Thursday, 29 July 2010

Gove on atheist free schools - missing the point?

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Speaking before the education select committee yesterday, education secretary Michael Gove suggested he would welcome the opening of atheist free schools under the new Academies Act. Referring to Richard Dawkins' remarks during a recent web chat with users of the website Mumsnet, in which he responded to a suggestion that atheists use the new legislation to set up schools by saying he liked the idea of a free-thinking school, Gove told the committee:
"One of the most striking things that I read recently was a thought from Richard Dawkins that he might want to take advantage of our education legislation to open a new school, which was set up on an explicitly atheist basis.

"It wouldn't be my choice of school, but the whole point about our education reforms is that they are, in the broad sense of the word, small 'l', liberal, that they exist to provide that greater degree of choice."
He later told reporters "If Professor Dawkins wants to set up a school we would be very interested to look at an application."

As many commentators have pointed out, the Academies Act is likely to lead to an increase in the number of schools controlled by religious organisations. With this in mind, it would appear Gove was hoping to placate critics of the legislation by effectively saying, don't worry, religious groups are going to set up schools, but you can too if you like.

But isn't Gove missing the point? When I blogged about this following Dawkins' Mumsnet chat, I tried to get a sense of what readers thought of setting up free schools in the name of non-religious philosophies, such as "atheist", "humanist" or "freethinking" (you can see reader comments here, and the results of our poll here). Opinions varied, of course, but the overall impression was one of opposition. Humanists and secularists don't, on the whole, seem to favour taking advantage of the coalition's reforms in this way. While some think it might be time to take an "if you can't beat them..." approach, many feel doing so would represent an inadvertent endorsement of a system humanists and secularists have spent years opposing.

I think this is where I stand too – we already have a situation where, in many cases, the children of Catholic parents go to Catholic schools, the children of Church of England parents to to Church of England Schools, the children of Muslim parents go to Muslim schools, and so on. The answer, from an atheist perspective, is not to add to the problem by sending the children of atheist parents to atheist schools. We currently have an education system that encourages segregation along religious lines, and we should be campaigning for this to be replaced by a system that encourages integration. This view is summed up well by the BHA's chief executive Andrew Copson, in his response to Gove's comments yesterday:
"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 humanist in all but name, open and accommodating to all."
I'm looking to cover this in the next issue of the magazine, so reader comments would be greatly appreciated. Where do you stand on this issue? Do you welcome Gove's comments? Should atheists now look to use the provisions of the Academies Act? Or should we oppose the idea of any school set up in the name of a particular religion or philosophy?

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