Saturday, 30 April 2011

Far from being essential, religion in schools creates dangerous separatism

It is quite clear that the vested interests represented by the "faith leaders" are worried that RE will lose its significance in schools. And according to a report in the Times Educational Supplement, their concerns are not misplaced.

The TES reports: "Schools are rushing in 'dramatic' changes to their curriculums that will cut the time devoted to subjects not recognised in the English Baccalaureate. Subjects such as RE and music have already been hit as schools attempt to move pupils on to courses that will count towards the controversial new league table measure."

The National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) claims that headteachers are even prepared to break their statutory duties to teach RE as they switch resources to other qualifications.

Under this welter of self-interested religious lobbying, the Education Secretary Michael Gove then said he would give further consideration to the objections. Whether or not he will buckle under the pressure from the "faith leaders" is yet to be seen, but it would be par for the course if he did. Few politicians have the backbone to stand up to the vicars, priests, bishops and imams that have come to dominate our children's education.

But it once more leads us to the question of whether we should take at face value these claims that hundreds of hours of religious education, drumming in the religious dogma to young impressionable minds, really are "essential" and "vital" in schools.

We are told that, because there is so much religious conflict in the world, children have to "understand" each other's faith. Even when research shows that the vast majority of them don't have any, don't want any and aren't in the least interested in it.

I know this is an opinion not shared by others in the NSS, but I don't buy this idea that religious illiteracy leads to "Islamophobia" or conflict between religions. I think it is the other way round. The fact that so many schools are now so heavily under the influence of religious interests means children are being forced into religious boxes that they might otherwise be blithely unaware of and certainly better off without.

One of the great benefits and joys of going to school is that, at last, you are on your own to experience the world through your own eyes rather than through the prism of your parents.

You can make friends from all kinds of different backgrounds – economic, racial, and cultural.

But this joy of finding out about the world you are going to have to live in and share with other people is increasingly thwarted by the proliferation of single-faith schools. These ensure pupils meet only their own kind and are told, either directly or by implication, that theirs is the true faith and that, although there are other religions in the world, they are not true.

We are told that religious education is now "multi-faith" and that knowledge of all the different religions is essential. Finding out about various religions is interesting, so long as you aren't told that you must observe one of them because it is superior to the others. We get plenty of emails at the NSS from parents who are angered that their children come home from school with tales of obvious attempts at evangelisation rather than objective religious knowledge.

But, of course, that is precisely what faith schools do. How are you supposed to get a rounded and objective view of religion when you are sitting in a "Catholic" or a "Muslim" or a "Hindu" or a "Jewish" school? Their main purpose is to reinforce the idea that you are different and separate from the people who go to another kind of school.

You are a "Jew" and they are a "Muslim"; you are a "Christian" and they are a "Hindu".

It is profoundly wrong. We are all people – human beings. Children know this and they are prepared to see beyond the damaging labels that religious leaders are so anxious to burden them with – if they are given the opportunity.

The faith school system and the religious education nonsense all conspire to keep communities apart, to drum into the children that they are fundamentally different from one another because of their parents' religious beliefs.

Kids eventually come to accept the idea that they must defend their traditions" and "culture" often at the expense of friendships that would help break down the dangerous barriers that have been created by religious separatists in British society.

We are told that ignorance of religion is harmful to children. I don't agree. A bit more religious ignorance, a bit more indifference towards it would do us all a power of good and give us hope that future generations would not feel they needed to make war over something which is, in reality, so unimportant.

News: New Muslim "faith school" will be attached to mosque. Need we say more?
Irish Catholic Church panics over human rights threat to its schools

Church of England attendances continue to plummet

According to official figures released this week, average Sunday attendance at the Church of England in 2009 fell to 944,000 from 960,000 in 2008, while average monthly attendance fell to 1.651 million from 1.667 million.

