For the sake of my blood pressure, I really shouldn’t listen to the Today programme. But more of that presently.
As the left blogosphere’s designated religion correspondent, a role graciously shared by the incomparable Red Maria, it would be remiss of me not to pass any comment on last week’s No Popery demonstration in London. But to tell you the truth, it looked to me like the damp squib of the season. This was, let’s recall, a mobilisation of various anti-religious organisations along with some militant gays, and to be honest, “anti-Catholics don’t like the Pope very much” is about as newsworthy as “Pope may not be secular liberal”.
But that’s not to say that there was nothing remarkable about it. In fact there were several entertaining eccentricities. Firstly, the demonstrators met up at the Natural History Museum to namecheck Darwin and pat themselves on the back about being, like, all scientific and shit. This seems to have been based on the idea that the Catholic Church is opposed to the Darwinian theory of evolution, which would come as a shock to the late Cardinal Newman as well as at least the last half-dozen popes. (Catholicism’s allegorical reading of scripture has never really had a problem with evolution; that’s Protestant biblical literalism you’re thinking of.) From there, they set out to Westminster Cathedral to try and have a row with the congregation, by such means as brandishing placards featuring Pope Benny’s face with a Hitler moustache drawn on it – that must have seemed absolutely hilarious at the OutRage! office, but was perhaps not the best way to win friends and influence people at Westminster Cathedral. And the final lap was a walk to the Italian embassy to proclaim solidarity with some two-men-and-a-dog outfit in Italy that’s been campaigning to get Berlusconi to unilaterally tear up the Lateran Treaty and annex Vatican City. And all I have to say about that is that if you don’t like the Pope that’s fair enough, but if you think Berlusconi would be an improvement then you need your head felt.
Notable too that despite sympathetic media coverage less than 200 people bothered to turn up; and that atheist icon Maryam Namazie was a no-show, although some Iranian bloke did stand in for her. This is ominous for the No Popery Coalition, because militant secularist demos usually rely heavily on the WCPI to make up the numbers, and while the Hekmatists are up for any opportunity to bash Islam, they really don’t care about Catholicism. One tentatively suggests that, if they want to bolster their numbers come September, they’ll have to block with the Democratic Unionist Party and the Orange Order, although that might be a profound culture shock for Terry Sanderson and Peter Tatchell. Incidentally, I do worry that the enormous respect that Peter has rightly accrued down the years is undermined a little by his insistence on hanging out with these strange people.
But no matter, these guys were not to be discouraged. Over the last couple of days they have been in action again over the Children, Schools and Families Bill – yet another rather silly piece of Orwellian legislation from New Labour – and have been boosted by the support of the Liberal Democrats. It appears that Mr Nicholas Clegg and Dr Death Evan Harris are making a pitch for the militant secularist vote, although I’m not certain that a couple of hundred retired Open University lecturers are much of a vote bank. The proximate cause of this is the question of what’s now known as Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) and how this is to be carried out in faith schools. But there’s more to this than meets the eye, and there are three aspects I want to explore – the legislative, the political and the educational. There are a few philosophical issues underlying it as well, but I’ll only be able to touch on these in passing – to go into them in depth would take unconscionably long.
Part the first:
New Labour, like most modern governments, produces far too much legislation and certainly far too much bad legislation. I was very taken by Jamie’s reference to the theory of Chinese Legalism, the idea that the government should legislate to improve the moral condition of its citizens. New Labour, combining as it does deracinated liberalism with a belief in the perfectibility of man, is especially addicted to this, and it’s resulted in a whole series of blockbuster laws that seek to get rid of every social ill you can think of. Harriet Harman’s current Equality Bill is a case in point – since the last (itself rather far-reaching) Equality Act came into force as recently as 2006, and was augmented by the Sexual Orientation Regulations 2007, it’s not immediately apparent why yet another substantial piece of equality legislation is so urgently required.
Forgive me for going a bit Ron Paul, but the legislative process would be enormously improved by applying the “better fewer but better” approach, passing fewer but shorter laws that are competently drafted and properly scrutinised. Nor would it hurt to realise that some things can’t be easily sorted out by legislative fiat. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, if schools have a problem with homophobic bullying (and we know they do) it would seem sensible to me for the DCSF to issue schools with guidelines setting out best practice, and to get feedback from schools on the extent of the problem. It’s an executive problem, not one that can be solved by legislation. (It’s worth noting that teenagers involved in homophobic assaults will have spent their entire education under New Labour and will have had the whole gamut of diversity and equality drummed into them. This indicates that we’re dealing with a cultural problem that needs a long-term perspective.)
