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  .

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