Trying to teach sex and relationships education in a faith school

“The Bishop actually made it his mission to eradicate anything within the curriculum about homophobia, sexuality, basically anything which challenges Catholicism”

The Government's SRE guidance hasn't been updated since the year 2000
The Government’s SRE guidance hasn’t been updated since the year 2000, and largely excludes LGBT issues

Whenever the issue of faith school is in the news, I always want to express my concerns and share my experiences, but I can’t publicly because I work in a faith school and will probably end up jobless. Anonymously, though, I can give you some examples of the hypocrisy going on in my school and others like it. It makes me so sad that our children are losing out on so many opportunities because of the one-track, narrow-minded way of a faith-based education.

I am the co-ordinator for PSHE (personal, social, health, and economic education) at our school and am all about promoting equality and self-acceptance, but working in my faith school just does not allow it and I feel I am fighting a losing battle.

It’s so sad. I teach Year 6, the eldest children. A lot of our kids are ‘streetwise’ and are older than their years, but it scares me how uneducated and prejudiced some of them are so I am working really hard to get them to see things differently (Classic examples: issues with black and Asian people and using racist language, using the word ‘gay’ as a derogatory phrase on the yard etc).

I went on a course about teaching LGBT and raising awareness, and it was such a good course with so many ideas for all children of all ages. Some of the resources for children as young as four are fantastic and deliver in an age-appropriate, non-sensationalised way.

But before I could even roll anything out the diocese had been on the phone asking what the school was playing at sending me on that course and the Bishop actually made it his mission to eradicate anything within the curriculum about homophobia, sexuality, basically anything which challenges Catholicism.

He sent out a memo to hold off on teaching about any of these areas, despite Ofsted saying they are of importance. So that’s all the children in all the schools in the diocese missing out on learning about these values.

I rebelled slightly and went ahead and taught some elements anyway, and I am so glad I did because my children were amazing and felt so strongly about inequality once we got into it and seemed to deal with scenarios and hypothetical questions in a mature manner.


But I couldn’t let the children write or record anything in their books, nor display anything like photos etc, because ‘the diocese wouldn’t like it’. We’re not allowed to teach RSE (Relationships and Sex Education), which again is a national requirement and so necessary for our kids, many of whom, I will be honest, really need to be taught about relationships and responsible choices.

Religious Education (RE), which is a Catholic syllabus only, is taught three times a week and is assessed with the same rigour as English and Maths. Again, for the past two years I have promoted other festivals like Diwali, Hanukkah and Eid, among others, and the children love it. They are naturally curious and have an inquisitive nature. But we have to evidence any work about other religions in other books, not RE books, to appease the diocese once again.

I think faith schools can be a good thing but the more I see this happening the more dangerous I think they can be too. Sometimes I feel like we fail the children by not addressing ‘real life’ situations and instead gloss over it all with scripture, or sweep it under the carpet completely.

That is all. Thank you for the opportunity to get this out! It just really gets to me and I can’t express myself openly without fear of repercussions in school!


Five ways the Catholic Church misled the Government into a U-turn on faith school admissions

“The quite remarkable nerve with which the Catholic Education Service has made these false assertions is matched only by the astounding credulity of the Government and its readiness to accept them without so much as a question asked.”

PM Theresa May announced the plans last week

You may well have seen in the news over the last few days that the Government has proposed to end the rule requiring new religious schools to keep at least half of their places open to children from the local area, irrespective of religion or belief. The proposal represents a triumph of religious lobbying over thoughtful and evidence-based policy-making. Here are the five ways the Catholic Church of England and Wales and the Catholic Education Service seriously misled the Government into making the move.

1. Catholic schools and canon law

Those of you who were watching the Prime Minister deliver her speech on education last week will know that she announced the following:

‘When a faith-designated Free School is oversubscribed, it must limit the number of pupils it selects on the basis of faith to 50 per cent… [This] does prevent new Catholic schools opening, because the Catholic Church believes it contravenes its own rules for a Catholic Bishop not to prioritise the admission of Catholic pupils…we will remove this 50 percent rule to allow the growth in capacity that Catholic schools offer’.

