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Humanists in Parliament discuss the case against faith schools

Co-Chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group Crispin Blunt MP and Baroness Joan Bakewell, who were re-elected at the meeting for a second year.

Humanist members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords gathered in Parliament this morning for a discussion of faith schools, in addition to holding the annual general meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG). The meeting was presided over by group Co-Chairs Crispin Blunt MP and Baroness Joan Bakewell. The APPHG counts over 100 members of both Houses of Parliament among its number, and has members from all the major political parties.

Opening the discussion on religion in education was Dr Ruth Wareham, a Warwick postdoctoral fellow whose academic career has focused on faith schools. She spoke about the impending launch of the University of Warwick’s major research paper How To Regulate Faith Schools, which is to set out eight clear recommendations for policymakers in education. Dr Wareham’s research suggests that policymakers in the UK tend to approach discussions related to faith schools in a narrow range of ways, only utilising narrow definitions of attainment and social goods in assessing schools. This resulted, she said, in ‘fair access to schools generally being sacrificed in favour of [narrowly defined] attainment for economically advantaged pupils.’

Wareham’s contributions were followed by remarks from Reverend Stephen Terry, who is Chair of the Accord Coalition for inclusive education. Accord was founded ten years ago as a coalition of religious groups, teachers groups, trade unions, and Humanists UK, looking to advance inclusive education and broaden the debate around faith schools. Stephen, an Anglican vicar, commented widely on recent debates within Christian churches, particularly the Church of England, which suggested an evolving attitude to discrimination in admissions. For example, senior bishops in the Church of England have spoken against the existence of religious selection in Church schools, although as of yet, the Church has not in fact made any significant moves towards reducing the selection of pupils on religious grounds in its schools. Stephen also spoke about the successful campaign to retain the 50% cap on religious selection in English free schools, led by Humanists UK with Accord, which he cited as a model of excellence. The campaign brought together one of the widest coalitions ever seen in British education, successfully winning the argument on the negative impact of religious selection and shifting the debate on religious selection in the process.

Aliyah Saleem, co-founder of Faith to Faithless and currently a researcher for humanist peer Lord Soley, spoke next, drawing on her traumatic experiences in a strict Islamic boarding school. The room listened intently as Aliyah related her experience of being expelled and publicly humiliated as a result of being caught in possession of a camera at her strict Deobandi Muslim school. She spoke of her despair at schools which force young women and girls, as a matter of uniform policy, to wear the hijab at all times, and spoke of how this could lead to feelings of shame or issues with confidence that could follow a woman through her life. She drew particular attention to the poor treatment of women generally in the such schools, as well as a strict hetero-normative environment that encourages active discrimination against ‘anyone deemed transgressive’, including two 12-year-old peers of hers who had been expelled and publicly shamed for ‘the crime of lesbianism’. Aliyah made a stark call for MPs to consider urgent reform of what private schools can and cannot get away with, reminding the audience that across fundamentalist religious schools – whether privately run or state-funded – ‘the PR of the religion is always put before the wellbeing and rights of children.’

The final speaker on the panel was Lord Mike Watson, a Labour Party spokesperson on education in the Lords. Mike spoke on how growth in public awareness of the harms perpetrated by illegal schools – something achieved principally as a result of Humanists UK’s campaigning and work with whistleblowers – was prompting a more serious defence of liberal values in British schools from those in charge. He spoke in praise of new Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman, whose personal style has given her a strong reputation in Westminster as an effective operator, and who has been unsparingly consistent in her approach and in her determination to protect the rights of children. He cited examples of Ofsted reports which called attention to religious schools promoting misogynistic violence or the idea that women cannot refuse their husbands consent to have sex. Mike also praised the Government for allowing time for Lord Soley’s Home Education Bill to clear the Lords, and hoped it would do the same in the Commons, as this legislation could provide a mechanism for councils and Ofsted to protect children trapped in illegal schools.

As part of the formal business of the group’s AGM, members of the APPHG re-elected Crispin and Joan as their Co-Chairs for another year. Vice Chairs Clive Lewis MP, Tommy Shephard MP, Jeff Smith MP, Lord Tristan Garel-Jones, Lord Norman Warner, and Lord Dick Taverne were re-elected, alongside returning Treasurer Lord Alf Dubs and group Secretary Baroness Massey.

Richy Thompson, Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy and group administrator, paid tribute to the excellent work of former member Baroness Muriel Turner, who died in February after a lifetime pursuing humanist and secularist causes through Parliament. Richy also updated APPHG members on the campaigning work of Humanists UK, including progress on humanist marriages, which are now legally recognised in Northern Ireland, and various advances in the campaign for liberalising abortion laws in these isles, including most recently the legalisation of home abortion pills across Britain.

Notes

For further contact or information, please contact Humanist UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on richy@humanism.org.uk or 0207 324 3072.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaigns around faith schools: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/faith-schools/

Read an overview of all of Humanists UK’s work in education policy: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

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