Newsline – 20th May 2011

Newsline is the weekly newsletter from the National Secular Society.  Every week we collate the stories and issues or most importance to our members and offer reportage and insight.  Our audio edition takes the main stories and offers them in an easy-to-listen podcast, available online and via iTunes subscription (for free).

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In this week’s Newsline

  • NSS meets with Education Department officials to discuss religious schools admissions 
  • Suffolk school transport proposals revised 
  • “Missionary zeal of obsessive secularists” blamed for loss of interest in RE 
  • Richmond moves to reassure critics over Catholic “counselling” body in schools 
  • Nick Clegg unveils Lords reform plans 
  • American religious women pay no heed to religious teachings when making decision about contraception 
  • Australia rejects call for sharia law 

NSS meets with Education Department officials to discuss religious schools admissions

The NSS’s Keith Porteous Wood and Stephen Evans met with senior officials from the Department of Education’s admissions policy team this week to discuss concerns over religious schools ahead of the imminent publications of the new admissions code. Stephen Evans, NSS Campaigns Manager, said;

“while we’re more than happy to accept a simplified code, what we can’t accept is a weakened code that gives religious schools wiggle room to use backdoor selection to cherry pick children from more affluent families.”

There is clear evidence that the discriminatory admissions policies operated by some religious schools, in addition to being unfair, encourage social segregation and are detrimental to community cohesion.

New ‘free schools’ must take 50 per cent of pupils without reference to religion, but concerns were raised earlier this year when Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, told the Jewish Chronicle that, once the 50 per cent quota had been reached, new Jewish free schools would still be able to fill the remainder of places with Jewish children. The Department assured us there was no mechanism whereby this could be achieved. Officials at the Department assured us that the new admissions code would be at least as rigorous as the current code. It is open to question however, how many parents not of the faith would wish to send their children to a minority religious school.

A senior official of the faith schools extremism unit, who also attended the meeting, assured us that groups advocating creationism and those with an ethos “inconsistent with British democratic principles” would automatically have any free school applications refused.

The NSS also raised concerns over proposals in the Education Bill that could spell the end of local admissions forums and a weakening of the powers of the Schools Adjudicator. While no agreement was reached, it was made clear that new proposals in the admissions code could go some way to increasing local accountability of schools in relation to admissions.

This was the first time the NSS has met with the Department since last year’s election and the meeting was very positive.

See also: Bishop admits that church schools succeed because of selection

Suffolk school transport proposals revised

A fresh injection of Government cash has enabled Suffolk County Council to delay its cuts to subsidies for transport to religious schools. But campaigners (i.e. parents who benefit from this outrageous religious discrimination) realise that the reprieve is temporary. The Council recently completed a consultation process over its original proposals to withdraw discretionary subsidised bus passes used by the 68 children travelling to St Louis Middle and the 62 who go to St Benedict’s Upper schools – all from the Haverhill area.

The proposals would have also seen the third-child-free element currently available ended by the council, leaving families with three children facing a rise in fares from £780 to £2,340 a year from September.

The council is now to receive additional Government funding over the next two years, and so is now proposing an increase of just £20 per term, although the third-child-free element will end.

Haverhill resident Eleanor Davison, a member of Parents Against Public Transport Cuts (PAPTC) whose three daughters attend St Louis Middle School, said:

“From our point of view it’s welcome, but it’s actually a proposal they are putting forward. It’s not going to be ratified (by Suffolk County Council’s cabinet) until May 24. It won’t necessarily go through. We hope so. It’s nice that it just increases it by £20 per child until 2012. If you are in the same school it goes up from £150 to £160 (in 2012/13) and from 160 to £170 the next year.”

From September 2012, students moving to a new Catholic school will be unable to apply for a bus pass, and Mrs Davison said:

“That’s when it goes to £2,340 so it’s still going to happen at some point.”

