No room at the inn: the exclusive approach of the CES to its schools knows no bounds

“Rather than defending this appalling record of disproportionately turning away poorer children at the gate, wouldn’t the Archbishop be better off doing something about it?”

This morning (2 May 2017), the Education Guardian published a probing (and excellent) interview by Peter Wilby with Malcolm McMahon, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool and chair of the Catholic Education Service (CES). The Archbishop’s views on the role and ethos of the CES’ schools should trouble us all. Some examples.

Wilby rightly notes that the CES’ model approach to teaching relationships and sex education to children contains no mention of ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’ at any stage, and when asked whether or not Catholic schools teach about gay relationships, the Archbishop limply replies that ‘Christian teaching “is at the centre of our schools”’. So far, so worrying. And it doesn’t get any better.

Asked if some pupils at Catholic schools have same-sex parents, the Archbishop gives the quite remarkable response: ‘Why would same-sex parents want to send their children to a Catholic school?’ Well, if the views of the Archbishop are the same as those espoused by his schools, why indeed.

This response may not be that surprising, but it is no less scandalous for it. This is a man responsible for overseeing the education of more than 800,000 children, and he is openly admitting that the 2,000 publicly funded schools in his charge are not necessarily appropriate for same-sex parents and their children. The Archbishop claims that Catholic schools would nonetheless treat ‘them’ with respect, but one wonders how much respect these schools can really be showing to people whose existence is ignored in everyday teaching or whose sexuality is described as sinful.

Moving on, the Archbishop appeared more than a little defensive when asked about the record of Catholic schools on serving the most needy in their communities. After McMahon misleadingly claimed that ‘the proportion of pupils in Catholic schools from deprived areas…[is] above average’, Wilby puts it to him that given the location of many Catholic schools in poor urban areas, they should actually be admitting far more poorer pupils than they do. The Archbishop responds: ‘You do this for a living, do you? You ask questions based on inaccurate information?’ A nerve struck.

Far from being ‘based on inaccurate information’, Wilby’s questioning is precisely right. The evidence consistently reveals that Catholic schools admit far fewer poor children than they should given their areas. For instance, research conducted by the Fair Admissions Campaign using official government data found that Catholic schools admit a staggering 28% fewer children eligible for Free School Meals than they should given their local areas, while the Sutton Trust reported earlier this year that ‘faith’ schools (with Catholic schools among the worst offenders) are ‘three times as socially selective compared to their catchment area than non-faith schools’.

And we must be careful not to get sucked in by the CES’ consistently misleading language on this. As Wilby suggests, whilst Catholic schools are more likely to be situated in more deprived areas, this is not the same thing as being more likely to admit deprived pupils. In fact, analysis clearly shows that Catholic schools are even more likely to be in deprived areas than their pupils are. Situated in deprived areas they may be, but welcoming of deprived families they are not.

Rather than defending this appalling record of disproportionately turning away poorer children at the gate, not to mention children from certain ethnic minorities, wouldn’t the Archbishop be better off doing something about it? He doesn’t seem to think so.

Nor, indeed, is he ready to give up on the transparently false assertion that ‘by canon law, schools are forbidden to turn away Catholic parents in favour of non-Catholics’. This was the claim that ultimately led the Government to announce that it will be dropping the 50% cap on religious selection and no longer requiring new religious schools to keep at least half of their places open to all local children, irrespective of religion or belief. No matter that the CES’ canon-law claim has absolutely no basis in fact (see the British Humanist Association’s excellent briefing on this for details). And no matter that the 50% cap was a demonstrable success, significantly boosting both integration and the access of local families to their local schools, contrary to the Government’s own false assertions. 

Wilby’s parting advice in his article is that if one is to find themselves speaking with the Archbishop, ‘it’s perhaps best to avoid the subject of who is allowed to go to Catholic schools, or what goes on behind their walls.’  Unfortunately, this is advice that the Government already seem to be acting upon.

FSA team

Faith schools and gender segregation: a worrying trend

“It is not just gender segregation policies that can foster a hostile environment for female pupils. Ofsted has also been vocal about widespread sexism and misogyny within ‘faith’ schools.”

Last week, an Islamic school in Birmingham was caught advertising for a male-only science teacher. The advert, since removed from their Twitter page, made it clear that the school would only be hiring for a male teacher.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has since stated that gender specific job adverts are ‘discriminatory and unlawful, unless an occupational requirement applies’.  In other words, in order to justify this discrimination, the school would have needed to prove that there was a clear link between the specific job and the need for the teacher to be male. It is hard to see how this could be applied for the role as a science teacher. The headmaster of the Salafi Independent School has claimed that the decision was made because of ‘religious observance reasons’.

The event can be seen as part of a wider issue of gender inequalities faced by both teachers and students in ‘faith’ schools across the UK. And this is not confined merely to the initial hiring of teachers. Once hired, male and female staff members may continue to face unequal treatment in a variety of ways.

“The sexist policies of these ‘faith’ schools do nothing to challenge these damaging stereotypes.”

For instance, in 2015 Ofsted reported that the Rabia School in Luton was segregating male and female members of staff during training programs, and expecting the women to watch the broadcasted sessions from a separate room. A dividing screen was even erected during an initial meeting with Ofsted.

Pupils are also frequent targets of these gender segregating policies. Ofsted has found cases of segregation in Islamic, Jewish, and Christian ‘faith’ schools. FSA has previously reported on a madrassa where girls were taught by a male teacher from an adjacent room. Books were passed through a hole in the wall to ensure there was no contact.

