Liberal Democrat education policy - a triumph for secular humanism
If the polls are correct, and the present level of support for the Liberal Democrats is sustained and translates into hard votes, a hung parliament will yield more than another Gordon Brown premiership with Vince Cable as Chancellor. Nick Clegg will be in a position to exercise more power than any Liberal leader for more than a century. And the price of coalition is likely to be two or three Cabinet posts.
Imagine if they demanded Education policy (aka Children, Schools and Families). The following document is most illuminating and establishes precisely why the Liberal Democrats are not only manifestly illiberal, but also profoundly undemocratic:
Faith Schools – a Humanist & Secularist Liberal Democrat Briefing
What is Liberal Democrat Policy?
The case for secular state education has a long liberal tradition dating back to John Stuart Mill. Current Liberal Democrat policy on faith schools was determined by the March 2009 debate on Education policy in Harrogate. The relevant sections of the motion are reproduced below:
1) Allowing parents and pupils to choose schools, and not schools to choose pupils, by stopping the establishment of new schools which select by ability, aptitude or faith, and by introducing policies radically to reduce all existing forms of selection.
2) i) Allowing parents to continue to choose faith-based schools within the state-funded sector, and allow the establishment of additional faith schools.
ii) Requiring all existing state-funded faith schools to come forward within five years with plans to demonstrate the inclusiveness of their intakes, with local authorities empowered to oversee and approve the delivery of these plans, and to withdraw state-funded status where inclusiveness cannot be demonstrated.
iii) Ending the opt-out from employment and equalities legislation for staff in faith schools, except those responsible for religious instruction.
iv) Requiring schools who choose to hold assemblies to ensure that any act of collective worship is optional for pupils who are old enough to decide for themselves and otherwise for parents.
3) Ensuring that religious education is inclusive in all schools and teaches about what people believe rather than what to believe, while leaving faith schools free to offer their pupils religious instruction in the school's own faith, subject to pupils being able to opt out where they have attained the maturity to make that decision for themselves and subject to parental decision until that point.
The basic position therefore is that the Liberal Democrats would allow the creation of new faith schools. However they would not be able to discriminate by selecting on the basis of faith. Existing faith schools, many of which select on the basis of faith, would be allowed to continue using faith based selection criteria providing that they could demonstrate the inclusiveness of their intakes. For example: does examination of free school meal data indicate that the faith school under consideration has a similar socio-economic mix to neighbouring community schools?
While we acknowledge that many ‘Faith’ Schools are in practice open to all of the local community, where they are not we recognise the restriction of the rights of other parents who find that they cannot get their children into a taxpayer-funded school because of a faith requirement.
We are also concerned that faith-based admissions (where that leads to racial and religious segregation of children) could be socially divisive, particularly in the context of the greater ethnic and religious diversity of 21st century Britain. We believe that state funded schools should not be places that reinforce existing divisions within and between communities. We recognise that many faith schools do not apply faith based admissions criteria but are no less faith schools as a result.
– extract from Liberal Democrat policy paper number 89 'Equity and Excellence'
The policy also provides protection for employees of faith schools who currently are not afforded the same protection under anti-discrimination law as employees of other schools. There would be a very narrow exemption for staff who are primarily responsible for religious instruction.
We recognise that all teachers (whatever their beliefs) have a duty to uphold the ethos of the school, but we believe that no teacher should run the risk of having their career options narrowed on the basis of their religious beliefs or their lifestyle. Nor should pupils be denied access to the best teachers as a result of discrimination on the basis of religion. Liberal Democrats have always opposed the exemption that exists in employment law allowing faith schools to reserve a proportion of posts for teachers who profess a specific religion.
- extract from Liberal Democrat policy paper number 89 'Equity and Excellence'
We would bring an end to the requirement for a compulsory act of worship. Where schools choose to continue with assemblies of a religious nature children with sufficient maturity ('Gillick competent') would be able to opt out, and if not their parents can opt out.
We would set down broad guidance on religious education at a national level and ensure that religious education in state funded schools educates young people about people’s beliefs and practise in terms of the main religious belief systems. It should not specify what pupils themselves should believe and practise.In addition faith schools would be able to offer religious instruction in their own faith, subject to a similar opt-out as above.
Praise for the Policy
The political tide is turning. It is a recognition that it is not in the best interest of children or society at large for faith schools to use pupil selection and staff employment practices that are discriminatory and divisive. ...this policy is a clear signal that the Lib Dems recognise there is a problem. It is vital for the social harmony of Britain that schools build bridges between different faith communities, not isolate them from each other. Accord welcomes the bravery of the Liberal Democrats in being the first political party to put the national good above sectarian interests.Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Chair of Accord
This is the first time a major party has recognised and sought to address the dangers in religious segregation that will be created by new religious schools. Together with their progressive policies on RE, worship and employment in religious schools, it marks a good step forward for those in the Liberal Democrat party and elsewhere who care about an inclusive state education system.Andrew Copson, Director of Education and Public Affairs, British Humanist Association
The Liberal Democrats education policy remains the least discriminatory and most secular of all three major parties.National Secular Society comment on Harrogate education debate
This vote is a breakthrough. It is the first time that a mainstream political party has acknowledged that there are significant barriers that faith schools need to remove if they are to be fully inclusive. It is also the first time that a mainstream political party has pledged to tackle the barriers which stand in the way of achieving full inclusion in faith schools. As such the change of policy represents an important shift from denial that there is a problem, to acknowledgement that action needs to be taken.Jonathan Bartley, co-director of religious think tank Ekklesia (there's a surprise...).
