George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh have a school debating society which, from time to time, invites guest speakers to debate a motion. The Scottish Secular Society were asked to put up a speaker to propose the motion, “This house would abolish state-funded faith schools“, and I offered to act as proposer. The speaker for the opposition was Barbara Coupar, from the Scottish Catholic Education Service.
The opposition to the motion was based on arguments of the democratic will of the people; parental choice; faith schools providing diversity; a fear of doctrinaire and monolithic secularism; the gifting to the state of the church’s school assets for the public good etc..
I met some wonderful, articulate, thoughtful and passionate young people who gave the speakers a testing examination before decisively supporting the proposition. To be honest, it was such fun having the conversation with tomorrow’s citizens that I wouldn’t have minded had the vote gone the other way; but I’m so glad it didn’t.
The full text of my opening speech and closing remarks are set out below the fold. I’ve also included links to some source materials. In another post I’ll provide some more data on the scale of provision of denominational school places in Scotland.
Opening speech to propose the motion, “This house would abolish state-funded faith schools”:
“First of all, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today and to discuss one of the most interesting cultural issues currently affecting the UK’s education system. I am here today as a representative of the Scottish Secular Society, although the Society does not hold the terms of this motion as a matter of policy. As a Society, we stand for freedom of religion, freedom from religion and liberty for all. Secularism is often painted as anti-theistic, or anti-religious. In fact, the religious freedoms of individuals depend on states maintaining neutrality in matters of personal belief and protecting the rights of individuals to hold whatever beliefs – or none – that they wish. Consider the persecution of religious minorities in many other countries. When one brand of a faith gains political sway in a state, then other brands of that faith and other faiths will be seen as heretical and adherents will be vulnerable to – at the very least – abuses of their rights and – at the worst – persecution to the risk of their lives. That may sound dramatic, but it is the secular state that provides equal space for all religious traditions to thrive as a matter of personal practice and for communities of believers to come together in worship without let or hinderance. As a Society, we consider this to be a fundamental duty of a state, to preserve and protect the freedom of conscience of all citizens, whatever their beliefs or none, provided that they are not harmful to the common good.
“It is a necessary corollary that freedom to believe in a particular set of articles of faith includes the right to believe in others, or none, and to be free to change one’s mind without penalty or sanction from faith groups or the state. I argue that religion itself requires secularism as a general principle of the function of law to protect individual religious and philosophical freedoms.
“Secularism therefore requires that a state should be entirely neutral in matters of individual belief and how faith communities choose to organise themselves and operate in their own private religious spaces. This neutrality is often referred to in the terms of the 1st amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America as the “separation” of church and state. The constitutional settlements reached progressively over time in the countries of the United Kingdom have yet to reach this mature position of secular neutrality.
“For the purposes of this debate, I am defining faith schools to be those which are state-funded to any extent and which are permitted by the state to have a confessional character which is exclusively of one denomination, sect or belief. The dismantling of local education authorities in England over the last several years has created a market of free schools and academies which are independent of democratic control and free to adopt their own founding charters. This has resulted in a proliferation of new faith schools, including some which are founded on fundamentalist beliefs, which has demonstrable detriment to the teaching of science, very limited curricular exploration of how and why belief arises and is expressed in different cultures and the histories of different religions, including the sharing and adaptation of foundational texts between them.
“And this is not necessarily popular with parents. In the Somerset town of Taunton, which I know well, the proposals to merge a community secondary school with the faith-based St Augustine of Canterbury school to create a new faith school was met with huge opposition from parents. Those who’d chosen the non-faith community school did so deliberately. The two schools merged into a new Church of England academy in 2010 against the opposition of parents, governors and staff and, in its last Ofsted inspection, was rated “inadequate”. 
“The situation in England is becoming more perilous for parents who fear religious segregation in their communities, as the new education secretary, Damian Hinds, seems set to remove the 50% cap on religiously-selective admissions to faith academies and free schools. English education is at risk of becoming characterised by religious discrimination and religious segregation. 
“Northern Irish education is characterised by sectarian schools of distinctly protestant or catholic character, each drawing from its own historic communities and serving to maintain separation between them.
“But there are reasons to be optimistic for the future.
“Religious belief is losing its grip on people across the UK. Young people are significantly less religious than their parents. In 2016, 71% of 18 to 24 year olds across Britain said they had no religion, a trend that is accelerating. In Scotland, the corresponding figure is slightly higher at 74%. These are the people who, in ten years time, will be the parents of students in our schools. To complete the picture for Scotland, the proportions of Catholics and other Christian affiliations have remained stable at around 10% each, with other religions at 2%. As a consequence, Scotland tends to lead the UK in socially liberating attitudes and policies such as removing the gender qualification for marriage.
“In Scotland there are 369 denominational schools educating 18% of the school population. That proportion rises to 21.4% at secondary level. For historical reasons, all but four of those denominational schools are Catholic. At the very least, this is 100% over-provision of publicly-funded school places in proportion to the confessing Catholic population in Scotland.
“I want to be very clear here that I am not arguing against the Catholic church, but against the very existence of state-funded public education where schools are under the substantive control of religions, of whatever nature.
“I am not here to deprive parents of their opportunities to teach their children about their own faith through bedtime prayers, madrassa, Schule or Sunday School, for that is the right and proper place to provide religious education, in the home or in the temple. It is almost as if religions have such little confidence in their own congregations and their own institutions to propagate their faith that they must appropriate the essential function of state-funded education to their own ends.
“Good citizens require an understanding and appreciation of the diversity of faith and non-faith practices in our modern, global society. This necessitates the objective teaching of the nature of belief and the expressions of belief in human societies, including non-belief and humanism. Schools with a confessional character simply cannot deliver that as a public good.
“If we want civil society to be founded on equality, fairness and inclusivity, then we must build those foundations in our public education system. That demands, without reservation, the abolition of state funding for faith schools.”
My closing remarks covered some of the questions raised from the floor, including noting that, whilst teenagers are very difficult to indoctrinate, young children are very easy to lead; it is not possible for a state to provide funded choices for every doctrinal preference out there; that the present proportion of denominational school places represents a fossilisation of population demographics 100 years ago; that over-provision of denominational places in any case presents a reduction of choice for non-religious parents and students.
I stated in closing:
“Today, you are only voting on a motion. Tomorrow, you are the voters. You are the generation on whom the future of our country relies. You no longer have to listen to the voices in your grandparents’ heads. For the sake of your own children and grandchildren, vote for the motion.”
 www.gov.scot/Resource/0052/00528784.xlsx (Excel workbook) from www.gov.scot/Topics/Statistics/Browse/School-Education/Datasets