The Rabia School was also condemned in the same Ofsted report for practising ‘unequal treatment of girls and boys’. For example, as part of the design and technology curriculum, girls were denied access to the boy’s laboratory, and limited to ‘knitting and sewing’. These actions not only signal a lack of respect for gender equality and tolerance, but are also clearly unlawful. Ofsted has argued in a number of cases that gender segregation policies of ‘faith’ schools can be considered discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010 as the policies tend to place women at an inferior level to men.

“One mother reported her daughter being told that her knee length dress was ‘disgusting’.”

It is not just gender segregation policies that can foster a hostile environment for female pupils. Ofsted has also been vocal about widespread sexism and misogyny within ‘faith’ schools. Grindon Hall Christian School and Durham Free School were both criticised by inspectors for not discouraging a sexist and homophobic culture. Accelerated Christian Education schools have been reported as teaching that women are to be subservient to their husbands, their pastor, and other male figures. And other Christian ‘faith’ schools have also been criticised for not teaching pupils a full Relationships and Sex Education curriculum, avoiding topics related to women’s reproductive rights and sexuality.

Gender segregation policies often go hand in hand with strict uniform policies for female pupils. FSA has previously reported on a Modern Orthodox Jewish School, with split campuses for boys and girls, where girls faced teachers who had an ‘obsession with dress code and skirt length’. One mother reported her daughter being told that her knee length dress was ‘disgusting’. Another Jewish school was banned from admitting new pupils in 2016 in part because it was teaching pupil that ‘women showing bare arms and legs are impure.’

Numerous other ‘faith’ schools have been accused of not promoting British values, too. A Jewish Independent school was failed by Ofsted in 2016 in part for inadequately preparing pupils for ‘life in modern Britain’ – including reporting that pupils demonstrated ‘stereotypical views on the roles of men and women, with men “going to work” and women “cooking and cleaning”.’ In January last year, a Muslim school in Tower Hamlets was found to have books in its library that promoted the inequality of men and women, and which also included details about punishments such as ‘stoning to death’.

The opportunity for children to learn and socialise together is part of their preparation for life after school. Schools are also places where children pick up a huge amount of the information on gender roles and gender stereotypes. Tragically, a recent study found that by the age of six, girls already believe that being smart, and being brilliant, are male traits. The sexist policies of these ‘faith’ schools do nothing to challenge these damaging stereotypes.

FSA team

Five reasons to be concerned about faith schools being free to teach their own version of RSE

Challenging these bigoted and discriminatory attitudes, particularly in faith schools, is one of the many crucial purposes that good RSE should serve.

This week, the Government announced that it will move to make relationships and sex education (RSE) compulsory in all English schools, finally answering the decades-long calls of a rich consensus of education and children’s rights charities, public health experts, parents, teachers, and children themselves.

The move is not before time. The last time any action was taken on RSE was way back in the year 2000, when the Government of the time published the existing, but now prehistoric, official Sex and Relationships Education guidance for schools. This 17-year inertia was hugely irresponsible, and for the millions of children who have gone through school ill-informed about things like healthy relationships, safe sex, consent, sexting, and various LGBT and gender issues, it has been hugely damaging too.

To be clear then, the news that RSE will become a statutory subject is absolutely to be welcomed…but cautiously so. 

Contained within the Government’s proposals is a clause requiring that any RSE provided in schools must be ‘appropriate having regard to…the religious background of the pupils’. And in the written ministerial statement announcing the move, the Department for Education states that ‘faith schools will continue to be able to teach in accordance with the tenets of their faith.’

If you’re unclear about what this means, here are five reasons why you should be very, very concerned. Each takes the form of a brief quote from those who advocate teaching RSE, to use the DfE’s ominous words, ‘in accordance with the tenets of their faith’.

  1. ‘For many years, sex and relationship education has not provided a godly stance on sexuality or sexual relationships. Instead, it reflects our society’s increasingly liberal sexual norms.’

From Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of Christian Concern, which among other things has recently campaigned to oppose the extension of hate crime offences to sexual orientation and gender identity.

  1. ‘Some are wedded to the notion of “children’s reproductive-health rights” – a euphemism for the “right” of children to engage in unlawful sexual intercourse, with confidential access to contraception and abortion.’

From Normal Wells, Director of the Family Education Trust, a ‘national educational trust which researches the causes and consequences of family breakdown’ and states that sex education is ‘indoctrination’ designed to ‘tear down traditional moral standards’

  1. ‘Since the Church has always taught that sexual love should always find its true place in marriage, a homosexual partnership and a heterosexual marriage can never be equated. This is the case in English law. The Church seeks to affirm the homosexual as a person, but cannot approve of homosexual genital acts.’

From the Sex and Relationships Education policy of a state Catholic school in England, featured on Faith Schoolers Anonymous last year and subsequently changed.

  1. ‘Today there is an urgent threat to [children’s] sexual purity from immoral messages which come to them as part of formal education and through the media… If they have not had clear biblical teaching on the subjects of marriage, relationships and sex, young people will be unable to answer the evil one’s lies’

From Christian sex education provider Lovewise, which conducts presentations in schools, telling children – among other things – that ‘most rape victims regret abortion’, that ‘abortions dramatically increase the risk of depression and suicide’, and that homosexuality is ‘damaging to mind, body and spirit’.

  1. ‘[Young people] do have choices about how they live their lives and the HPV vaccine suggests they won’t be able to control themselves. We should have higher expectations for them and show them more respect, not vaccinate them en masse against STIs’

Until recently, advice that appeared on the website of anti-abortion group LIFE, which warned that the cervical cancer jab ‘gives young people another green light to be promiscuous.’

No child, regardless of their religious or non-religious background, should be subjected to discrimination, misinformation, and bigotry, least of all as part of a subject that should be equipping them to stay safe, to be respectful, and to be themselves.  But if the Government allows faith schools to opt out of providing accurate, evidence-based RSE to their pupils, that is exactly what is going to happen.  

FSA team

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