We respect the rights to freedom of belief and to education, and understand the desire of parents to bring up their children with the family's beliefs. However, it is not the job of publicly funded schools to instil a religious faith in children. The abolition of state funded faith schools would be entirely consistent with the Article 2 of the Human Rights Act. Countries such as France and the United States have secular state education and robust religious communities.Lib Dem Humanist & Secularist Group policy position on faith schools (there's another surprise).
(No quotation from the LibDem Christian Group?...)
Why Liberal Democrats should not support faith schools
Publicly funded schools should not exercise undue influence over young children to adopt religious beliefs before they are mature enough to make up their own minds.
Religion is a very personal matter. It is also a matter of deep dispute: many people do not believe there is a god, while others adopt one of many competing theistic religions, and some adopt "life-stances" or "world views" that are religious but without gods (like classical Buddhism, or Scientology).
It is not for the Government, or Parliament, or some local education authority body, to decide what children should be taught to believe. This is an improper role for state schools, funded by the public, in a community that values freedom of belief and religion. Parents who wish may bring their children up in their own religious tradition, but this is their responsibility at home, in cooperation if they wish with their church, mosque or temple.
The schools provided by everyone's taxes should respect the autonomy of their pupils, providing them with information and education, not with disputed religious doctrine.
The state should support schools which offer impartial, fair and balanced multi-faith belief education (which should include non-religious, as well as religious, world views), rather than the one-faith religious instruction and worship practised in some religious schools.
Faith-based schools introduce selection by the back door, reinforcing social divisions.
Religious schools are allowed to operate admissions policies that favour children of the appropriate faith. Often, however, the reputation of church schools for academic results leads to competition among parents to get their children admitted.
At the extreme, parents move house to get into the right catchment area and start attending church and supporting parish functions for no other reason than improve the chance of getting their child admitted.
The parents who go to such lengths are unusually committed to their children's education - the sort any school would long to have. This results in church schools on average having far fewer than their "quota" of children from socially deprived backgrounds.
The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals is an established measure of social deprivation. Church of England primary schools have only 60% and secondary schools 70% of their "fair share" of children from socially deprived backgrounds, who are usually more difficult pupils to educate. Roman Catholic schools get closer to the average (but still have fewer pupils from deprived backgrounds than non-faith schools), but other religious primary schools have only 50% and secondary schools barely 40% of their "fair share" of children from socially deprived backgrounds.
This does not mean, of course, that the schools lose their attraction to ambitious middle-class parents. But it does mean that the schools achieve no more with their children than any school would do. (see: Can Competition Improve School Standards? The Case of Faith Schools in England (2009) - Dr Rebecca Allen and Dr Anna Vignoles)
It therefore casts doubt on claims of inherent superiority in church schools that can be reproduced indefinitely if their numbers are increased. In fact, though on average the academic performance of church schools is slightly superior to others, individually their standards range from very good to appalling.
Faith-based schools tend to increase community and ethnic divisions.
Many schools in inner cities have been highly successful in combating racial and religious prejudice and in fostering not just tolerance but mutual understanding and appreciation between the many ethnic and religious groups among their pupils. But this is far more difficult if the children in a school are all or almost all from the same background.
Sometimes this is inevitable: for example, many areas are almost exclusively white and a few are sadly almost exclusively from one of the "immigrant" communities - often now predominantly British born and bred.
But religious schools tend to draw their pupils almost entirely from one ethnic community. Very few white or West Indian pupils will be sent to an Islamic, Sikh or Hindu school; very few Asian or white pupils to a Seventh Day Adventist school.
This religious-racial segregation was one of the features highlighted by Sir Herman (now Lord) Ouseley in his report on race relations in Bradford, written before but published after the serious riots in the summer of 2001. He said: "There are signs that communities are fragmenting along racial, cultural and faith lines. Segregation in schools is one indicator of this trend…". And he commented on the "inspiring... desire among young people for... more social and cultural interaction.“
It is not just ethnic divisions that religious schools reinforce. Notoriously in Northern Ireland divisions between the Catholic and Protestant communities are cemented at school. Similar divisions between Catholics and Protestants have been endemic in Liverpool and Glasgow both in schools and in the wider community.