Meanwhile, the vested interests on the Isle of Wight — whose council is also proposing to cut free transport to religious schools — are getting themselves into campaigning gear. And in Durham, the County Council seems certain to cut religious school transport subsidies. Now Trafford Council in Manchester is to consult on the issue as is Chester West and Chester, whose consultation closes on 31 July .

“Missionary zeal of obsessive secularists” blamed for loss of interest in RE

Liberal Democrat MP John Pugh attacked the “missionary zeal of obsessive secularists” for leading to a diminished emphasis on RE teaching. The comments came in a debate in Westminster Hall which sought to pressure the Government into including RE in the new English baccalaureate (see the debate ).

The debate was packed with pious, even evangelical, MPs anxious to promote religion in schools, each making more inflated claims for the “essential” nature of RE than the last.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said that he would “take on board” the concerns of the religious establishment, which is panicking at the prospect of the gradual loss of interest in Religious Education. The reason RE has been left out of the English baccalaureate (E-Bac) is that the Government wants to encourage students to choose vocational subjects that will benefit them in later life rather than subjects such as media studies and religious education that have little practical value.

Winding up the debate, Education Minister Nick Gibb said that RE should be part of a “broad and balanced curriculum” and that he wanted to “get away from the mentality that a subject is only important if it is mentioned in the National Curriculum.”

Meanwhile, The Bishop of Birmingham kept up the pressure in the House of Lords. He asked education minister Lord Hill of Oareford:

“Are you aware of the deep and widespread concern that, in narrowing the compulsory subjects in the E-Bac, there will likely be a reduction in religious studies and religious education learning — rigorous academic subject that it is — and a consequent reduction, which is already happening, in places for PGCE training of RE teachers?  Underlying that, there is the likely erosion of religious literacy, particularly among more able and older teenagers, which is essential in our diverse society. Would you be prepared to consider adding religious education to the other excellent humanities subjects of geography, English and history?”

Lord Hill replied that he understood the views expressed by the churches and church schools. He added:

“The choice of subjects currently in the E-Bac is not meant in any way to imply that subjects that are not in are less worthy or less academically rigorous.”

And he said the number of children taking RE GCSE had been increasing while those taking history and geography had been decreasing. “In seeking to redress that balance, I understand the strength of the feeling that there is in church schools, which do a wonderful job in educating our children,” he said. “It is always the case that the E-Bac is not fixed in stone, and these things need to be kept under review.”

See also: BBC happy to support the “more RE” campaign – no dissenting voices necessary

Richmond moves to reassure critics over Catholic “counselling” body in schools

The London Borough of Richmond upon Thames has tried to reassure critics about its decision to award an £89,000 contract to the Catholic Children’s Society to offer counselling and support to children in the borough’s schools. It comes after Baroness Jenny Tonge — an ex-MP for Richmond Park — said:

“It is unfair and irrational for the council to impose Catholic thinking on the entire population of young people in this borough, the vast majority of whom are not Catholic or may have no religion at all.”

But Richmond Council insisted that staff from the Catholic Children’s Society were committed “first and foremost” to their professional standards and “not by standards of the Catholic Church”.

The Society, which is accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said in a statement that its counsellors respect other beliefs and would not try to convert or pass judgement on children.

It said:

“Issues raised in counselling are therefore explored in a way which respects the autonomy of the individual receiving counselling. On matters pertaining to sexual health, such as contraception and teenage pregnancy, we ensure that young people are referred to medical health services where the appropriate professional advice and guidance can be given. In particular, young people who come to our counsellors because they are unsure about their sexuality and may be frightened and confused are treated with sensitivity. On the matter of homophobic bullying in schools, we work with students to use the appropriate policies and procedures within schools to address this.”

The Society was required to sign the Council’s equalities policy before it won the contract in February.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said:

“If the Catholic Children’s Society is so detached from Catholic teaching, why is it called the Catholic Children’s Society? I am highly dubious about claims of impartiality from an organisation that has in its title the name of a religious body whose teachings are so at odds with modern thinking on human nature.” 

