Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Secularism: A force for social justice?

Nicky Morgan’s speech last week on the risk of nurseries being taken over by religious extremists was certainly overblown, indeed the very same article states that: ‘there is no concrete intelligence about individual nurseries that demands immediate attention’, but the issue of religion in schools is undoubtedly a particularly politically sensitive one at this time.

The Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham has turn the public gaze back onto the relationship between religion and schools. Indeed, Michael Gove’s ‘demotion’ was almost certainly influenced by the damaging effect that his briefing war with Theresa May over these schools had upon the coalition government.

Faith schools have been expanded over successive governments to the point that they now make up around a third of all state schools in England. Moreover, all maintained schools in England and Wales are required to have a daily act of collective worship, ‘wholly or mainly of a Christian character’, despite support for this measure trailing opposition by 24 per cent.

Twenty-four bishops and two archbishops are afforded seats in the House of Lords despite the fact that ‘less than two per cent of people attend Anglican services on the average Sunday’ and that 58 per cent of people disapprove of this measure compared to just 24 per cent of people in support.

All of these incidents underline how religion still has considerable influence on British politics and in particular, the considerable influence it has in the education system. Indeed, these are a mere few examples of religious privilege and do not encompass the larger issue of whether or not we should have a state religion. The question for Labour here is twofold: what are the effects of these policies and do these policies cohere with Labour values of fairness and equality?

There are two main reasons why the expansion of faith schools has occurred. First, there was an opinion among politicians that faith schools produced better results than normal schools. In many cases this was true, but the reasons for this were related to the use of selective admissions criteria rather than the provision of extra religious education. Data from the Guardian shows that faith schools perform better because they are less likely to take children from poorer backgrounds than non-religious state schools, underlining the fallacy in this view. This creates a system where churches are able to artificially boost their numbers as parents act religious in order to get their children into high-performing state schools.

Second, ministers appear to believe that parents should have the right to educate their children in a way that reflects their religious beliefs. While parents have an absolute right to introduce their children to religion, it is not the responsibility of schools to indoctrinate children into any viewpoint. The purpose of schools is to educate, not to further causes that parents believe in.

Labour should oppose faith schools because they create division in our society. At a time of increasing media-driven Islamophobia it is not beneficial to divide pupils along religious lines. The great success of the comprehensive system should be that it introduces pupils to people from a range of different backgrounds, thus helping to deal with intolerant views and reduce community tension. Dividing pupils along religious lines helps create a society that is increasingly insular, less integrated and more prone to community upheaval.

Furthermore, they should oppose faith schools because they are an inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money. Tax should be spent on schools that all children are able to attend; it is unacceptable for parents to be restricted in the local schools they may select on the grounds that they have different religious beliefs. It is inherently unfair that a Christian taxpayer has five schools to choose from in her local area while her atheist neighbour has only two. However, abolishing collective worship of a Christian character is another important part of a secularism programme, as it allows all pupils to attend all state schools and feel included or accepted regardless of their religious beliefs.

With the House of Lords derided as being undemocratic, one of the few agreeable policies of David Cameron’s tenure has been his coalition agreement pledge that peers would be appointed to reflect the votes cast in the 2010 election. While for political reasons he has failed to nominate any United Kingdom Independence party peers, this step has at least created a Lords vaguely resembling the political make-up of the country at the last general election.

The right of 26 bishops to seats in the House of Lords is entirely undemocratic and fails to cohere with Labour party principles of fairness. If the House of Lords is to take steps towards becoming an elected or partly elected second chamber, the Labour party must abolish free seats for this group. The principles of democracy are simple: the people vote for candidates and these candidates are elected to represent the people and their views. Any unelected representation is unacceptable, and religious seats, which to a large extent function exactly as hereditary seats do, are clearly anachronistic and represent an affront to the progressive values that the Labour party holds dear.

These are far from all the issues that secularism embraces or should embrace. In my opinion, an established church in a time of declining religious belief and declining Christian belief in particular is entirely unacceptable for our society. Indeed, there is increasing public support for secular movements as 67 per cent believe religion is a private rather than public matter compared to 24 per cent who do not.

However, such seismic changes in the British political system are rare and unlikely. If Labour wishes to offer a radical alternative to the Conservatives, it should embrace secularism as a force for preventing social injustice (eg faith schools) and importantly, protecting freedom of speech and expression by ensuring that all religious beliefs are treated equally in government.

Labour must offer policies which break with the political norm and restore principles of fairness and community cohesion to this country. The French system of secularism (laïcité) has ensured it a political system that embraces freedom of expression and has created a society which is tolerant of a wide range of religious beliefs. Politicians must start accepting that the state is there to impartially offer public services, rather than promote specific political or religious causes.


James Sweetland


Photo: UK Parliament


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James Sweetland

1 comment

  • Secular-ISM may have the right idea for a perfect world. So okay.

    But, at your peril beryl,don’t dare forget Her Maj QE2 and CofE, the Prom’s, Westminster and a 1000 years’ old Parliament, and our lads in the Forces. The British may bend over backwards to offer a helping hand worldwide: just remember if you take the ‘glue’ away you must have some alternative cohesive glue to keep the ball of wax together.
    PS: any word with an -ISM as a suffix attached is not a good glue.

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