The PM is referring here to the Church’s claim that opening schools that do not prioritise Catholic children for all of their places would ‘contravene canon law’. The quite remarkable nerve with which the Church and the Catholic Education Service (CES) has made this false assertion is matched only by the astounding credulity of the Government and its readiness to accept it without so much as a question asked. And it is a false assertion.

Recent research shows that the overwhelming majority of Catholic private schools in England do not set a religious test for all of their places, as is being claimed must be the case in the state sector. In fact, just 18 of the 101 Catholic private schools in England surveyed by the British Humanist Association (BHA) gave full priority to Catholics. A cursory look at the websites of these Catholic schools reveals statements like ‘we do not select for entry on the basis of religious belief’ and sentiments explaining this approach like ‘diversity serves both to enrich our community and to provide a vital ingredient in preparing our pupils for today’s world’.

If the CEE believes that these schools are breaking canon law, then presumably it would have moved to bring them in line by now. Given that it has made no such move, this appears to be less about enforcing canon law, and more a case of ‘one rule for the rich, another for the poor’.

Incidentally, if that wasn’t proof enough that the CES has pulled the wool over the Government’s eyes, it’s worth pointing out that a great many Catholic state schools in Scotland do not select on the basis of faith either, and though we might see religious selection as part of our educational furniture, we are one of just four countries identified by the OECD that even allow this in the state sector, the others being Estonia, Ireland, and Israel.

Education Secretary Justine Greening
Education Secretary Justine Greening

2. Catholic schools perform better than other schools

It is a further sign of the ‘ignore-the-evidence-ignore-the-experts’ zeitgeist which we now live with that this claim can even still be made. It is also another triumph of Catholic Education Service spin and dishonesty.

It has been proved time and time again that any difference in the performance between religious and other schools is attributable entirely to the socio-economically skewed intake that religious selection produces. This is the point made by academics Stephen Gibbons and Olmo Silva in their paper Faith Primary Schools: Better Schools or Better Pupils?.  It is evidenced by the research of the Fair Admissions Campaign, which found that  though a disproportionate number of religiously selective schools feature in the top 100 best-performing schools by GCSE results, those schools take an average of 44% fewer children from poorer backgrounds than would be expected given their area. For the top 10 ranked religiously selective schools, that figure is 56%. And this effect has even been acknowledged in a report published by Christian think tank Theos which states that ‘the body of evidence appears to suggest [the better performance of faith schools] is probably primarily the outcome of selection processes’.

So, it matters not a jot that Catholic schools are ‘more likely to be located in deprived communities’, as the PM mentioned in her speech, because they’re not actually admitting the deprived children from those communities.

Either the CES has been successful in obscuring this evidence from Government – surprising given that it is also recognised in a research paper for the House of Commons Library– or the Government has wilfully ignored it. Neither looks particularly good.

3. Catholic schools are more ethnically diverse

If this sounds wrong, it’s because it is.

In fact, Catholic schools are ethnically diverse only to the extent that the Catholic population within urban areas (where the majority of Catholic state schools are situated) is diverse. More revealing, however, is that Catholic schools admit far fewer children from ‘Asian’ backgrounds given their local areas than pretty much any other kind of school in the country. 2013 research found that one in eight Catholic schools didn’t have any ‘Asian’ pupils at all, compared to just one in 729 schools with no religious character.

Furthermore, analysis of the school ethnicity data used by the Government in its green paper reveals that the cap has a significant impact on diversity within Christian settings. At CofE free schools (i.e. that opened under the cap), 63% of pupils are classified as of ‘white ethnic origin’, but at fully religiously selective CofE schools, 78% of pupils are white. At ‘other Christian’ free schools, 55% of pupils are white, but at ‘other Christian’ schools that are fully selective, 85% of pupils are white.

Of course, none of this is to mention that religious diversity is just as important as ethnic diversity, if not more so, and I would like to see anyone try to claim that Catholic schools perform well in this regard. If diversity is what the Government is after, Catholic schools aren’t their guys.


4. Catholic schools are needed to meet demand

One of the great myths present in the faith school debate, peddled chiefly by the CES of course, is that there is demand for faith school places. Unfortunately, it is a myth that again the Government has bought into.

For the avoidance of doubt, there is very little demand for Catholic schools, and much less than existing provision caters for. What there is demand for is good schools and since, for the reasons given above, Catholic schools often get good results, parents can often be seen gravitating towards those of them that perform well. The numbers bear this out.

