Faith Schools, Discrimination and Creationism.

by Mark Edon

Government sanction of religious discrimination in the recruitment of teachers is wrong.  In addition to the moral objections to such a loophole it can and will also be used by creationists to further their wider fundamentalist agenda and so to destroy and subvert the education system.

I don’t think that I, as a humanist, should be allowed to discriminate against people of faith.

There is a full stop at the end of that sentence.  There is no need for elaboration or equivocation.  This view has so far trumped any possible exception I have dreamt up for myself or that has been suggested to me.  I will treat this as a perfectly reasonable and universally accepted starting position for this piece although I am always open to new ideas and suggestions.

Here is the equitable reverse; “I don’t think that people of faith should be allowed to discriminate against nonbelievers.”

No doubt you will note the full stop.

A huge government sanctioned exception to this simple statement of natural justice surprisingly does not concern gay couples refusing to let bedrooms in their B&Bs to Christian couples, but instead allows public employees and elected public officials, i.e. school management and governors, to openly discriminate against teachers on the basis of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

It is important to note that it directly contradicts every SACRE produced locally agreed curricula for religious education that I have ever read and the stated mission statements, principles or inclusion policies of many of the religious schools themselves.  Such overt hypocrisy takes the breath away.  Look at these examples that compare job advertisements from a recent Copy of the TES jobs supplement with the schools own words or comments from Ofsted reports:

In school A, a catholic primary school, there is a job advert looking for a head teacher who is “fired by the church’s mission expressed in education, and wants to advance the Kingdom of God through church and school working closely together.”

This school doesn’t seem to have a web site and I can’t find any of their policies e.g. inclusiveness policy but here are some brief extracts from the Ofsted report: “The proportion of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals is well below average.” and, “The school recognises that pupils do not have enough first hand contact with people who are different from themselves and is addressing this.”

Although apparently, not by removing discrimination in recruiting the school leadership.

In school B we do have a web site and an anti-bullying policy that has this, “Ensuring we develop self respect and an appreciation of the needs and views of others.”  Although they appear uninterested in the views of head teacher candidates that don’t have a “strong personal faith and a clear vision of Catholic Education.”

School C have an Equal Opportunities policy that begins laudably like this: “We believe that all pupils and school personnel are entitled to equality of opportunity regardless of their age, gender, ethnic origin, physical disabilities, learning needs, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or their marital status.”, whilst they are advertising for a leader, “whose vision and professionalism is underpinned by a clear and demonstrable faith.”

I am entirely unable to decide if I prefer the hypocrites or the consistently prejudiced.  Our next school has no equality or equal opportunity policy and their mission statement says that the schools mission is to “lead each member of the school community to a deeper, more active faith in God.”  So it is at least being consistent in looking for a head teacher to “provide a faith reference” to prove that they will uphold the “Christian leadership that are at the heart of our caring environment.”

I am not going to spend much time rehearsing the reasons why such a fundamental principle as that of equality should not be breached by believers simply because they want to preserve the inherent religious character of the teaching staff and school.  It is surely simple enough to see that this is a mere restating of the wish to discriminate as the justification for doing so.  For example, “We don’t want non Catholics because we don’t want any non Catholic views in the classroom.”

For example, should the scouts be allowed to discriminate against the disabled (of course they don’t really want to!) to preserve their inherent character as outgoing, outdoorsy and active?  What about a hypothetical football supporters club discriminating against black supporters as they have never had a black member before and they want to preserve the inherently white character of their club?  If you think these silly examples are wrong Mr Gove, then you need to explain why faith schools should be the exception and you need to explain it in some way other than simply repeating the wish to discriminate.

Nor will I dwell on the fact that any faith that has to protect itself by such discriminatory practices undermines its very credibility.

The main issue I want to highlight is an additional reason why such moral loopholes are a bad idea, namely the fact that they will be particularly used and abused by fundamentalist believers to undermine and destroy education in the furtherance of their own agendas.  I have creationists particularly in mind but my point applies more generally to the extreme believers of many faiths.

Why would I think this?  Well, for one thing creationists have done it before, right here in the UK.

The controversy about a state funded school where the head of science also held a leadership role in a creationist organisation and where a creationist conference was hosted back in 2000 lead to much coverage in the press and on TV.  This is a comment from a Methodist lay preacher who applied for a job with the school at the time; “They asked me what I believed to be the most important duty as head of [philosophy, theology and ethics]. I replied by saying how important it was to prepare pupils for state examinations, but I was cut short by a sarcastic and disturbing comment – ‘What is the point of sending young people out into the world with 20 GCSEs when they’re going to go to Hell?'”[1]

The difficult thing to wrap your mind around is creationists, who are fundamentalists by definition (the very word fundamentalist was first used to describe them in the US early in the last century) think that schools are not there first and foremost to provide an education but instead exist to further their own ends, as this extract illustrates;

“How could the schools successfully create the Christian ethos that was their very reason for existence if they had no right to control who was employed within the school? How could a non-Christian school secretary, for example, adequately explain the purpose and ethos of the school to the many enquirers who contacted the school? How could the lifestyle of employees be encouraged fully to reflect Christian values if it was impossible to insist that those employees were Christians?”

That is from a 2009 thesis[2] by Sylvia Baker, who also signed a public letter[3] with 26 other creationist academics back in 2002 asking the then education secretary to allow creationism into science classes.

Sylvia is an advisor to the Christian Schools Trust, a loose network of about 50 privately funded schools, mainly young earth creationist in nature, several of which are currently applying for Free School status and hoping to get their hands on public funds.

It is important to remember that although creationists like to present themselves as mainstream Christians battling bravely against those nasty militant atheists, in fact they are just a small minority of Anglicans here in the UK.  Recent Poll data[4] of self describing Christians (only 54% of those polled) showed that only 38% (of the 54%) agreed that the Genesis story should be taught as science and only 39% supported a daily act of worship in schools, just 32% thought that the UK should have a state religion and 92% of them thought that the law should apply to everyone equally, regardless of their personal religious beliefs.

So come on Mr Gove respond to the clear views of the large majority of British people, both religious and non-religious and outlaw religious discrimination in schools completely.


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