Reverend Lynda Barley, chief spinmeister for the Church, said the figures gave "an important but inevitably partial snapshot" that painted a "mixed picture" for 2009.

The number of babies baptised fell to 83,800 in 2009 from 86,500. Marriages in parish churches fell to 52,700 from 53,100. The number of Church of England funerals also fell – to 176,700 from 188,100.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Cost of the pope's visit keeps on rising

 Cost of the pope's visit keeps on rising – and now he's helped himself to money meant for poor countries

 Newly-released figures from the Lothian and Borders police board show that the pope's few hours in Edinburgh during his visit to the UK in September last year cost the force £543,226 and involved 900 police officers. And now the Government has revealed that it took almost £2 million from the overseas aid budget to help finance the pope's jamboree.

Lothian and Borders police chiefs are now in negotiations with the Scottish Government over recovering costs from the visit to the city, with ministers expected to "comment shortly" on a deal. Councillor Iain Whyte, convener of the police board, said the Government had landed the pope's visit on the police, adding: "If something is a major national event that is chosen to come to your area, such as the Papal visit, there is the expectation that there will some assistance with the cost of that. I would hope we would be successful in getting some of that funding back."

The policing costs are on top of Edinburgh City council's own bill of almost £300,000 for decorating the streets and arranging a parade.

Meanwhile, it was revealed in parliament this week that £1.85 million of the £10.2 million that the taxpayer shelled out for the visit came from funds set aside to aid development in poor countries.

Malcolm Bruce MP, the head of the Committee on International Development, found the contribution to the pope's visit while examining the accounts of the Department for International Development (DfID) for 2010. Mr Bruce said: "Many people are surprised as we discover that the money for British aid has been used to finance the pope's visit last year. The government must explain precisely what this money was used for and how it fits into the remit of foreign aid."

A spokesman for the Department for International Development said: "DFID was one of a number of Government departments part-funding the Pope's visit to the UK. "Our contribution recognised the Catholic Church's role as a major provider of health and education services in developing countries. This money does not constitute official development assistance and is therefore additional to the coalition Government's historic commitment to meet the 0.7% UN aid target from 2013," the spokesman said.

Paul Chitnis, chief executive of the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF) — which is a Catholic charity — told The Scotsman that raiding the overseas aid budget to fund the pope was "not appropriate". Mr Chitnis called for rules about how international aid is spent to be "tightened up", as the shadow international development secretary, Harriet Harman, said the money should be put back into the aid budget.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: "The use of foreign aid money to help one of the wealthiest organisations in the world to aggrandise itself in this way is disgraceful. Far worse than even that, is that the pope's ego trip has led directly to taking food and clean water straight out of the mouths of some of the poorest people in the world."

This is what we have uncovered so far of the costs of the pope's visit
Central Government: £10.2 million
West Midlands Police: £280,000
Birmingham City Council: £82,000
Warwickshire Police (for planning for a mass at Coventry airport that was subsequently abandoned): £80,000
Edinburgh city council: parades and street decorations: £300,000
Lothian and Borders Police £543,000
The Metropolitan Police had an initial budget of £1.8 million, but that is bound to have increased. We are trying to find out (using FoI) what was actually spent. We also need to know how much Strathclyde police spent in the Glasgow visit. And that's before the security services present their bill (if that is ever publicly revealed).

The Catholic Church promised a £7 million contribution, but at the last count it has raised only something like £3 million. Terry Sanderson said: "We are determined that the Catholic Church will not walk away from this debt and leave even more millions for the British taxpayer to fork out. We will continue to insist that the Government demand this money as promised."

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Secular News

Government reinforces its support for religious schools
The commitment and enthusiasm of the Coalition Government to sectarian schooling shows no sign of abating. In fact, a reply written to one of our members (Steve Taylor) from the Prime Minister's office indicates that it is getting stronger and a statement in parliament from the Minister for Education is even more extreme.

