Monthly Archives: September 2016

British education retreats further towards the Dark Ages

During the Middle Ages, schools were established to teach Latin grammar to the sons of the aristocracy, as part of preparation also for the entry of some into the clergy and religious orders. The church preserved literacy and learning during this period, and education was closely tied to the religious vocation, in order to read the Bible and related documents. The Protestant Reformation had a major influence on education and literacy in England, as it encouraged the reading of the Bible in the vernacular of the people. In the 19th century the Church of England sponsored most formal education until the government established free, compulsory education towards the end of that century. However, unlike the French, who followed a strict policy of secularisation of publicly funded education, a strong voluntary-aided church sector has maintained a strong presence in the British system.

The half-baked attempts at comprehensive education in this country were accompanied by the scaling back of grammar schools and religious schools during the middle of the twentieth century. That comprehensive schools were never as good as they could and should have been was partly down to them being undermined by the continued existence of grammar, church and independent schools, alongside the usual resourcing and training issues. But what we have seen with the establishment of the Thatcher/Blair/Cameron Tory hegemony of the last 35 years is non-sequitur thinking that the way forward in education is to go backwards. screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-19-48-20Thus the support for an ever-increasing diversity of ideologically driven schools, often overtly religious and fundamentalist in character. Organisations such as the British Humanist Association (BHA) have done crucial work in attempting to ensure some balance, and especially in terms of getting non-relgious world views considered alongside the religious. But this is now under direct threat and and we are seeing disturbing trends in the very essence of education in this country.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on RE, led by Conservative MPs Fiona Bruce and David Burrowes, has voted to remove the study of non-religious worldviews from its purpose. Since its foundation, the purpose of the group has been ‘To provide a medium through which parliamentarians and organisations with an interest in religious education can discuss the current provision of religious education, press for continuous improvement, promote public understanding and advocate rigorous education for every young person in religious and non-religious world views.’ This has now been amended to remove ‘and non-religious’.

screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-19-40-35The British Humanist Association (BHA) has expressed its shock at the decision. In addition, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC), which until a few months ago provided the secretariat for the group, and National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE), have both expressed their disappointment.

BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘Non-religious worldviews, including Humanism, have been part of RE in English schools for over half a century. Their study alongside religions is supported by a huge majority of teachers, parents, and pupils and contributes to a broad and balanced curriculum. Their study is vital for children to understand today’s society in Britain and globally, as well as our history and heritage as a country; it is vital for the moral education of the majority of children who are not religious; and it is vital for their intellectual development. More than that – it is the law. This alarming development by ideological parliamentarians – all of them conservative Christians – places them almost as far outside the educational and general mainstream as is possible and guarantees their irrelevance at the same time as it illustrates their prejudice.’

With aspects of science, such as evolution, undermined in some of the Government’s academy schools, and blatant disregard of attempts to control illegal teaching of it until some had to be forcibly closed, it may have been hoped that things war improving. But it is far from being so.

screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-19-51-31Newsnight, earlier this year, found that a number of illegal strictly orthodox Charedi Jewish schools in North London are, not only carrying on regardless of the law, but have been granted charitable status. Only pressure from the BHA is seeing this situation finally be investigated.

As I have said repeatedly before, the existence of extreme sects of any religion is only possible as offshoots of a main body. This means the pressures for schools to serve these extreme sects can only grow in some sort of proportion with the number of supposed mainstream church schools. The news that the Church of England is seeking too open more than a hundred new schools by 2020, as part of the Free Schools programme that gave rise to the creationist and Charedi problems, is therefore cause for great concern. This concern should be heightened by the the Church being remarkably open about its motivations. In the face of declining church attendance and diminishing proportions of adherents in their schools, they are now openly stating that the evangelising of children must be engaged with ‘a new sense of urgency’, a view echoed by the Catholic Church and cross-denominational groups.screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-19-53-01

Given this impending assault, aided and abetted by the Christian Right in parliament, we are very much in danger of seeing the hideous sort of politics we currently see purveyed by the Christian Right  in the USA becoming more prevalent here.

Scary stuff. God help us? If only!!

One last point – if you want to help counter this growing tide of religiosity in our schools, you might like to consider supporting the BHA’s “What is Humanism?” Book Appeal.  The appeal aims to send a copy of the an important new book aimed at helping primary school children have some perspective on some big questions.
screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-19-33-11What does it mean to be a humanist? Is humanism a new idea? How do people live their lives without religious beliefs? The first of its kind aimed at  a new curriculum for upper primary and lower secondary school children, this book will examine how humanists respond to fundamental questions about morals and ethics, the origins of life, religion and the state. It will look at how humanists mark the milestones of birth, marriage and death. How do people without belief in God live moral and fulfilled lives, with respect for humankind and the universe? A thought-provoking approach will encourage readers to think about the big questions for themselves.
The book includes contributions from a number of prominent humanists, such as Stephen Fry, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Philip Pullman, Jim Al-Khalili, Natalie Haynes and Shappi Khorsandi, who will explain their own philosophy and tell us what is important to them.

Every home should have a copy!


Jonathan Bartley – is he more of a problem than a solution for the Green Party?

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As a former Green who has gone to Labour to support Corbyn, I can tell you that Bartley is complete anathema to me on three grounds 1. Prominent Tory background. 2. Founder of a pro-religion think tank 3. BBC connections. So the answer to the Independent headline’s question is “Au contraire”.