Adding to the number of Church of England schools will exacerbate the discrimination against minority religions, such as Islam and Sikhism.
The Church of England wants to increase the number of its schools. In particular, it plans to raise the number of secondary schools it runs by 100 - which can only be done in most cases by taking over community schools. The Government supports this policy.
But already the Church of England has a disproportionate number of schools for its support in the population. It has 1 in 4 primary schools and over 1 in 20 secondary schools. Their average church attendance in England is only about 1 in 50 of all adults. The Roman Catholic Church, with about 1 in 40 adults attending its churches, is similarly favoured: it has about 1 in 10 primary and 1 in 10 secondary schools.
But other Christian denominations, with 1 in 33 adults attending their churches, have very few schools by comparison (about 1 in 240 primaries and 1 in 130 secondaries), while the non-Christian religions have only a handful of schools – about 40 Jewish schools and about a dozen for all other religions.
This discrimination is the understandable result of the historical development of schooling in England, but it is not defensible under the Human Rights Act, which forbids discrimination by the public authorities in the delivery of services on grounds of religion or belief.
This is part of the reason why the Government says it favours an expansion of faith-based schools, but it is a path towards greater division and less understanding in society.
Providing good moral education in a school with a "good ethos" can and should be done in all schools and has little or nothing to do with the school's religious affiliation.
Ofsted reports on community (i.e., non-faith) schools show time and again that they provide excellent social, moral and spiritual education without being committed to any particular religion or to any religious faith at all. To suggest otherwise - or to suggest that religious schools have an outstanding record in this regard - is unsustainable once the facts are examined.
There is no popular demand for more faith schools
The Church of England certainly wants more, and it’s hardly surprising that this has led to demands from some members of some minority groups, and some so-called “community leaders” for more of their own schools – as a simple matter of equity. This slippery slope leads to a seriously fragmented education system, which is not what most people want.
Survey after survey shows that parents just want good neighbourhood schools – and that anything from 64% to 96% of the general population does not want the expansion or even the continuance of faith schools. Clearly it’s not just humanists or secularists expressing this view.
Many Christians, including Anglicans, don’t support faith schools. Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Unitarians, and members of interfaith groups have also spoken against faith schools. Fewer than half of British Muslims want Muslim schools, and Asian women’s groups are amongst those who oppose separate schools, which they feel are designed to police their behaviour and keep them in traditional roles.
In a democracy, policies on state education should not be based on what vocal minorities, (sometimes minorities within minorities) want. State education should be inclusive.
Contrast all of that with Conservative policy, which is ably summarised by the Jubilee Centre:
New Academies, New Opportunities
Many parents, teachers, churches and other groups might be interested in the opportunities posed by the Conservatives' education proposals, which include a commitment to 220,000 extra school places in the form of New Academies, but the policy could result in less choice for parents as new schools may enjoy fewer freedoms than existing ones.
So concludes a new assessment published by the Jubilee Centre of the Conservative Party's proposals for reform of the education system, which says numerous questions still need to be clarified by the party about its draft policy.
The promise of freedom from the national curriculum raises new opportunities for faith schools in creating teaching resources with a Christian, relational message at their heart, rather than tacked on as a corrective afterwards. However, the party needs to clarify how parents and other stakeholders in pupils’ education will be responsible for school operation in practice, whilst retaining a safety net of accountability to maintain standards and, where necessary, prevent unsuitable applications.
The Conservatives have stated their commitment to opening more faith schools, although at present it seems that these will be ‘non-selective’. Depending on how this is clarified, it may close the door on particular types of faith school.
Research suggests that faith schools may promote community cohesion more than non-faith schools, but further study is needed into the nature and effect of different types of faith schools, and what they each contribute to education. A distinction should be made between those who see their distinctiveness in terms of: how the school's Christian community impacts pupils’ own identity; the wellbeing and spiritual development of the whole child, regardless of their membership of the Christian faith community; a moral and ethical framework for character formation and promoting civic values; and its contribution to pupil performance through beneficial learning habits.
The charity’s senior researcher, Dr Guy Brandon observed, 'One educationalist told the Jubilee Centre, "if the proposals are delivered as they stand, they will represent the most significant shift in educational policy for 50 years." All the same, a market-driven model of education to raise academic achievement can be unsustainable and harmful to teachers and pupils.'
The policy assessment, New Academies, New Opportunities, questions whether attempts to turn around failing schools should start by using proven and cheaper relational solutions like federation with other local schools and community engagement, rather than immediate replacement with an Academy.
Executive Director Dr John Hayward also warns that the inspection framework currently holds undue influence over school organisation and management, and is interested solely in academic performance. They suggest a need for broader value-added measures of ‘success’, such as pupil behaviour, exclusion rates, rates of alcohol and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and crime, and levels of community engagement, such as through volunteering and the Duke of Edinburgh Award.
The report also calls for the creation of a set of resources to help those setting up new schools, particularly given the specific requirements and rules around faith schools.