Faith schools don’t have rights, children do

Yesterday a state faith school in London called Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School was failed by Ofsted, following (though not entirely because of) an exposé by Humanists UK revealing that it had been redacting and censoring its textbooks to remove mentions of same-sex relationships, women’s rights, and various other aspects of modern society. The Ofsted report, which everyone ought to read, has provoked cries of a ‘secularist plot’, and not for the first time. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Let’s be clear about what the school was actually found to be doing. Ofsted found that school leaders: redact texts to remove references or images of men and women socialising together, detail on the persecution of LGBT people during the Holocaust, and images of women that show any bare skin on ankles, wrists, or necks; limit career advice in order to ‘deliberately [my emphasis] restrict the options available to pupils’ when they leave school; provide a ‘narrow curriculum’, focussing ‘narrowly on their own faith’, which fails to ‘prepare pupils adequately for life in modern Britain’; fail to fulfil their ‘statutory duty to provide sex and relationships education’; and ‘deliberately restrict pupils’ access to advice and guidance about how to keep safe in the world, including the redaction of helpline numbers from books.’

No doubt everyone will have their own views about which of these is worse, but surely we can agree that they all detract from the core purpose of a school – namely, to educate its pupils, promote their individual development and wellbeing, and ensure that when they leave the school gates, they are better equipped to make their way through life than when they went in.

On these grounds, Ofsted’s criticism of the school is entirely warranted. So why has the reaction been characterised more by conspiracy theory than concern for the children?

The answer is simple. Those who criticise the narrow, doctrinaire education provided by schools like Yesodey Hatorah do so because they believe that children have rights, and that these rights are inviolable regardless of where children are from or which religious community they were born into. Those who criticise Ofsted believe that religions have rights, and that it is reasonable to relegate the rights of individuals (children or otherwise) in order to accommodate them.

This difference of perspective is at the heart of the ongoing debate about the place of faith schools in society.

If you’re in the former camp, failing to teach children a broad, balanced curriculum, or teaching that men and women have defined and limited roles in society, are gross violations of the rights of individuals to freedom, choice, and dignity. If you’re in the latter camp, preventing a faith school from providing education in this way is a gross violation of the community’s rights, irrespective of what harm might be caused to the diverse set of individuals within it.

The problem is that if religions were to have rights at all (and they don’t – only people do), they certainly wouldn’t have the right to ride roughshod over the rights of their members – and, even more certainly, not the rights of their children. Make no mistake, there are girls and boys, mothers and fathers, LGBT people, and non-believers in these religious communities who do not share the views of their ‘leaders’, but whose ability to speak out, let alone leave, is almost entirely restricted. (It’s worth remembering at this point that Humanists UK was passed copies of this particular school’s redacted books by concerned members of the community who desperately want change, and that is what led to the Ofsted inspection.)

No one should expect the Government to simply sit back and allow this to continue, least of all in the schools that it funds. Fortunately it hasn’t been, and for those hoping that the proper scrutiny of faith schools will soon return to the low-water mark of recent decades, here is what the Government had to say in its Integrated Communities Strategy earlier this year:

‘We believe in a society based on shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities in which we respect and promote equal rights, particularly for those in isolated and segregated communities whose voices are too seldom heard. The government will always protect people’s legitimate rights – for example, to free speech, to hold traditional views and to practise their religion within the law – but we will not shy away from challenging cultures and practices that are harmful to individuals or restrict their rights and hold them back from making the most of the opportunities of living in modern Britain.’

There is no ‘secularist plot’ – not that ‘secularist’ is in any way a dirty word – only an emerging consensus that the rights of children trump the interests of religion every time.

Schools must support all their pupils, whether they’re LGBT or not

Commenting on the Government’s revised Independent School Standards, currently out for consultation, the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) recently made the suggestion that Orthodox Jewish schools that do not want to teach about same-sex relationships ought to be accommodated. A spokesperson said:

‘Our view is that a reasonable compromise is to ensure strict school policies which ensure that, at a minimum, there will be zero tolerance for homophobic bullying, and that Jewish LGBT children in these socially conservative schools should be referred to spaces where they will be properly supported and affirmed outside of schools, such as KeshetUK or the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group.’

There is nothing reasonable about this. Either the BoD is ignorant to the needs and challenges of LGBT children and young people, or it doesn’t care sufficiently about their wellbeing. Here’s why.

First of all, how is it possible to target homophobic bullying specifically if the schools in question are refusing to even acknowledge the existence of LGBT people? In order to address homophobic bullying properly, pupils must be told, at the very least, that LGBT people exist and deserve respect. The schools that the BoD are defending have expressed their unwillingness even to do that. (To pre-empt the apologists and sticklers, no, it obviously isn’t sufficient to simply teach that everyone deserves respect.)

Secondly, in what circumstances would an LGBT pupil at a school like this feel comfortable coming out to a teacher? The whole topic of same-sex relationships, let alone gender identity, is off-limits in these schools, as well as in the communities they serve. This has been made clear not only by the schools themselves, but also by the rabbis who control them and, devastatingly, by the national organisation that claims to represent British Jewry as a whole (i.e. the BoD).

