opposition purely on the grounds of faith. So this is how their arguments run.

Faith schools create silos of segregation. The case of Northern Ireland is sometimes quoted in this argument. Except, of course, English society is not divided along sectarian lines and all schools are reflections of the communities they serve. Anyone accusing a village school serving farming communities, or a school teaching children from military families, of social segregation would be laughed at. Yet somehow it’s fine to level the accusation when it comes to faith.

Church schools proselytise and indoctrinate the next generation of society. Well, if that were true, churches would be full to overflowing every Sunday. Empty pews and falling attendance numbers in many churches show that young people are making up their own minds about faith and voting with their feet.

Faith schools unfairly take tax payers’ money. Parents of faith pay tax, too. In addition, their churches provide financial input to their schools which the government could simply not sustain from public funds.

Church schools bias their admissions in favour of middle class parents with sharp elbows. Read the Catholic Education Service’s recent census, which shows beyond dispute that Catholic schools serve some of the most disadvantaged children in society. Examine the figures for Church of England schools that faithfully serve the communities in which they are located regardless of social status. Of course there are parents who subvert admissions procedures in order to get their children into the school of their choice. But how is that any different from parents who move house in order to do exactly the same?

All these weary arguments will, no doubt, be given another media airing over the next few weeks. As a Christian, I find it encouraging that we have a religiously literate Secretary of State, in an age when rampant religious illiteracy roams the corridors of power at will. Instead of an Education Secretary who tells the church that it needs to get in line with modern attitudes on LGBT ideology, we hopefully have one who understands that churches’ teaching on marriage and identity is derived from the Bible, not public opinion.

The problem for opponents of Damian Hinds’ appointment is, of course, that they object to the presence of faith in the public square in any shape or form. An Education Secretary with faith raises the very real possibility that secular, liberal apologists will have to make space for the voice of faith to speak, too. Having worked so hard for so long to silence it, that must be a daunting prospect.

But here’s the most important point that the faith opposition lobby has to understand – they live in a democracy. The Department of Education loves faith schools. They said so this week in a statement: ‘We want to go further to ensure all young people have access to a good school place and we are keen for faith groups to play a key role in this. Many faith schools are high-performing and are more likely to be rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted than non-faith schools.’ A third of all children in this country are educated in church schools, and many more who apply are unable to get a place.

So the government loves church schools and needs church money. Hundreds of thousands of parents (even those of no faith) love church schools because of the quality of holistic education that they offer.

It looks like opponents are tilting at windmills.

THE ARCHBISHOPS’ LETTER TO PARISHES

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written a letter to parishes, challenging the thinking of Christians about the upcoming election.

Education features throughout their letter, acknowledging its significance in nurturing a strong, stable society and raising some relevant questions about our education service. They state: ‘If our shared British values are to carry the weight of where we now stand and the challenges ahead of us, they must have at their core, cohesion, courage and stability. Cohesion is what holds us together’. Education can be a powerful force for nurturing cohesion, but it shouldn’t be used as a tool of force. Instead of seeking to impose further centralised control over curriculum content, the government should be acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of our education service, the role that the Church has played in its formation over centuries, and the right of parents to choose the education which most closely matches their parenting values. Cohesion is not uniformity – cohesion is living at peace with difference and showing respect for fellow humanity. These should be the British values which we share in a pluralist society.

The letter calls for ‘education for all’. For this to be effective, it requires us to acknowledge that we are all uniquely created in the image of God, with different gifts, skills and aspirations. To achieve meaningful education for all which nurtures individuals and promotes human flourishing, we must stop the current ‘one size fits all’ approach to education. We should create an environment in which schools of all types, including Christian schools, can thrive without fear.

We are called to act with courage, which ‘also demands a radical approach to education, so that the historic failures of technical training and the over-emphasis on purely academic subjects are rebalanced’. It is time to reverse an education culture of constant high stakes measurement, which values nothing but results and predictions of future economic prosperity. We need to develop an education service which focuses on the holistic development of people. Careers education, for example, should be about reflecting on individual identity, values, interests, aspirations and ambitions, rather than measuring the effectiveness of careers education purely on consideration of maximising income.

The Archbishops further write: ‘To our concern for housing, health and education as foundations for a good society, we add marriage, the family and the household as foundational communities, which should be nurtured and supported as such, not just for the benefit of their members, but as a blessing for the whole of society’. Yet the new Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) requirements, made statutory in the Children and Social Work Bill that received royal assent this week, require schools to teach all relationships as being equal.

There is a growing body of evidence that children raised in stable families with two parents who are committed to each other in marriage are much more likely to achieve their potential academically, socially and personally. Yet despite highlighting the importance of marriage and family in the past, the government does not privilege them in any of the new policy proposals. Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, recently called for faith schools to reach ‘common ground’ with the LGBT community on sex education. Why? Faith schools should be allowed to genuinely teach according to the tenets of their faith. Further, the right of parental opt out should be extended across the whole of the RSE and Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) policies. To do otherwise is to open the door to state indoctrination on matters of morality and ethics.

Regarding the issue of assumptions of secularism, which now inform all education policy formation, the Archbishops state: ‘Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief. The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works, nor will they enable us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives’. This is nowhere more evident than in the teaching of science. Government advice states that ‘Any explanation or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution cannot be permitted in science classes’. This limits open consideration of a range of theories about our origins, including creation.

Finally, the letter raises the issue of religious freedom, positing that, ‘The new Parliament, if it is to take religious freedom seriously, must treat as an essential task the improvement of religious literacy’. The RE Commission, a non-statutory body, is currently gathering evidence with a remit to make recommendations designed to improve the quality and rigour of religious education and its capacity to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain. Any changes to the framework or policy must acknowledge the religious diversity of Britain, the distinctiveness of each faith, the right of parents to make decisions about their child’s involvement in religious education and the right of schools to determine curriculum in a local context. We must avoid the imposition of a centralised curriculum, which is the route to totalitarian control. It is also time to put an end to the practice of safe spaces and no-platforming in further education institutions which limit the rights of Christians to express their views openly in the public square.