In my previous blog (see article 146: Hearing the Voices of February 6, 2020) I posed the following question: To what extent should the British State be involved with the religious, cultural and family background of the children and young people for whom it has the responsibility to educate? This question was linked with the related issue of the extent to which parents of children coming to the United Kingdom should be expected to comply with the educational aims and objectives of the British educational system?
The article then proceeded to ask a further question, that is, in a multi-cultural society, should all expressions of religious faith and cultural practices be treated with equal value? It was then stated that these questions, as well as other related issues, are explicitly referred to in the recently published Ofsted Report 2018/19 (January 2020).
In an interview which followed the release of the Ofsted Report 2018/19, the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, commented that a weakness in the children’s services can be seen in the fact that in confronting several issues the relevant action “meant crossing lines of race, culture and religion, with all their inherent sensitivities.” Ms Spielman was tacitly acknowledging that the education of many children – especially those in the “most vulnerable situations” – was being hindered by the religious beliefs and practices, the faith culture, of their family background.
Furthermore, the necessity to address this cultural situation was something of which educational authorities, indeed political responsibility, was wary of confronting. Some subjects that seem to be “inherently taboo” would include the following:
• Schools illegally segregating pupils and giving girls a much worse deal than boys
• Books in schools that promote corporal punishment
• Materials that say that a wife cannot deny their husband
• Teaching materials are censored to airbrush women out of history
The findings related to these issues have been reported, but public discussion of them has failed to materialize. The relevant voices have not been heard loud enough or with sufficient clarity and “too few people are willing to tread in these sensitive areas, so that real concerns drop out of sight almost at once.” Many in contemporary multi-cultural British society find it difficult to acknowledge that “the different rights we value are not always easy to reconcile with each other.”
As the Ofsted Report 2018/19 acknowledges, such seemingly irreconcilable rights would include the following:
• The interaction of religious freedom with the law of the land
• Rights for groups versus rights for individuals, especially girls
• The extent of parents’ rights over children
• The differing perceptions in different sections of society as to what constitutes a family or a relationship.
To paraphrase an important section of the report: in consequence of the sensitive nature of issues (such as those above), and the sometime volatile reaction to any discussion of them, it is often the case that there is no swift condemnation from government and remarkably little from national and local political leaders. Powerful voices are often muted. Headteachers are isolated. Overall, leadership is lacking.
It is implicit in the Ofsted Report 2018/19 that there are tensions in children’s education and care between the aims and objectives of a national curriculum and the religious and cultural background of the students the curriculum seeks to serve. The tensions are evident; the solutions are more of a problem.
One solution to this situation is provided by the National Secular Society (NSS). Some background information will be helpful.
In 1944 the British Government brought in the Education Act 1944. This act meant that, for the first time, both primary and secondary education would be provided to all free of charge in England and Wales. However, as the NSS has commented, the Act “also brought hundreds of faith schools into the state sector, introduced daily worship in all schools and created the system of voluntary controlled, voluntary aided and community schools we still have today.” The intention of religious education within the Education Act 1944 was to simply inform, not preach or proselytize. The reality, however, has been otherwise.
It has been estimated that faith schools account for around a third of publicly funded schools in England and Wales, while many Scottish and Northern Irish schools are divided along sectarian lines. The research of the NSS reveals that “faith schools have a negative impact on social cohesion, foster segregation of children on social, ethnic and religious lines, and undermine choice and equality. They also enable religious groups to use public money to evangelize children.”
So, the NSS considers that “the scourge of faith schools, and the deference to religious interests within the education system”, are largely the legacy of the Education Act 1944.
In consequence of the above, in April 2018 the NSS launched its No More Faith Schools campaign. This is a national campaign dedicated to bringing an end to state funded faith schools, believing that this can happen when like-minded persons, including those working in local and national governmental and educational circles, work together to this end.
The NSS believes that the No More Faith Schools campaign “is a platform for everyone who wants to see an inclusive education system, free from religious control.” It seeks to bring together all those who think that “children from all faith and belief backgrounds should be educated together and allowed to develop their own beliefs independently.”
So too, the NSS is of view that we can build “an inclusive education system today, to ensure an inclusive society tomorrow”. This education system will be one that is free from religious proselytization and discrimination. Where religion is taught in such a system it will be from a secular approach, for example, as an aspect of a subject syllabus in what the philosopher and educator A.C. Grayling has called the “history of ideas”, or from a philosophy and ethics approach and, therefore, void of any confessional or evangelical basis.
In ways such as these the aforementioned irreconcilable religious beliefs, parental rights and cultural practices, a number of which would come into conflict with British law, as well as group rights versus individual rights and different perceptions within different sections of society as to what constitutes a family or a relationship, would be provided with scaffolding for a more cohesive approach to children’s educational services.
The NSS is not alone in hoping that a future Ofsted Report will reflect such a framework.