Schools must be free from sectarianism, say education campaigners

By staff writers
July 29, 2010

UK Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove said yesterday that 'extremist' and sectarian groups will not be allowed to run free schools.

School equality and access campaigners have welcomed the assurance, but warned that further detail is needed.

Mr Gove told MPs on the cross-party Commons education committee: "There are concerns about inappropriate faith groups using this legislation to push their own agenda, but we have been working on the regulations to ensure that we don't have any extremist groups taking over schools."

The Secretary of State additionally assured the committee that 'creationism', a fundamentalist-aligned religious doctrine which denies evolutionary biology, would not be taught as part of a school's science curriculum.

Mr Gove told MPs that he "recognised that there are some people who explicitly do not want their children educated in a faith-based setting" and encouraged atheists to start their own schools.

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said: "We are pleased that the Secretary of State has finally responded to some of the concerns that humanist MPs and peers have raised throughout the Academies Act’s passage through Parliament. We welcome his assurances in relation to the dangers of the influence of fundamentalist religious groups in our school system."

However, Copson added that "there is nothing in the Academies Act itself that will prevent children being exposed to religious indoctrination, nor to stop any particular group from applying to run a state-funded free school. We want to see the government introduce robust safeguards, such as legislative change and statutory guidance, to support today’s assurances."

Commenting on the question of 'atheist free schools', Mr Copson continued: "The BHA campaigns for totally inclusive schools for children of all faiths and none. In our view, many inclusive community schools are already more or less humanist in their ethos and values. If compulsory collective worship was ended and RE became universally objective, fair and balanced, community schools would indeed be ... open and accommodating to all."

Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia - which along with the BHA, a leading teaching union and Muslim, Jewish and Hindu participatants, is part of the Accord Coalition, an association of religious and non-religious groups and individuals working for inclusive schooling - said that the Secretary of State needed to specify more explicitly how hard-line and extreme groups would be prevented from monopolising the new free schools.

"Whether schools are sponsored by community groups, businesses, faith organisations, humanists, or anyone else, they should all have open admissions policies, a policy against discrimination on grounds of belief in employment, a commitment to promoting community and equality, and a willingness to teach a balanced curriculum," Barrow added.

"Free schools ought not to mean a 'free-for-all', in the sense of no effective protection for parents from different backgrounds. Likewise, children with disabilities and from low-income and disadvantaged communities should not find themselves pushed aside in a rush to enfranchise the already wealthy, articulate and assertive. From a practical policy perspective, the government has not yet demonstrated how its new 'free school' and Academies programme will work for all, rather than for a minority, with respect to these concerns," said the Ekklesia co-director.


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