A further issue is that of what may be termed bullshit autonomy. It’s a bit like Francis Canavan’s critique of liberal thinkers like Ronald Dworkin – that they relied on statist solutions to uphold the supreme good of the autonomy of the atomised individual – but, this being practical politics, it’s the Beavis and Butt-head version. I draw your attention to “Dave” Cameron promising more local decision-making in the NHS, even including workers’ co-operatives. But on electoral hot-button issues like cancer care or IVF, “Dave” says he’ll end the postcode lottery. It obviously not having occurred to “Dave” that localism implies a postcode lottery – because local decision-making means differing decisions being made on the allocation of limited resources. So the line is that we’ll get more localism except where it matters, and where it matters there will be increased uniformity.
Education is an especially obvious example. What with LMS, the gutting of local education authorities, parental choice, academies and all the other shiny initiatives of the last three decades, one would imagine that education would be all localism and diversity. And yet, this is one of the areas most notorious for pettifogging micromanagement from Whitehall. And since the far distant days of Ken Baker, the weapon of choice for enforcing bullshit autonomy has been the National Curriculum.
What’s wrong with the National Curriculum could take up an entire book, but in very general terms it’s both too broad and too narrow. What it should be doing is setting a standard for the study of various subjects. It should define what’s necessary as a minimum, and it should also indicate academic range – for instance, the study of history should involve some sort of variety of topics, instead of the scandalous situation where you can get a history qualification after studying nothing but Hitler. That’s the sort of thing it should do. In practice, it’s a dumping ground for every bit of harebrained social engineering a government wants to try its hand at, via citizenship classes and the like. At the same time, the NC is absurdly prescriptive. Take literacy. Any teacher worth her salt knows there are a whole lot of different ways of teaching literacy, appropriate to different kids, of which synthetic phonics is one. But, thanks to New Labour’s kowtowing to the Daily Mail, synthetic phonics is now compulsory. And now, on the grounds that parents are falling down on the job and the NC has to take up the slack, kids who are already suffering the Tony Blair Literacy Hour face being subjected to the Ed Balls Sex Hour.
Finally, however bad New Labour are on this ground, we can confidently expect Cameron and Gove to be ten times worse.
Part the second:
This is where it’s necessary to separate the substance from the spin. At 8.10 on Tuesday morning the Today programme carried a rather weird interview between John Humphrys and Ed Balls, on the subject of an amendment Balls had introduced to his own bill, which is ostensibly about protecting the religious character of faith schools. More on this below.
The interview was rendered even more weird in that it was preceded by an appearance from Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who was arguing in favour of one-size-fits-all statism and against any religious dispensation. This seemed an odd position for a rabbi to take, but then Reform Judaism is a strange beast.
There then followed the main event. Although the bill would also affect the more numerous Anglican schools (though many of these are faith schools in name only), not to mention Jewish, Muslim and Hindu schools, the entire conversation was about Catholic schools, and moreover between two men neither of whom had the faintest idea what Catholic doctrine actually was. (Can we please have Ed Stourton back?) Humphrys was hyper-aggressively demanding of Balls that Catholic schools should not be allowed to be influenced by, er, Catholicism; Balls was positively surreal, simultaneously posing as the defender of faith schools while reassuring Humphrys of his fidelity to secularist orthodoxy by affirming that he would be requiring Catholic schools to provide their pupils with information on how to access contraception and abortion.
The spin on this, too, has been wondrous to behold. Secularist groups (among which we can count the Liberal Democrats) have been spinning furiously that this is all about Teh Gays. You can’t blame them for taking this tack – look at the media success they had a few weeks back when the Pope made a speech that didn’t mention homosexuality once, and we ended up in a “hands off our lovely gays” condemnathon. (And, having tapped into primordial English anti-Catholicism, there was little need to bother with details such as what the guy actually said. Better to have well-meaning liberals getting really angry about what they knew he’d said.) Actually, while homosexuality isn’t irrelevant to all of this, discussion in Catholic fora has been much, much more concerned with abortion. As for the government, prior to the amendment it had been spinning that its religious critics were a bunch of lunatics opposed to any and all sex education (Mark Steel, for one, seems to have accepted this); after the amendment, their spin came back to bite them in the bum as BBC newsreaders were berating MPs for allowing the “opt-out”.