Asked to pick their top three factors from a list of twelve that most inform their decisions about which school to send their children to, just 9% of parents picked religion. The vast majority, unsurprisingly, picked the performance of the school, how easy it was to get to, and what kind of area it was in, as well as other factors like facilities and class sizes.  A similar poll found that just 5% of parents picked ‘Grounding of pupils in a faith tradition’ as important to their choice of schools and 3% picked ‘transmission of belief about God’. A third places in the state sector are already at religious schools; 10% are at Catholic schools. The idea that there is significant demand for more faith school places is simply nonsense.

It’s also worth mentioning that religious selection is hugely unpopular among the public. The most recent poll on this found that 73% of people thought schools should not be able to discriminate on the basis of religion in their admission arrangements. So even if it could be shown that there was demand for faith school places, that still wouldn’t justify allowing all new schools to religiously discriminate for all of their places.

Lastly, and crushingly, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that many of the people trying to get into Catholic schools under the faith criterion are not really Catholic at all. Polls have shown that as many as 36% of parents have lied or would be willing to lie about their religion in order to get their child in a good, local school. And the Church’s own figures reveal that Catholic baptisms are moving away from birth and towards school admission deadlines in terms of when they’re carried out. While baptisms of children under one fell by 5% from 2001 to 2012, the number of late baptisms (almost all by age 13) rose by a staggering 29%. The willingness of parents to game the system (and who can blame them) should not be taken as evidence for high demand of Catholic schools.

5. ‘Choice

The last myth to deal with, again mentioned by the PM, is that this policy will increase choice for parents. We are surely not alone in seeing that religious selection is inherently the enemy of parental choice – it is the process by which schools choose children, instead of children and parents choosing schools.

And even if that wasn’t true, let’s not forget that (ostensibly) increasing the choice for the 10% of the population who are Catholic has the effect of limiting the choice of the 90% who are not. As one parent whose experience was previously detailed on this site put it, ‘we had less choice of taxpayer-funded schools than someone whose child was a Catholic, has been baptised etc. Any of those people can of course apply to non-faith schools and get an equal chance of a place to us, but the converse is not true’. Well quite.

And finally…

Even setting to a side all of the above, would that make the PM’s proposals any better? We think not, because whatever the reasons, discriminating against children on the grounds of their parents’ religion, and then dividing them up on that basis, is fundamentally wrong. We’ll leave you now with the irrefutable words of the Irish Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Dr James Doyle, who said this to a parliamentary committee in 1830 – how little progress we’ve made:

‘I do not see how any man, wishing well to the public peace, and who looks to Ireland as his country, can think that peace can ever be permanently established, or the prosperity of the country ever well secured, if children are separated at the commencement of life on account of their religious opinions. I do not know any measure which would prepare the way for a better feeling in Ireland than uniting children at an early age, and bringing them up in the same schools, leading them to commune with one another, and to form those little intimacies and friendships which often subsist through life. Children thus united, know and love each other, as children brought up together always will; and to separate them is, I think, to destroy some of the finest feelings in the hearts of men.’

FSA team

Christian fundamentalism and home-schooling: confusing, isolating, disheartening

“The culture of the fanatical, fundamentalist, Christian right was so unhealthy for my parents that they ended up making very basic errors in judgement that could easily have been avoided”

When asked, I say I was home-schooled because it’s an easier answer than the truth, but the difficulty is that then people tend to have follow-up questions. The most common of which is “My sister/uncle/colleague/vet is considering home-schooling their kids. What do you think?” That is when I have to level with people that I’ve no idea what I think about home-schooling, because I wasn’t home-schooled. I was left alone with books. For years.

My parents were the kind of ultra-fundamentalist Christians that only ex-hell-raising hippies can be. Before I was born they travelled around in a kind of semi-converted campervan. Most of my early childhood, though, was pretty normal for a church-kid. We had a house, my mom had a job, my dad went from one job to the next, I wasn’t allowed to watch He-Man because Jesus is the only Master of the Universe, and I wasn’t allowed to drink 7up because the stringy dude on the adverts was apparently something to do with the New Age.

photo: William Starkey
photo: William Starkey

When I was five my parents started taking the family on short term mission trips during the summer holidays, living in temporary hippie communes with other British Christians in northern Spain and travelling around to hand out Christian leaflets and do prayer walks, which are kind of like normal rambler walks only with more earnest holding of bibles and purposeful furrowed brows.

