Monday, 8 October 2012

BHA: Say No to Faith Schools (Guest Post by Richy Thompson)

This year has been an extremely busy one for the British Humanist Association’s campaign against ‘faith’ schools: from a large campaign in January against the Church of England’s new grab for community schools, to revelations during the summer of new Free Schools run by groups supportive of teaching creationism, through to the news this Thursday that the High Court has agreed to hear the first ever legal challenge to new 'faith' schools because of religious discrimination. The case is being brought by the BHA and local campaigners in order to prevent two Catholic schools from opening that will select almost 100% of pupils on the basis of religion, and is made all the more important by the fact that the Government have just decided to intervene in the case against us.

We need to keep these fights going, and would be grateful if you would help fund my salary.

My name is Richy Thompson, and I am the BHA’s Faith Schools Campaigner. In fact, I’m the only full-time campaigner against ‘faith’ schools, working to end religious discrimination in admissions, in employment and in the curriculum. This involves lobbying the Government, working with the media, engaging with other national groups, supporting the work of local campaigners, and supporting parents who have become victims of the system.

I’ve had this job since May 2011, and over these 17 months, I’ve seen the landscape of education change. This time last year, the first Free Schools opened – brand new, fully state-funded schools which are free from the national curriculum and free from hiring qualified teachers. This is particularly concerning when the schools are religious. Similarly, since I started, the number of Academies – schools which enjoy similar freedoms – has ballooned. They now represent the majority of secondary schools.

And more recently, as I mentioned before, a number of proposed Free Schools run by groups that support teaching creationism as science have gained Government backing. One of them, Grindon Hall Christian School, was previously a private school before joining the state sector. In July, I found a ‘Creation Policy’ document on its website which said ‘We believe that God, as sovereign Lord of the universe, is capable of creating the world in a few 24-hour days… We will teach creation as a scientific theory… We will affirm that to believe in God’s creation of the world is an entirely respectable position scientifically and rationally.’ After promising the Government it won’t follow this policy, the school became a state funded school last month.

Don’t support creationist-run schools getting state funding? Then make sure we can make your voice heard by donating at http://justgiving.com/nofaithschools

However, in spite of these setbacks, our campaigning work has led to a number of successes over the last year. For example, in many other areas, our ‘Teach evolution, not creationism!’ campaign has been highly successful. Supported by the likes of David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and the British Science Association – as well as almost 25,000 of you – the campaign had a success in January when the Government changed the rules governing Free Schools to say that they cannot make provision for the teaching of creationism or other pseudoscience in any subject. We called for this precise change, so were pleased to see it being made. Another success was in June, when evolution was added to the primary curriculum – something we have campaigned in favour of for years.

I already mentioned the big campaign in January after the Church of England announced that it was working with the Government to make it so that Community schools could convert to ‘faith’ Academies in one step. We called it ‘the single most threatening development in a decade’, and just 11 days later, after thousands of emails were sent to MPs and Michael Gove, the Government told us that the plans would not go ahead.

I’ve got our campaigns on the front page of the papers. I was quoted on the front page ofThe Daily Telegraph after Catholic schools promoted a petition to pupils in opposition to same-sex marriage. And in an achievement I’m more pleased with, a story we generated ourselves got on the front page of The Guardian: we organised a secret recording to take place of a talk in a school by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. We found them claiming abortion causes breast cancer. Subsequently we and twelve other groups wrote to the Government to say this is unacceptable, and this campaign is continuing to progress.

There are more successes – like getting the Information Commissioner to rule in response to a BHA request that the Government must publish a list of proposed Free Schools, or the European Commission to investigate whether UK ‘faith’ schools break European employment laws. Or launching a legal case in Richmond against two proposed Catholic schools, after discovering that most new ‘faith’ schools are opening outside of competition, ‘by the back door’. All three of those cases are ongoing.

But I’m going to leave you with one final highlight from a local campaign. Weston Community Primary School was the only primary school in the west of the Isle of Wight without a religious character – and yet, for this exact reason, it was threatened with closure by the Council. When we heard the news, we helped mobilise a campaign against the plans, and suggested to the group a possible solution which might save it.That plan worked. The leader of the campaign, who has four daughters the school, told us that ‘I don't think our confidence would have held up so well without all the support and advice we got from the BHA’.

Let’s make sure we can save other places like Richmond and Weston from religious discrimination in education. Please donate today at http://justgiving.com/nofaithschools so I can keep doing this job that I love and try to secure a fairer, more secular education system.

Donations will be used to ensure the BHA can employ its faith schools campaigner for another year and fund his campaigning activities. If any money is donated beyond our target, this will be spent on BHA education campaigns.

Thank you,

Richy Thompson
Faith Schools Campaigner, British Humanist Association