Tag Archive | education

Ofsted claims that Religious Education…

plays a key role in promoting social cohesion and the virtues of respect and empathy, which are important in our diverse society

If that’s the case, what does that say about religions? It looks like it’s implying that religions do the opposite, and that education is required to promote ‘respect and empathy’ amongst people of different religions because religions fail to do so.

So why bother with Religious Education?  Surely the study of ethics would better serve in helping students to become good citizens who can think for themselves?


What is time?

Simple question, yes?  Indeed, but what about the answer?  Last year, actor Alan Alda, together with the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, issued a challenge to scientists and science teachers to answer the apparently simple question ‘what is a flame?’ in such a way that could be understood by an eleven-year-old.  It’s actually not that simple.  The project, called The Flame Challenge, was inspired by Alda’s own childhood scientific curiosity, and asked schools across the United States to participate and decide on a winner from the hundreds of entries.

This video here is the entertaining winner:

What is a flame


This year, the challenge was inspired by the question most commonly posed by eleven-year-olds to the Center for Communicating Science: what is time?  Even Albert Einstein struggled to describe what time is in simple terms, and often resorted to jokes:

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.

I think this is a great initiative, to take the complex explanations for the natural mechanisms we take for granted, and deliver them in an easy to understand way – easy enough even for me.

Watch the skies!

The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104)
Source: Hubblesite.org

Looking for something to do next week?  Then look to the skies!  Starting this Saturday is BBC2’s Stargazing Live 2012, a week-long series of live TV shows to get people interested in, and share their love of, astronomy.  In parallel, events are being held the length of the country, and here in the North East we are not alone.  One of our own local astronomy groups, the Sunderland Astronomical Society (SAS) is holding three events next week at the Washington Wetland Centre in Washington, Tyne & Wear.

The great thing about this celebration of stargazing is that it’s not just for astronomy geeks, the wonder of the universe is for everyone to behold – it’s for people of all ages and levels of knowledge.

At this time of year Jupiter is looking bright and beautiful in our sky and will rightly be the ‘star’ attraction at the Sunderland Astronomical Society events, but the gas giant won’t be the only cosmological celebrity.  As well as using the Society’s telescopes to see our planetary neighbours, visitors can explore and discover distant nebulae and galaxies, and learn how by looking into our skies we are also looking deep into our universe’s past.

The events are free and the times are:

1. Thu 20 Jan 19:00–21:00
2. Fri 20 Jan 19:00–21:00
3. Sat 21 Jan 19:00–21:00

Wrap up well for the cold.

Contact details are here.  Places are available, but it’s recommended to book quickly, as events across the region are filling up quickly – Gibside is already fully booked!

Circumcision: suffer little children

A few months ago I made a comment on Curly’s blog, where I made a somewhat clumsy yet robust case against Curly’s call for blind respect for religion in the interest of social cohesion, where I argued that there are many features of religions that aren’t worthy of our respect in a liberal civilised society.

A respondent on Curly’s blog, Lalon Amin, took my comment as being anti Islam, and tried to engage in some spirited apologetics against something I didn’t say.  Nowhere in my comment did I specifically mention Islam as most of the features I described could be found in several religious societies, although some of the behaviours can be seen in some Islamic subcultures.

An aspect I wanted to explore further is non-therapeutic routine infant circumcision.  Infant circumcision is a hot-button topic in the USA in the moment, after San Francisco was denied the opportunity to hold a referendum on the banning of non medical infant circumcision, and a petition to ban non-therapeutic routine infant circumcision on the Whitehouse website is generating plenty of debate.

Fortunately, male infant circumcision is much lower here in the UK than it is in the USA, but like the USA, the UK has banned female circumcision.  I think it’s long overdue for non-medical infant male circumcision to be banned in the UK.

To a large extent circumcision is a cultural phenomenon, but one which is often justified through the interpretation of religious texts, and supervised and enforced by clerics and social pressure.

Freedom of and freedom from religion are necessary in a civilised society, but religious freedom should not include the right to inflict ritual surgical alterations on children.  Outlawing non-therapeutic routine infant circumcision would protect children and allow them to make their own choice when they become adults.

There’s an argument that it’s up to parents to decide if their child is circumcised or not.  However, the same logic could be applied to parents who want to withhold medical treatment from their child.  To some people it might seem like an intervention too far, but in some cases children need to be protected from their parents’ beliefs.

In terms of the claimed medical benefits of male circumcision, the evidence is far from conclusive.  Circumcision advocates seem to cherrypick the research that confirms their biases.  It’s not without irony that some people will try to use science to find confirmation for their religious doctrine.

However, even if the evidence did confirm that circumcision provided some protection from HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, circumcision doesn’t provide anywhere near the same protection as barrier protection methods, and it still should be the decision of an adult to have a circumcision.

That’s the key point.  Non-medical circumcision should be an adult’s decision over their own body.  Circumcising children takes that basic right away from them and makes an irreparable change to a child’s body.  Individual right to freedom requires that such physical abuse on those who can’t defend themselves from religion, culture or social convention should not be permitted in a civilised society.  Non medical circumcision children should be banned.

