In my previous article (128: “Ask me why”) I gave a brief outline of why I became a member of the National Secular Society (NSS). The article expressed how my desire for membership in the society was an outcome of changes in my thinking, beliefs and attitudes – the personal effects of experiences and events that have taken place in my life over a number of years.
The NSS will shortly hold its 2018 Annual General Meeting in London at the Conway Hall, Bloomsbury.
The AGM provides an opportunity for NSS members to participate in the business of the NSS and for meeting with the society’s Council, staff and fellow members. So too, the AGM provides a forum where members have the opportunity to express their views on what the NSS’s campaigning priorities should be.
As a member also of the Campaign for Dignity in Dying, it is of significant interest for me to note that one of the motions to come before the NSS AGM this year is the following: “This General Meeting supports campaigning and campaigns designed to facilitate an individual’s right to seek an assisted death whether through legislative changes or judicial rulings.”
It is reassuring to know that the rights of the individual are a primary concern for many people and that the power of the campaign is still being exercized. Closer to the specific concerns of the NSS, however, is its No More Faith Schools campaign.
What, then, is a faith school and what are the specific aims of the No More Faith Schools campaign by the NSS?
A “Faith school” is a description, not a legal definition – it includes all schools that are legally designated has having a religious character or faith ethos. For some people it also includes all schools where a religious organisation has a formal role in the governance of the schools. The variety of faith schools is somewhat difficult, if not disconcerting, to comprehend.
In England and Wales there are two main types of faith schools – voluntary aided (VA) and voluntary controlled (VC) schools.
The former (VA) tend to have a more rigorous religious ethos, less restrictions on discrimination/proselytization and more direct religious control. The Church of England and Church in Wales often insist that ‘their’ schools aren’t faith schools. In England there are also faith based academies, faith ethos academies, VA-converter and VC-converter academies. Religious groups may also run multi-academy trusts (MATs) which control non-faith schools.
Almost all public schooling in Northern Ireland is split along sectarian (Protestant/Catholic) lines. Controlled (legally designated as Protestant) schools are governed in accordance with the Church’s ethos. Maintained (Catholic) schools are controlled by the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools. There are a small number of Integrated Schools – which seek to offer a balanced curriculum without religious discrimination.
In Scotland there are two types of schools – denominational and non-denominational. The former are mostly Catholic and explicitly religious. The latter were traditionally seen as Protestant, but are meant to serve the whole community.
Faith schools may also be referred to as denominational, religious, sectarian or Church schools.
No matter, whatever their designation, faith schools are solidly situated in the infrastructure of the British education system. One might ask: “Whatever happened to the local education authority school?” Certainly, in a nation that largely regards itself as “secular”, the extent and influence of faith schools is deep-seated and widespread – and worrying!
It is against the above background that the NSS’s campaign No More Faith Schools is being undertaken.
A lot of its work is behind the scenes, for example, helping parents stand up for their rights when they’ve little choice but a faith school, or where children are refused school places due to discriminatory policies, or, perhaps more publicly, sharing stories about the threat faith schools pose to children’s education.
The No More Faith Schools campaign focuses on state schools across the UK. It does not campaign against private faith schools.
However, it does support efforts to ensure children’s rights are protected in the independent sector. In this respect, the NSS (who coordinates the No More Faith Schools campaign) recently reported the first convictions for running an unregistered faith school. The NSS also reported faith schools in the independent sector still open after multiples failures, as well as another ten schools which were issued with warnings by the DfE.
The NSS takes a serious interest in the work of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (PES). The core message of the PES is: “Let children make their own minds up about religion.”
In support of this basic belief, the society makes the strong ethical case that directive religious schools undermine children’s freedom of belief. Education should value individual autonomy and give children the tools they need to make informed decisions, including about religion (see my previous article for a similar argument and where in a school curriculum religion could be taught).
One weakness of faith schools that is often overlooked is their inability to successfully teach RSE (relationships and sex education) through a faith ethos. Too often this is euphemism for discrimination, stigmatization and misinformation. It is no coincidence that the government is currently consulting on new RSE guidance for English schools.
The No More Faith Schools campaign is one of fostering action through encouragement.
It has encouraged people to share the petitions generated by the NSS, to write to their MP’s, share the information on social media, and to let the NSS know of new proposals for faith schools. The NSS has resources, including speakers for local groups, that can be used by individuals and groups concerned about existing faith schools and proposals for new ones (see the National Secular Society’s website: https://secularism.org.uk).
The NSS campaign No More Faith Schools is, like the Campaign for Dignity in Dying, an example of the power of the campaign method in raising public awareness and consolidating public power – as necessary today as it ever was.