The Guardian - UK February 23, 2010
By caving in to faith schools, the government is at risk of teaching only shame in the classroom
by Zoe Margolis
The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. After intense lobbying by religious groups, amendments have been made by the government to the children, schools and families bill which is due to come into force in September 2011. This now means that faith schools in Britain have a right to "reflect a school's religious character" in their interpretation of the new law. Or in other words: faith schools can continue preaching that contraception, abortion and homosexuality are wrong or sinful, even though sex and relationships education (SRE) – which will be a compulsory part of the curriculum – is supposed to promote equality, diversity and tolerance.
With credit to the government, this bill does show they have realised the affect on young people of a lack of sex and relationship education in schools. But it is imperative that young people are educated about sex as something other than a biological function. And too often, it seems, adults – and parents in particular – dislike talking with young people about sex. This might be due to prudishness, or embarrassment, or even a worry about potentially "corrupting" the younger generation; but sadly this results in misinformation and a lack of knowledge, rather than equipping young people with the skills they need to make healthy decisions about sex.
So it's great to see that the government has taken the initiative to make sex and relationship teaching mandatory from a much younger age. Hopefully this new legislation will ensure that schools have to teach children age-appropriate information about relationships including marriage, same sex and civil partnerships, divorce and separation; and in later years, sexual activity, reproduction and contraception. It is fundamentally important that children and young people can obtain this information without prejudice.
So, why, with this progressive new legislation, is there an amendment that means faith schools can adapt it to suit their beliefs? Ed Balls, the schools secretary, says in a letter to the Guardian that "faith schools will not be able to opt out of statutory lessons on sex and relationship education"; but if his argument that the "bottom line is that all young people should receive accurate and balanced information, and discrimination is prevented in all schools", how can teaching that sex outside marriage is wrong, or that contraception is bad, or that homosexuality is a sin, be seen as "balanced" information? Surely that will contradict the guidance provided as part of the sex education curriculum? And how does faith school teaching about sex fit in with the idea of tolerance or equality?
Balls may believe that conceding to the religious lobby was the best way of getting this legislation passed; but it undermines the progress made, and gives support to prejudiced misinterpretations of sex education.
Brook, the young people's sexual health charity, is more optimistic about this amendment. Spokeswoman Jules Hillier says: "We're hopeful that the ethos of the bill, which stresses diversity and equal opportunities, will mean that all schools will need to take a balanced approach to the teaching of SRE."
It is arguable, I suppose, that without this amendment, and with pressure from the religious lobby, this bill might not get passed – which would be a great shame, because it will impact young people in many positive ways for years to come. It's an enlightened government that dares to remove the right of parents to opt their children over the age of 15 out of sex education and enforce mandatory lessons in the subject in the majority of schools in the UK. So overall, it's a move in the right direction, albeit not quite far enough.
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Politics - UK February 23, 2010
Comment: Ban faith schools
Jim Murphy wants more religion in British politics. If we don't clamp down on faith schools now, he might get his wish.
By Ian Dunt
Religion is on all the Labour lips today. First children's secretary Ed Balls got a roasting for allowing faith schools an exemption from equality requirements in the curriculum. Then Jim Murphy, Scottish secretary, set up a speech tonight calling for religion to have a greater role in politics and for Labour to appeal to religious voters.
Despite all this, it's still too early to worry about a distinct shift towards religion in the British political culture. Labour just made a calculation. It realised it would upset religious groups more with the double-blow of the equality bill and the children, schools and families bill than it would upset equality activists by passing the amendment today.
For a long time, Labour was ruled by two men whose political senses were sharp enough to realise the folly of allowing religion into the political realm: Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell. That thought process still pertains, but the threat from the religious lobby is becoming increasingly substantial. It may remain marginal now, but it grows in strength every day, because of faith schools.
The Labour government is the first under which the number of faith schools has increased. Under the Tories, their number actually fell, but once Blair was installed in Downing Street the government launched an all-out defence of their status. As education secretary, David Blunkett said he wanted to 'bottle their magic'. Ruth Kelly, a member of Opus Dei, was similarly supportive. Ed Balls walked into his department critical of faith schools but emerged enchanted. It's actually very difficult to discover how many faith schools there are. But take a look at academies. A third of them are religious, and in almost every single case they replaced normal community schools. Faith schools are on the rise.
That they should be treated so uncritically by government is a damning indictment of its long-term calculations. These institutions are an initiation ritual for the ghettoisation of mankind. And if we want a solution, we need to take a look at France.
France is not usually the first port of call when looking for a harmonious society. In the middle of its society there stands the secular state, a respectable notion that has become oppressive and tyrannical in France. It is a weapon wielded by the dominant majority against racial and religious minorities. Beyond any ethical concerns, this has done remarkably little for French society.
The banlieues - ghettos or suburbs depending on your inclination - rose up in rebellion a few years ago, but that was just a fiery demonstration of the deep resentment in French society. Walking around Paris, Londoners find it disarmingly white, except that France, in actual fact, has a greater Muslim community than Britain. Outside the centre, in the banlieues, a bountiful multicultural mix thrives, but without material wealth, or the opportunity to gain it, and without representation, either in the media or politics. The secular state has become the aggressor. It denies people their identity and banishes them in their own country. It is, at heart, a fascistic notion, which demands the individual gives himself up to the country. It is government interference, of the sort civil libertarians like myself rail against every day.
Britain's laissez faire approach to immigrations and multiculturalism may have seen French intelligence agents brand us 'Londonistan'. It may see areas branded Muslim, or Turkish, or Polish. It may see the emergence of cultural artefacts we find distasteful, like the burkha. But it reflects British freedom, and the ability this country gives you to live your own life, free from the interference or judgement of the state. It is also, despite the rabid anti-immigrant sensibilities of the tabloid press, a far more successful model than that practised in France, and a far more ethical model for governing a multicultural society.
Except for one thing: education. In education, we must respect and adopt the French example.
The British legal system knows how to treat children: as humans incapable of giving consent. So why doesn't the government? Allowing parents to force their children into faith schools is just really child abuse, as Richard Dawkins ably pointed out last year. It forbids them the freedom and space to develop their own thinking and decide if they wish to sign up to the varied mumbo jumbo religions espouse. Schools are where we create humans capable of deciding what they do with their freedom, not a factory for churning out new versions of ourselves, together with our prejudices and intellectual fallacies.
This is not an exemption from the traditional resistance to government interference. This is to personal freedom what Keynesianism is to capitalism. It is interference designed to expand freedom. Without intellectual autonomy how can we create adults who can manipulate, comprehend or value their freedom? Or to be more specific: when Balls takes the need to respect diversity away from the curriculum of faith schools, he takes away the freedom of vulnerable, young children to explore their desires without being crippled by the stigma and idiocy which faith will impose on them.
Unless we take a far tougher approach to faith schools, the next generation could emerge more religious, more divided, more irrational than voters are now. Children below the age of 18 should live like the French. Adults over 18 should live like the British. Before the age of consent, the secular state rules.
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