Letter: Religion not for the Baccalaureate

Here’s another letter to the Shields Gazette in response to an article covering Jarrow MP Stephen Hepburn’s Early Day Motion (1375) which calls for Religious Education to be included in the English Baccalaureate.  It’s not ‘new’ news, as the EDM is several months old and the number of supporting signatories is pathetic. It is concerning that any MPs would support such a stupid motion, and particularly as a supporter of the Green Party, that the only Green MP Caroline Lucas has put her name to another EDM which promotes faith before fact.

Your article, headlined ‘MP fights to keep religion in schools’ (Tuesday 19 April), implies that as Religious Education is not included in the English Baccalaureate, RE is being eliminated from education. However, RE is still available on the curriculum for students to select, which is much-removed from the misleading headline implication that religion is being removed from schools.

The English Baccalaureate reflects the key qualifications that universities, particularly those in the Russell group, are looking for when deciding on student admissions. The Baccalaureate is simply a recognition of the real-world expectations of the universities, realised as a recommended curriculum for students wishing to go on to university education.

It astounds me though, that any MP would want to make ‘RE an educational priority’ when surely reality based subjects like mathematics, science and english, should be the real priorities, not the philosophical ditherings of religions over the ages.

The fact that the campaign Mr Hepburn sponsored along with Caroline Lucas, Peter Bottomley, Tony Cunningham and Jim Dobbin is backed by a Christian evangelical organisation rather than an educational one is indeed worrying.

There’s no harm in learning about religions, but forcing it on students who are busy preparing the groundwork for a future career is not only irrational and an unfair added pressure, but extremely unethical when backed by religious groups intent on recruiting more souls for their supernatural super-being.

And frankly, do they really want to bore students to death with irrelevant myths and mumbo-jumbo?

Teaching ignorance and contempt

I’ve long thought that state-funded religious schools were discriminatory, but not the way England’s chief schools adjudicator Ian Craig thinks.  His report seems to have focussed only on a small facet of religious schools’ entrance requirements, and concluded that they favour white middle class families.

That finding is no surprise, as white middle class families are better at gaming the system than their poorer counterparts. Although the report seems to have had a very limited remit, it did reveal that those schools that had been caught bending and breaking the entrance rules faced no censure, and could continue their discriminatory practices.

The real inequality of state-funded religious schools is in their core – religion. Discriminating against anyone on the basis of religion is a divisive throwback which has no place in a modern civilised society. There’s no rational reason for the state to be funding schools which are essentially engaged in social engineering by placing indoctrinating an ideology before education.

The solution is simple and straightforward – stop state funding of religious schools.

Learning to fail

You know we’re in for interesting times when the South Tyneside Labour councillor with the education portfolio, Councillor Jim Foreman, disagrees with Labour’s flagship schools privatisation programme. The plans to transfer several South Tyneside schools into academy status has ruffled some feathers. Coun Foreman said:

We do not believe it is in the long-term interests of children across the borough to have two-tier schooling, and fear it will lead to fragmentation of the education system.

I don’t know who this ‘we’ is, but I agree with Councillor Foreman, but I’d bet that South Shield’s MP David Miliband doesn’t. This is what he said about Labour’s academies:

Academies are leading the reforms that will radically improve secondary education in this country.

Academies were never about raising standards in education.  Standards can be raised without a second tier system, as performing schools like Harton Technology College have proven.  Academy schools were an ideologically motivated project, moving schools out of local authority control and into the hands of third parties in an attempt to leverage improvements through market forces with the added competitive advantage of extra investment (they should really be called subsidies) over non academy schools.

So far, there’s little evidence that academies have improved education.

Now we are facing the ConDem government’s blue rebrand of the academies concept and the introduction of Free Schools.

Under Gove’s plans to encourage more schools to convert to academy status, schools will be allowed to set their own criteria for admissions outside of local authority control.  In high demand schools like Harton Technology College, this will allow them to cherry pick the best students. Those better performing students will more likely be from households not reliant on some kind of welfare benefit.  This will split schools into income class ghettos where academic aspiration will be difficult to inspire.

So academy status will not only fragment education provision, it will prove divisive.

It will also exacerbate admissions problems for a local authority like South Tyneside already struggling to provide a coherent and satisfactory admissions system.  Ironically, despite the free market ideology behind academies, with their own selection criteria they can actually lead to a reduction in choice for parents.

However, it’s not as if a form of fragmentation and division isn’t already in place in South Tyneside school’s admissions policies: we aleady have a well established two tier system in the borough and no-one bats an eye.  Some schools can already apply their own selection criteria, and those like St Joseph’s filter their admissions depending upon which god pupils and parents bow their heads to.  The state funded religious school system has grown under Labour, and with Gove’s academy expansion and the introduction of Free Schools, the number of state funded schools constituted upon deity worship is likely to grow.

If Jim Foreman or David Miliband are really concerned about fragmentation in state education, stopping state funded sectarian education should be on their agenda.