Over the following four years my family would spend more and more time “on mission” and less time in the UK until at age nine we moved over to Spain. My parents had no ongoing funding, no oversight from an organisation, but they were “Living By Faith”, “Tentmaking Like Paul” and “Full Time for The Lord”. At this point my parents decided that instead of sending me to the (flawed but ultimately pretty damn good) Spanish schooling system, they would home-school using an exciting and innovative company called “Accelerated Christian Education”.

I wasn’t home-schooled. I was left alone with books. For years.

The emphasis was on an individualised curriculum where you could learn at your own pace. The truth was the whole model was based on magazine-style workbooks in which, regardless of the subject, you’d read a page or so of text, then do a page of written exercises on that text, read a page, page of questions… Change subject workbook, read a page, page of questions. You get the idea. I don’t want to write about how the material was biased, racist, sexist, and generally didn’t take into account educational theory. Many people have already written about this much more eloquently than I could manage, and have backed their writing up with research and examples.

My problem, aged nine, was just how mind-numbingly boring and isolating I found it. Maths was just pages and pages of arithmetic, dozens of long division problems per page, work book after work book. I now love applying maths to real life situations, coding on computers, solving problems, but at that time for me it was just pages of problems I’d get wrong, and not understand why because I was, for most of the day, alone with my sister. Literature replaced great classic novels with Christian biographies, simple moralistic drivel and storyfied arguments against science. For a lonely kid (have I mentioned how lonely this all was?) books were a refuge. My grandparents (absolutely legendary people, RIP) always sent my sister and me whichever novels were winning prizes for our age-bracket at the time. To have the excitement of reading replaced with dross, predicable non-literature was really disheartening. Science was just confusing. Much of the curriculum seemed to include short biographical articles about historic scientists, because that fits into the “read a page, page of questions” model quite neatly. The lasting impression I have of the subject is that the writers of the material were more interested in the moral lessons we can learn from historic scientists than the important discoveries these people spent years working on.

Accelerated_Christian_Education logo

The loneliness and lack of motivation lead me spend day after day doing the bare minimum for maybe one of the three hours I was supposed to sit at the desk doing work books, and then watching TV in a language I hardly understood or wandering the local streets in silence with my sister.

By age 11 I had no friends, no confidence, my level of Spanish was still very poor, and my parents were running out of money to pay for the work-books. I’ve no idea what support was offered at the time by A.C.E. but the fact is that less than two years after starting the home-schooling system, the work books stopped arriving, and I spent what seemed like forever with no real educational material at all. My mum would spend hours trying to rub out the answers in my sister’s workbooks so that she could hand them down to me (thanks for trying, mum), but I could still see answers and would just copy them in. I was too demotivated to do any different.

I think my parents realised this had all gone horribly wrong, but didn’t really know how to do anything else.

A good while later my aforementioned legendary grandparents paid for my sister and me to complete some GCSEs and A-levels through open-learning courses. While these courses seemed to be targeted at young professionals completing extra qualifications in their own time, the content was pretty good, and there was a tutor at the other end of the phone for any time I got stuck. I’d spend around a month living between my legendary grandparents (back in the UK) and some friends of the family who would help me cram for my exams which I’d take as an external candidate. I scraped the grades to get into University and escaped to an Arts and Humanities degree that was fascinating, well taught and fulfilling in a university that still feels like home to me.

Going back to the original question that people pose to me about my journey through “home-schooling”, when I briefly explain my experience, I’m usually met with “But…”. But your parents obviously weren’t prepared for the responsibility. But you’ve done very well for yourself, though. But if you were lonely they could have got you involved in extracurricular activities. But those problems are home-school based, not faith-school based. But that’s just A.C.E. and other systems are much better.

And all of those things are somewhat true.

But I believe the culture of the fanatical, fundamentalist, Christian right was so unhealthy for my parents that they ended up making very basic errors in judgement that could easily have been avoided. When they started to realise that all was not well, that same culture discouraged them from seeking and obtaining experienced and professional help.