Writing to David Cameron about his speech on multiculturalism, Steve Taylor had made the point that "faith schools" were surely one of the elements that reinforced barriers between communities. But responding on behalf of the Prime Minister, Catherine Else wrote:
This Government greatly values the contribution that faith schools make to the education sector by providing high quality school places and choice for parents.

In our coalition document The Coalition: our programme for government and again in The importance of teaching: Schools White Paper 2010, we stated that we want to offer parents and children a diverse education system consisting of a wide variety of providers.

Faith schools have been, and remain, an important element of that provision and this Government remains committed in their support for them.

Faith schools are no less committed to community cohesion than other schools. Indeed an independent report commissioned by the Church of England (26th November 2009) analysing Ofsted judgments on the extent to which schools promote community cohesion highlighted that, for secondary schools, faith schools have higher on average gradings than community schools.

The same is true for promoting equality of opportunity and eliminating discrimination - faith schools have higher gradings on average than community schools.

Abolishing faith schools would mean taking around a third of our maintained schools out of the education system, something which I think you would agree would not be practicable, particularly as the majority of the faith groups that established these schools provided the land and buildings in the first place at no cost to the public purse. It is also important to remember that faith schools are very popular with parents and that abolishing them would give parents less choice, not more, of high quality school places. And then this exchange happened in the House of Commons during a session on Education Questions on 21 March .

David Wright (Labour MP for Telford): There are many Members in the House, including me, who believe that religious education provides an important moral platform for life. There is a feeling, however, that the Secretary of State has downgraded religious education in our schools. Will he get up and confirm that he has not done so?

Michael Gove (Minister for Education): I do not know where that feeling comes from. Speaking as someone who is happy to be a regular attender at Church of England services, and whose own children attend a Church of England school, I recommend that the hon. Gentleman read the recent article that I penned for The Catholic Herald, a newspaper that is now required reading in the Department for Education. The article makes clear my commitment to faith schools of every stripe.

See also: Blackburn diocese ups the pressure for more religious indoctrination in schools

Argument over hospital chaplains in the Church Times
Following the publication of The National Secular Society's report into the cost of hospital chaplains, the following exchange occurred in the  Church Times letters column:
From Lucy Selman, Peter Speck and Vicky Sims, Department of Palliative Care, Cicely Saunders Institute, King's College, London
On 28 February, the National Secular Society published a report on the funding of hospital chaplains in the NHS (Costing the heavens: Chaplaincy services in English NHS provider trusts 2009/10). We believe the report is flawed and an over-simplistic attempt to measure the ability of health-care chaplains to influence directly the overall quality of a trust's performance and mortality ratio.

First, the study makes the error of assuming that absence of evidence is the same as evidence of no effect (Altman & Bland 1995, British Medical Journal 311). Second, the Standards for Better Health assessment is a broad framework for trusts to monitor quality of care, and is not designed to assess the effects of an intervention.

Third, mortality rates are a poor measure of the effects of any intervention or component of care which does not have the primary aim of prolonging life, and is therefore problematic as an overall measure of the quality of health care (Shojania & Forster 2008, Canadian Medical Association Journal 179).

The study ignores the multitude of factors that have a bearing on trust performance, and misuses the assessment tool. The study also describes the trusts with lowest proportional spending on chaplaincy as the most efficient, when in fact efficiency has not been established, since no appropriate measure of chaplaincy performance is applied.

One of the three core principles of Standards for Better Health is a focus on the whole of health and well-being, not only illness, signalling the commitment of the NHS to patient-centredness. The patient is an experiencing individual rather than the object of a disease. Chaplains play an essential part in supporting individuals of any or no faith through illness and trauma.

Chaplaincy input is focused on a whole-person approach to the patients, relatives, and the staff who work within a trust, irrespective of the beliefs held by those individuals. While chaplaincy has a supportive role, it does not have any direct influence in treatment decisions or the management of service-provision, other than spiritual care.

