Accord addresses Humanist Parliamentarians

September 7, 2018

The Chair of the Accord Coalition, the Reverend Stephen Terry, has urged campaigners to continue to use and produce evidence showing how faith schools are operating in practice to empower those within faith school providers who wish to make inclusive reforms. Fr Terry offered his comments yesterday at the annual general meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group in the House of Commons, which focused on the topic of faith schools.

Fr Terry cited campaigning to defend the 50% religious selection cap at new academy faith schools and the work of the Commission on Religious Education as recent and positive examples of where evidence was successfully changing attitudes in support of greater inclusivity. Although he believed many senior officials within faith school providers were too complacent, he noted that some were becoming more vocal about exclusive practices. This included the Archbishop of Canterbury who revealed in a House of Lords debate in December 2017 that he opposed schools selecting pupils by faith and wished Church of England schools to ‘be homes and nurseries of integration’ and ‘focus on [serving] the poorest and most deprived’.

From left to right: Dr Ruth Wareham, the Reverend Stephen Terry, Aliyah Saleem and Lord Watson.

Joining Fr Terry on a panel of speakers were Labour’s House of Lords Shadow Education Spokesperson, Lord Watson of Invergowie; expert on philosophical arguments around the appropriateness of faith schools, Dr Ruth Wareham; and Aliyah Saleem, co-founder of Faith to Faithless, which supports non-religious people who leave religions. The All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group has over 100 members across the House of Commons and Lords.

Lord Watson observed that Ofsted has raised awareness of how many illegally unregistered schools are faith based and some exploit the right for parents to home educate their children. Some of the schools claim not to be schools, but settings that provide additional education for home educated children, when they in fact provide pupils with full time teaching. He urged that home educators be registered to ensure parental rights in this area are not being abused and he praised the Government for giving time to a private members bill by Lord Soley which seeks to make registration a requirement.

Dr Ruth Wareham argued that faith schools and policy makers too often focused on school exam results, and not enough on faith school’s wider impact on nearby schools and society. She urged them to be more sensitive to respecting personal autonomy and the fairer distribution of educational opportunities. Dr Wareham set out recommendations from a forthcoming report she has co-authored entitled ‘How To Regulate Faith Schools‘. These included extending the 50% new faith academy school selection cap to all state funded faith schools and, while allowing a faith school’s ethos to inform what is taught, prohibiting directive religious education which seeks to inculcate a school’s religious beliefs.

Aliyah Saleem spoke powerfully about negative experiences at ‘fundamentalist’ faith schools. These included her own at an independent Islamic boarding school where she was expelled for having a camera and where two 12 year old peers were expelled on the grounds of ‘lesbianism’. She urged that debate on faith schools should have a greater focus on especially private Islamic schools, many of which she said advanced a hetronormative culture where sexual transgressions led to severe discrimination, and where personal freedom was often heavily controlled. She warned that such schools often placed adhering to their religious beliefs ahead of the rights and wellbeing of pupils.

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