Does the BoD really think it’s that easy for a child to come out in an environment like this? Perhaps it has forgotten the ongoing tragedy of the transgender mother who has been entirely ostracised from her Charedi community and has been denied access to her children on the grounds that they might be ostracised too, were they to have even the most limited contact with her.

No, the idea that ‘Jewish LGBT children in these socially conservative schools’ would come out in order to be ‘referred to spaces where they will be properly supported’ is either naive or disingenuous. Indeed, writing in the Jewish Chronicle this week, Simon Rocker explained that even adopting this token approach ‘would be a big step for some schools’.

None of this is to mention the most frightening implication of the Board’s suggestion – that schools should be free to abdicate their responsibility to promote the wellbeing and development of their pupils. This is at odds with the principles and purpose on which all schools ought to be founded, and those who take this view should rightly face questions about the appropriateness of their involvement in children’s education.

All children, LGBT or otherwise, deserve to be ‘properly supported and affirmed’ at their schools. This, after all, is where they spend the majority of their waking, not to mention formative, hours. It is unbelievable that anyone could argue that forcing children to suppress their identity and live a lie, but only during school hours, represents a ‘reasonable compromise’. It is equally unbelievable that anyone could fail to recognise the psychological and emotional impact that this scenario is likely to have on the children involved.

We repeat. Either the BoD is ignorant to the needs and challenges of LGBT children and young people, or it doesn’t care sufficiently about their wellbeing. Whichever it is, it needs to change.

FSA staff

Is the Catholic Education Service statistically illiterate?

The Catholic Education Service (CES) has a long history of abusing statistics, both to justify its schools’ discriminatory admissions policies in general, and to force the removal of the 50% cap on religious selection in particular.

It has long claimed that its schools are socio-economically inclusive, by comparing how poor the areas its schools are located in to the national average. Catholic schools, the CES says, are disproportionately located in poorer areas. This shows that they are disproportionately inclusive of children from poorer backgrounds, right? Wrong. All this tells us is that its schools are in inner cities. It doesn’t tell us anything about the pupils themselves. In fact, when you compare the intakes of Catholic schools to the children living near those schools, you see that Catholic schools actually take  pupils who are much better-off than the local average. Moreover, when you do the same comparison with the national average, Catholic schools still take a disproportionate number of well-off pupils.

The CES has also long claimed that its schools are much more ethnically diverse than the national average. But its schools are only diverse to the extent that Catholics themselves are diverse. This means its schools take lots of white and black pupils. But in terms of taking pupils from ethnic backgrounds not associated with Catholicism (i.e. Asian minorities), its schools are massively exclusive. This is true in comparison to both the national and local averages, meaning they are still not as diverse as schools of no religious character.

More recently the CES has started to boast about the number of Muslim pupils in its schools. In fact, its schools take about 2-3 times fewer Muslim – and 10 times fewer non-religious – pupils than there are in Britain as a whole. While 15 of its schools have Muslim-majority intakes, around 73 are located in areas where most pupils are from Muslim families.

Yesterday the CES added another line to this sort of faulty argument, when it argued that a 2017 poll showing rank-and-file Catholics are against discrimination in admissions is unsound:

‘A source within the CES… told The Tablet that the results of the survey quoted in the letter were misleading. The letter cited 80 per cent of the public – 67 per cent of which they said were Catholic – opposing the government’s consultation on the policy.

The survey, conducted by research and strategy consultancy Populus in May 2017, asked 2,033 people, 129 of whom identified as Catholic, their thoughts on admissions policies for state-funded faith schools.

This is a very small sample size of Catholics compared to the thousands of Catholics who have petitioned the Education Secretary to lift the cap, the source said. At the last count 15,000 faithful had signed the petition.’

Let’s explain how the statistics here work. First, let’s work out how many Catholics there are. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey suggests that about 8.6% of British adults are Catholics. The ONS says the British adult population is just over 50 million. So this comes to 4.3 million Catholics.

A self-selecting sample of 15,000 out of a population of 4.3 million tells us absolutely nothing about the views of the 4.3 million as a whole – not least given that the 15,000 were responding to a call to action promoted by Catholic dioceses.

There were in fact 149 Catholics in the Populus poll, not 129, of whom 67% said they’re against the dropping of the faith school admissions cap. This may sound like a small number. But we have to remember that, unlike the 15,000, those 149 were selected to be representative of the population as a whole. That scientific approach is why people pay polling companies to do research, instead of just asking the same number of their friends and supporters what they think, or asking people who visit their organisation’s website (which is basically what a petition does). And, indeed, if you stick a 4.3 million population figure and a 149 sample figure through a margin of error calculator, it spits out a margin of error of almost precisely +/-8%.

8% is not a small margin of error. But it is easily small enough to mean that that 67% undoubtedly represents a majority of Catholics either way.

So, yes, CES, 149 representatively selected Catholics is a significant number. Whereas 15,000 self-selected Catholics is not.

FSA team