1. It is not that it is great that someone can have ‘seen the light‘ etc. But it is naive in the extreme to think that, in this day and age,that his background will be overlooked by the media and wider public. After all, he was not just a run-of-the-mill Conservative member. After graduating from the London School of Economics in 1994, Bartley worked at the UK Parliament as a researcher and parliamentary assistant for a number of years, and was part of John Major’s campaign team in the 1995 Conservative Party leadership election against John Redwood. If Owen Smith deserves a hard time for having his job at Pfizer on his CV, then how can we realistically expect the media and wider public to see working directly for the Leader of the Conservative Party?

Joining the Green Party and becoming party leader within 4 years is a meteoric rise by anybody’s standards. He was a London Assembly candidate within 12 months, a general election candidate 3 years later and sought to be the London Mayoral candidate this year. And yet I never saw or heard anything of him in all my time involved in the Green Party from 2010 to 2015. This marks him out quite clearly as a very ambitious London-bubble politician. However nice and competent he may be, excuse me for thinking that this is the last thing the Green Party needs right now. Purely on paper, Will Duckworth and Sharar Ali were always more attractive propositions in terms of broadening the Party’s appeal.

2. Religion. Let me try to choose my words carefully to address the problem in this context. I’ll use his own words where I can. The following quotes come from an interview published in Christian Today just yesterday, to mark the announcement of his becoming co-leader of the Green Party. I find this slightly problematic:

“My faith is still what drives my politics. I have always been driven by that. I have always been driven by the desire to make the world a better place. To make it more as it was intended to be.”

The problem here is that his faith appears to have driven him to work with and for Margaret Thatcher’s successor as Leader of the Conservative Party at one point, and yet now that religious faith apparently drives him in the completely opposite direction to be Leader of the Green Party. That is a very strange faith indeed. The fact of the matter is that his personal epiphany appears to have very little to do with his faith at all. He explained to Christian Today that it was the birth of his now-14 year-old son with spin bifida that was the “pivotal” moment.

“I started to see the world in a very different way,” he said. “I saw all the barriers that are put up to people who are disabled and I took a long hard look at all the different parties. I realised the Green party embodied the values of the bias to the poor, the bias to the vulnerable and standing up for the voiceless”

So what on earth was his faith telling him before this moment? Apparently, it was telling him to work for a party whose bias has always been to the rich, the powerful and the establishment. The one thing that perhaps he learned from the Tories was self-interest. This is going to sound very harsh, given that I have never even met the bloke, but convictions shaped by personal circumstance are not convictions built on solid foundations. Personal circumstances are always prone to change. What is right or wrong rarely does. Using religious faith and supporting ones views from scripture are cynical ploys that we see being used in vile ways around the world on a daily basis. Let me complete the quote above:

“I realised the Green party embodied the values of the bias to the poor, the bias to the vulnerable and standing up for the voiceless which are the themes that run through the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament.They embody the character of Jesus and the character of God.”

There are plenty of other themes that run through the Hebrew scriptures, in particular, that are far less compatible with Green Party politics – I hope!!! Misogyny, sexism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, slavery etc. etc.

Of course, these are common themes in most of the world’s major religions. Which brings us to one of Bartley’s proudest achievements, Ekklesia; a Christian think tank with a strong commitment to Transforming politics and belief“. I’ll resist the oxymoron jibes (whoops) but just what sort of transformation is Bartley seeking? According to their website:

While remaining committed and involved in a positive exchange between mainstream traditions (Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal and indigenous), Ekklesia naturally draws much of its specific inspiration from the dissenting strands within Christianity, not least the ‘historic peace churches’ (Quakers, Mennonites and other Anabaptists), liberation theologies and other nonconformists inside and outside inherited denominations.

Ekklesia is therefore ‘radical’, not in a narrow or aggressive way, but in its conviction that the Gospel subverts power and privilege, both personally and corporately. And it is ‘progressive’, not in subscribing to a myth of progress, but in seeing change as coming through risk-taking hopefulness, rather than through a destructive lust for security and certainty.

So, it is all about bringing Christian denominations together and challenging the nasty power-grabbing tendencies and intolerance within some denominations. Hallelujah to that, I suppose, but underneath it all it is still the same old divisive, primitive nonsense of ‘one Christian god’ etc. And still a long way away from the ‘Imagine’ gospel according to John Lennon.

3. BBC connections. He is a regular contributor to BBC One‘s The Big Questions. He has formerly contributed to BBC Radio 4‘s Thought for the Day and been a guest on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. This may be a good or bad thing going forward. He clearly is seen as a go-to person on certain types of issues, but as I suggest above these may not be the issues that best represent the Green Party. If he can use his connections to gain a better platform for the Party’s progressive policies, then this may prove beneficial (he did very well here, for example, on the BBC News Channel). But we all have to be very wary of BBC manipulation, and I look forward to seeing how he tackles Andrew Neil, Laura Kuenssberg and Andrew Marr. Hopefully he will now stay well away from the Christian moralising stuff! Having a good media performer is seen as hugely valuable. It is why Rhun ap Iorwerth was fast-tracked in Plaid Cymru, at considerable cost, I would maintain (but they will never acknowledge), in terms of the compromising of Party policy and values that he brought with him (over nuclear policy in particular). Bartley strikes me as representing a similar sort of gamble.

And finally, if this is an attempt to broaden the Party’s appeal, then I think the losses from losing Sharar Ali in a leadership role will more than offset the gain of a few eco-minded Christian Conservatives. I sincerely hope I am wrong about all this, but I think this will come to be seen as a retrograde step by the Party. Although it is great to have Caroline Lucas back, I question her judgement on this occasion.