Nick Clegg unveils Lords reform plans

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has just announced plans to reform the House of Lords. The draft Bill proposes that 80% of peers would be elected from 2015. The number of Church of England bishops would be cut from 26 to 12, with full voting rights. However, as the new upper chamber would have only 300 members this actually represents an increase in the percentage of bishops.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said:

“Britain is the only western democracy left that reserves seats for clerics in its Parliament – elsewhere only theocracies have such arrangements. For the proportion of bishops to rise in the slimmed down chamber is an affront to democracy and a regression, not modernisation”.

Mr Clegg’s proposal also has an option for a 100% elected chamber, which would have no bishops.

Dr Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, said:

“As Convenor of the bishops in the Lords I am pleased that the Coalition recognises that ‘in a reformed second chamber which had an appointed element, there should continue to be a role for the established Church’.

“I and my colleagues on the Bishops’ Benches look forward to playing a full and active role in the discussions and debates to come on how we should best reform our second chamber.”

Nick Clegg, speaking in the Commons yesterday, said:

“The White Paper includes the case for a 100%-elected House of Lords. The 80:20 split is the more complicated option, and so has been put into the draft Bill in order to illustrate it in legislative terms. The 100% option would be easy to substitute into the draft Bill, should that be where we end up.”

Last month it was reported that Prime Minister David Cameron was studying plans for a multi-faith revising chamber. He is understood to oppose it being entirely secular.

Many commentators were sceptical about the prospects of any of the proposed changes getting through, but the possibility was increased when Mr Cameron said that he would be prepared to use the Parliament Act to ensure that any changes agreed by the Commons could be forced through the Lords. However, the amount of parliamentary time required to achieve any change could frustrate such plans if the House of Lords employs delaying tactics. 

American religious women pay no heed to religious teachings when making decision about contraception

New analysis of research carried out by the Guttmacher Institute in the USA of American women shows that “Contraceptive use by Catholics and Evangelicals, including those who frequently attend religious services, is the widespread norm, not the exception” and “Only 3% of married Catholic women who do not want to become pregnant rely on natural family planning”. The research has been carried out in response to repeated attempts by the religious right — particularly the Catholic authorities — to have restrictions placed on family planning.

The research shows that among women of reproductive age (15–44), 83% claim to have a religious affiliation. Nevertheless, 75% of never-married women — whatever their religion — are sexually experienced by their early 20s. Both younger and older women of reproductive age and no religious affiliation are just over 10 percentage points more likely to have been sexually experienced than those who are religiously affiliated.

And most sexually active women who do not want to become pregnant practice contraception – whether they are unmarried, currently married or previously married. This is true of all women, including Catholics.

Given that for most women, the issue of contraceptive use is now settled, why do the religious hierarchies still find an ear in government for their demands that access be restricted?

The 83% religious affiliation is broken down as 48% Protestant, among whom 53% were evangelical; 25% Catholic; 11% other religion, e.g. Buddhism, Islam, Judaism.

See the report (pdf).

Australia rejects call for sharia law

The Australian government has rejected a call from a leading Muslim group for the introduction of a “non-extremist” version of sharia law. In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into a new policy on multiculturalism, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils had urged the government to consider “legal pluralism” for Muslims.

But AFP reports Australia’s attorney-general, Robert McClelland, has ruled out any such change and says local laws would always win in any clash of cultural values. In its submission, the Federation said while some Muslims saw sharia law as immutable, others argued it could be amended to respond to social change.

But McClelland says people who migrate to Australia do so because it is a free, open and tolerant society where men and woman are equal before the law irrespective of race, religious or cultural background.

Anne Marie Waters of the One Law for All campaign (to which the NSS is affiliated) welcomed the news that Australia has rejected a call for sharia law, and what she described as legal pluralism for Muslims.

“Sharia is discriminatory and arbitrary, and a weapon of the political Islamist movement globally. It places women and children in particular danger; denying equal rights for women in divorce, child custody, and inheritance. To protect the equal rights of men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims – there must be only one secular law applied equally and impartially to all people.”

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