What of the Catholic spin? Well, there hasn’t been any. Archbishop Nichols, Bishop McMahon and the blessed Oona have been conspicuous by their vanishingly low profile. There was a very brief and neutrally worded press release from the CES about the amendment, but that was it. If one were to go by the radio silence from +Vinnie and +Malcolm, one might get the impression that the bishops endorsed what New Labour was up to. Not least because Balls is quoting them in support of his position, with nary a word of contradiction.
Let’s backpedal slightly here, because faith schools under New Labour are a classic example of bullshit autonomy. New Labour loves faith schools, because middle-class parents love faith schools. In the absence of a government with the balls to bring back grammars, the middle classes have identified faith schools as ersatz grammar schools and will go to extraordinary lengths of feigning religious belief so as to get the kids in there. (There is an analogue, though an inexact one, in the way south Dublin is full of middle-class atheists who join the Church of Ireland for schools admission purposes.) New Labour loves faith schools so much that a whole slew of government ministers have managed to get their own kids into exclusive faith schools. But New Labour also remains committed to a long menu of liberal policies that sit uneasily to say the least with actually existing religion. Hence Barry Sheerman’s comment that faith schools were fine as long as they didn’t take the faith bit too seriously. Ideally, New Labour would like the “faith” bit of faith schools to be just a bit of branding, a logo on the school gate. You can get away with that to some extent with the C of E, but the likes of Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Jews are a tougher proposition.
So to the SRE proposals, and the Bill tightens considerably the leeway that schools had in designing their own SRE curricula. It would become illegal for any school not to offer SRE – even in primary schools, it is envisaged as being compulsory for the 8-11 age group, which is an odd move for a minister who’s said he’s concerned at how society is sexualising young children. From the age of fifteen, it will be illegal for parents to withdraw their children from SRE, no matter what reasonable concerns they may have about the content of what the school is offering. And this DCSF press release gives a flavour of what would specifically be expected from faith schools:
Q How could this work in practice in a faith school?
Let me answer that by way of providing an example. (This is Ed talkin’ here.)
St Thomas More is a mixed secondary school in Bedford. 60% of students are from a Catholic/Christian background with 40% from a range of ethnic minority groups, including Muslim. It has achieved Healthy Schools Status and has an Outstanding Award for cultural diversity.
St Thomas More delivers SRE through the pastoral programme in conjunction with the RE syllabus. It is led by pastoral tutors, all of whom are well prepared and confident to lead discussion with students across a wide range of SRE issues.
The school has developed a very successful balance of providing students with accurate information within the faith ethos of the school. For example, sex within marriage is promoted as the ideal of the Catholic faith, but the school explicitly recognises the reality that some young people may choose to be sexually active and, if that is the case, they need the knowledge and confidence to make an informed choice to protect themselves from pregnancy and STIs.
The school nurse provides students with clear accurate information about the full range of contraception and STIs and details of local services. Chlamydia screening is also offered to students in Years 11 to 13. Pregnancy options, including abortion, are also discussed in a non-judgemental way with the RE syllabus requiring students to understand the spectrum of pro- and anti-choice views on abortion. By combining the pastoral and RE teaching, the essential knowledge component of SRE is provided to students but within the context of relationships and the school’s values.
Terry Sanderson has been banging on about the rights of children to an “objective” sex education, as if you can eliminate values from such a discussion. In the spirit of Dude Hitchens’ proclamation in God Is Not Great that “my belief is not a belief”, Terry is arguing not for a value-free SRE curriculum, which is impossible in any case, but for one that reflects his values – with the rhetorical rider that “my values are not values, they’re objective”. Ed Balls, who’s much more important in this context than the voluble Mr Sanderson, actually comes closer to a value-free approach with his demand that schools be “non-judgemental”, in other words following the timeworn liberal view that radical personal autonomy is the supreme value.
But this is where liberalism’s insistence on the atomistic individual, at least when it devolves into statist solutions to reinforce personal autonomy, becomes deeply anti-pluralist. And this is where Balls and Sanderson are as one, because what they view as “enlightened”, “neutral” or “non-judgemental” is in fact a value statement, and one that many people don’t agree with. The real difference is that Balls thinks the demands of liberal statism and those of faith can be reconciled by the teacher adding the rider “here’s what we believe, but here are some other beliefs of absolutely equal value”, while Sanderson thinks the teacher should be legally prevented from adding the rider.