As with chaplaincy service in the armed forces (also paid out of the public purse and, as reported in the media yesterday, also highly valued), it is the ability of chaplains to support individuals and groups experiencing personal- and professional-life stresses which is recognised by the organisations that employ them – for a minute proportion of the overall budget (0.000029 per cent of the NHS 2009/10 budget).

National Secular Society council member Robert Stovold responded in a subsequent issue with this:
I would refer you to a more detailed critique published by the National Secular Society (NSS), at, of the letter from Lucy Selman, the Revd Peter Speck, and Vicky Simms, and will confine myself here to the first charge that they made against the NSS report: that it regards "absence of evidence [for the efficacy of chaplains] as the same as evidence of absence".

The report does no such thing. It merely concludes that "there is no evidence that an increased proportion of income spent on chaplaincy results in improvements in quality."

Your correspondents appear not to have realised that the burden of proof lies with the one who alleges. If they believe chaplains to be associated with positive health outcomes, the burden of proof lies with them to prove it rather than with the NSS to disprove it.

In its Spirituality Strategy, the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust claims to "support research in the area of spirituality, with the same rigour as in other disciplines".

The Select Committee on Science and Technology likewise recommends that researchers in the fields of Complementary and Alternative Medicine "should attempt to build up an evidence base with the same rigour as is required of conventional medicine, using both RCTs [Randomised Controlled Trials] and other research designs".

If your correspondents know of any RCTs assessing chaplain efficacy, the NSS would be most interested to learn of them.

Britain will never be a unified nation until people are freed from religious labels
Editorial by Terry Sanderson
David Cameron has reopened the immigration debate this week with a speech that most political leaders make at some point in their career. It goes like this: "the voters are concerned about the level of immigration into the country. We recognise that, and this time we're going to do something about it." You can see Mr Cameron's version of the speech here  .

At one point in the speech he says:
Real communities are bound by common experiences … forged by friendship and conversation … knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood, from the school run to the chat down the pub. And these bonds can take time. So real integration takes time.

That's why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods … perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there … on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate … that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods. So what's the reality of this need to integrate and what is the Government doing to encourage it?

The Guardian ran two stories last week that tell us something not only about the Guardian (which increasingly seems to think that Muslim separatism is not only acceptable but even desirable) but also about the way that "multiculturalism" continues to build dangerous barriers between the people of this country.

The first story concerned efforts to bring children from a Muslim school and a Catholic school together so that they could get to know one another.

This sounds like a worthwhile thing to do until you suddenly realise that they aren't being introduced to each other as people but as "Muslimchildren" and "Catholicchildren". The barriers between them that this is supposed to break down are actually being reinforced by this emphasis on their religious differences.

They are being taught to relate to each other almost as though they were inhabitants of different planets rather than as citizens of the same nation.

It is tragic that children have to be given such an artificial opportunity to interact with each other on the grounds that their parents have a different religion. The tragedy is that they would never encounter each other if these totally contrived meetings weren't arranged.

And why wouldn't they ever meet? Because they are separated not only by different economic circumstances, but by a foolish insistence that their titular religion marks them out as different.

Tackling the lack of opportunity and education that some minority communities experience is something for the politicians. But the lack of social unity is something that could — and should be — addressed in schools.

If state religious schools were outlawed, children would automatically encounter each other. There would be problems, there would be racism, there would be a long process of integration. But for all our sakes the process should be started – and quickly.

But as the letter from the Department of Education (reproduced in the story above) shows, the Government is wedded to the idea that schools based on sectarianism and religious separatism are a good idea. They intend to create more and more of them.

And the result? Well, let's take a look at the other story from the Guardian.

In this, we read of efforts to create opportunities for "Muslim girls". In this story the nouns "women" or "girls" seem to be inseparable from the adjective "Muslim". What are these creatures "Muslimwomen" and "Muslimgirls"? Is "Muslim" a sort of inescapable genetic characteristic like race or gender? You'd think so from this.

