Almost every day a new story appears detailing the latest shocking incidents of children in this country being subjected to indoctrination, misinformation, or radicalisation by fundamentalist religious teaching in our own education system. This morning’s investigation into the ways fundamentalist Christian schools in the UK teach women to be subservient to men is just one case in point.
This increased attention on fundamentalist faith schooling has, to some degree, been met with action. Earlier this year, the Government announced that it will legislate to introduce tighter regulation of religious supplementary schools, such as Jewish yeshivas and Islamic madrassas, introducing registration and inspection for such institutions for the first time.
Ofsted has also become far more active, criticising fundamentalist and conservative religious teaching in a way they have historically been reluctant to and even establishing a dedicated team to identify and close down unregistered religious schools.
Harmful and divisive religious teaching has been a feature of our education system for some time. In fact, it is a problem that the British Humanist Association has been campaigning on for its entire 120 year history. The seriousness with which the matter is now being treated is clearly attributable to the rise of violent Islamic extremism and the threat it poses to our society. That is, of course, important and the Government is right to prioritise it, but we must recognise that extremism comes in many forms.
For the children subjected to fundamentalist religious teaching, extremism does not have to be violent for it to be damaging. What kind of society would we be if we only cared to raise concerns about fundamentalist teaching in schools if it poses a threat to our physical safety?
The public’s attitude to religious teaching – and the Government’s policy towards it – cannot be driven solely by fear or security concerns. First and foremost it must be driven by a concern for the wellbeing of children and for the protection of their right to a broad and balanced education.
What does that mean in practice? It means eradicating homophobic teaching from all schools – regardless of whether they are state-funded or privately run, and regardless of what religious ethos they claim to be upholding.
It means ensuring that all schools teach children in the clearest terms that women are not second-class citizens, bound simply to be the property of their husbands.
It means requiring schools to promote understanding, tolerance and respect for those of different religions, rather than continuing to allow schools to segregate children along these lines.
In theory, equalities legislation, human rights law and the Government’s own guidance on ‘British values’ are already doing these things. In practice, however, they simply are not. A quick read through the testimonies of former faith school pupils on the new whistle-blowing website Faith Schoolers Anonymous is proof enough of that.
It is now up to the Department for Education and Ofsted through regular inspection, enforcement and sanctions, to make sure that they do.
Andrew Copson is chief executive of the British Humanist Association
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