For example, let’s say your faith holds up lifelong monogamous marriage as an ideal, while recognising (and being sensitive to) the fact that actually existing society is more complex. Ed Balls wants to make it compulsory for you to say that cohabitation and civil partnerships are of equal value with marriage – so how do you express an opinion without being judgemental? The canonical example is abortion, where Mr Balls seems to think Catholic schools can instruct girls in how and where to obtain abortions – and in a “non-judgemental” manner – as long as they say “but we don’t do that”. One would have thought Archbishop Nichols might have explained to him that for Catholic educators to assist a pupil in obtaining an abortion is for them to be complicit in a grave sin, but then that would presume that a government minister would understand the concept of sin.
And what of the ostensible opt-out? Here is the text of the amendment:
Subsections (4) to (7) are not to be read as preventing the governing body or head teacher of a school within subsection (7B) from causing or allowing PSHE to be taught in a way that reflects the school’s religious character.
Note that this replaces the provision in the Education Act 1996 that allows schools to opt out of what they consider to be inappropriate material; and that this amendment is in tension with all the other bits of the Bill stipulating that SRE must be carried out according to the (extremely broad-brush) requirements of “equality” and “diversity”, and it really doesn’t add up to much. What it amounts to in practice is that you can rely on the teachings of Jesus Christ as long as they don’t conflict with the teachings of Ed Balls. If they do, so much the worse for Jesus.
Even if you don’t subscribe to Catholic moral teaching – and I’m certainly not advocating that Catholic doctrine become the law of the land – there are good reasons to be alarmed at these occasional outbreaks of authoritarian Jacobinism from New Labour. I was saying a little while ago about the danger of erecting liberal analogues to Section 28, and this is exactly the sort of thing I meant. Genuine pluralist liberals – and a lot of liberals are shockingly illiberal on these issues – should realise that, at least on the Niemöller principle, it’s often necessary to defend the liberties of people you don’t agree with – as Pope Benny says, tolerance is not the same as approval – and that religious liberties are very often the canary in the mine. Apart from the civil libertarian argument, there’s also the prudential argument outlined by +Rowan at General Synod, when he talked about Section 28 and the danger of enshrining legal norms on disputed moral issues. You may not be worried as long as the government is enforcing liberal nostrums on the education system, but once put that sort of system in place, and should a morally conservative government come to power, the liberals would soon know what end was up.
Part the third:
This post has got far too long already, but I’d just like to quite briefly state my scepticism about whether these brave new plans Mr Balls is putting forward will actually do much good. One might profit from asking why there were much lower teen pregnancy and STI rates forty or fifty years ago, when there was almost no sex education in schools. Not, I hasten to add, that I’m calling for a return to those days.
I mention this because the debate on the CSF Bill has coincided with discussion of the government’s Teen Pregnancy Strategy, which will certainly miss by quite some margin its target of halving teen pregnancies in ten years, even with a bit of statistical jiggery-pokery aimed at making the headline figures look better. Sceptics view the TPS as not much more than a teen abortion strategy. (As the latest figures confirm, teenage birthrates have got very low, but that’s largely thanks to a 50% abortion rate rather than a reduction in teenage pregnancy.)
Many of you will have seen Anna Richardson’s Sex Education Show (aka Britain’s Got Herpes) on Channel 4. This was quite interesting in that it was arguing, on the face of it, that the teen pregnancy and STI crises could best be dealt with by more sex education. But, considering that there’s more sex education now than there has ever been, it might be more pertinent to call for better sex education.
There’s also the aspect of societal pressures. There are enormously strong influences on kids from the mass media, the internet, porn and what have you, reinforced by peer pressure. By far the most powerful vehicle for sex education in Britain is Radio 1’s Sunday Surgery, which always does some brief throat-clearing on the age of consent, and occasionally has on Christian girls who wear purity rings as a sort of sideshow attraction, but in general has a relentless message of “if it feels good, there can’t be anything wrong with it”. Set against this, pupils getting an hour a week in school of what Ed Balls considers to be good sex education – regardless of whether it’s any good – is comparable to government advertising campaigns on alcohol abuse when set alongside the mammoth advertising budget of the drinks industry. It’s a drop in the ocean.
Finally (phew!), there’s a general cultural issue. Holland, as is well known, has extremely permissive laws and as much sex in the media as you could possibly want, but a much lower teen pregnancy rate than Britain. But Dutch society, especially outside of the Amsterdam metropolis, is characterised by tight family units and a level of community cohesion that seems very old-fashioned to Brits. I can’t see the problem being sorted this side of a serious change in the culture, something that no act of legislation can decree.
More thoughts on this from Archbishop Cranmer.