The whole thrust of this article seems to suggest that these girls are incapable of functioning outside the "Muslim" world, as though they are unable — because of their involuntary designation as Muslims — to be anything else.

They all seem to want to be something more than merely "Muslimwomen" or "Muslimgirls" but at the same time they are not permitted to think of themselves as people with all the potential that being a person, an individual with a mind of their own, can bring.

Mr Cameron might well bleat about the failure of "state multiculturalism" but while his Government colludes in this increasing insistence on giving everyone an identity that is primarily, and on occasion totally, religious, we will never have even a semblance of unity in this country.

And if the Prime Minister wants to know why such an over-emphasis on religious identity is so dangerous, he should read  this and, more importantly, this: Why we should ban the burka, too  .

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Faith-based welfare arrives

The Government has been telling us long enough that it intends to hand over more and more welfare and support services to religious groups and now it has made a start.

The Guardian reported on Tuesday that the Eaves Housing charity that pioneered specialist services for victims of sexual trafficking, providing refuge and therapeutic support for hundreds of abused and exploited women has had its funding withdrawn. Its work has been handed to the Salvation Army with a Government contract of £6m.

Abigail Stepnitz, national co-ordinator for the Poppy Project said that, according to their calculations, the new contract would reduce funding by 60% per victim. This meant it would be impossible to offer anything more than a limited service to victims, many of whom need intensive psychological support, she said. "We are concerned for the women in our care. We really do not know how we are going to be able to offer appropriate care for these women."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said Eaves Housing "had done a very good job" in recent years, but the Salvation Army had put in a stronger bid for the contract, which has been widened to provide support for trafficked men as well as women. "Eaves are upset and it's not great for them, but it's much better for victims of trafficking," said the spokesperson.

The Salvation Army, which states that one of its main charitable aims is "to reach people with the Christian gospel through evangelism", said its religious underpinning was not a factor. "We are a faith-based organisation and we are motivated by our faith, but it's really important that we provide holistic care for all those who come under the auspices of our care."

The Poppy Project was held up as an exemplary project in a study by the analysts New Philanthropy Capital in a 2008 report. It said: "Many of the experts that NPC consulted felt it was important that trafficked women be given support from specialist, women-only organisations with a track record in working with victims of extreme sexual violence and therefore have a deep understanding of what women need."

In a letter to the Guardian, Professor Liz Kelly, Co-chair, End Violence Against Women Coalition and Vivienne Hayes, Chief executive, Women's Resource Centre, wrote:
We are deeply concerned that this appears to be an ideological move to award public-sector contracts to religious groups in order to bring them into the "big society", rather than an evidenced decision based on the interests of such women. There is a wealth of evidence to show that women who have experienced violence want a specialist service that understands their needs.

We question how the government will ensure that religious organisations will not discriminate against women and make moral judgments about their situations and needs. How will the government make sure that human rights standards to which they are committed are fulfilled? For example, how will the Salvation Army respond to lesbians or women who need abortion advice? Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: "The awarding of this contract is not only a means of saving money, it is also an ideological gesture towards the so-called faith communities which have been putting immense pressure on the Government to hand over services to them. We have no idea whether the Salvation Army will run this service in a non-evangelical manner – we have to take their word for it and wait for complaints. It is entirely wrong to put such a sensitive service, which will also have to serve the needs of women who are not Christian, into the hands of such an evangelical organisation."

Meanwhile, Labour's Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, warns that human trafficking could increase substantially during the Olympic Games in 2012. She said London could become a "magnet" for traffickers unless ministers launch an urgent crackdown.

She said "The Government must wake up to the risk that traffickers will seek to profit from the 2012 Games and take action to make sure this event does not make the situation worse." The Government has only recently opted-in to the EU Human Trafficking Directive—which seeks to combat the trade in sex slaves."