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I thunder in The Times

I have a Thunderer piece (opinionated editorial) in The Times. The Times itself was nicknamed “The Thunderer” back when it was the UK’s leading newspaper of record. Some might criticise me for submitting to it now that it’s Murdoch, but I think the need to communicate trumps considerations of ideological purity. (I would, however, draw the line at The Sun.)*

Background: As regular readers will know, the Scottish Secular Society petition to remove unelected Church appointees from Local Authority Educating Committees has been closed, but on the most favourable possible terms. The Scottish Government has undertaken to review the equalities implications of its current reorganisation of education, and, in addition, to consider the points that we raised. The Public Editions Committee has thanked us for raising these important issues, invited us to re-submit our case if, after reorganisation, that still seems necessary, and has forwarded the matter to the Education and Skills Committee, which will be considering this issue as part of its overall discussion of the reorganisation.

Thunderer piece: This is my orginal version. The version as published, slightly cut back for reasons of space, is here. Here I give the most significant sentence that was cut back, with omissions restored and highlighted, followed by the full original text.

There is need for discussion of the entire role of religion and religious organisations in education, within an increasingly non-religious Scotland, covering such matters as the Religious Observance requirement, the nature of Religious Education (too often based on teaching one particular doctrine as true), and the inclusion, in Catholic schools, of factual information about human sexuality and birth control in Religious and Moral Education, under the control of the Council of Bishops, whose own experience of these matters is highly untypical.

Full original text: Under legislation dating back to 1929 and beyond, Read the rest of this entry

Evolution censored from exam questions in publicly funded English schools, with government permission

Jewish faith school caught censoring questions on science exam papersEngland’s largest examination board, OCR, has agreed to let publicly funded schools censor (“redact” in official sanitised language) examination questions involving evolution if they offend the religious sensibilities of the schools concerned. You will find more details here and here and here. The Sunday Times story on the subject neglects to mention the key fact of Government involvement, but quotes further disturbing comment from the exam board.

Last summer, Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ High School in north London blacked out questions on evolution from science exams. OCR investigated the matter, concluded that no student had gained any unfair advantage from this procedure, and took no further action. Yesodey Hatorah follows Charedi Judaism, an extreme sect that does not allow access to television or social media, and does not encourage its daughters to take part in further education.

We now have the exam board’s explanation of their position, and the explanation is far worse than the offence. It is a pre-emptive cringe in the face of censorship. The Government colludes, confirming long-standing fears that its official commitment to teaching real science is a hollow sham.

We know all this because the National Secular Society raised the Yesodey Hatorah incident with England’s Department for Education under the Freedom of Information Act, and was told that a “proportional and reasonable response” had been agreed with the school. According to the NSS,

 The Department’s response reveals that that faith schools will still be permitted to redact questions they don’t approve of as long as this is done in collaboration with the exam board. Setting out the response to the uncovering of exam malpractice, OCR wrote to the [governmental] exam regulator Ofqual, stating:

 “In our deliberations we have reached the conclusion the most proportionate and reasonable approach would be to come to an agreement with the centres concerned which will protect the future integrity of our examinations – by stipulating how, when and where the redactions take place – but at the same time respect their need to do this in view of their religious beliefs. We believe we need to be mindful of the fact that if we do not come to an agreement with the centres we could be seen as creating a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates.”

 But maybe this is just a one-off? No. As the Sunday Times reports, the Chief Executive of OCR also said that such redaction had

 “significantly wider implications and could apply to other faith schools”

 So the right of these schools to censor exams is to be respected, provided exam board agrees, but the exam board, as a prelude to negotiating with the schools, has announced that it is going to respect their need to censor in view of their religious beliefs, because otherwise

 “we could be seen as creating a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates.”

 There ought to be “a barrier to accessing the examinations for the candidates,” and for the best of all possible reasons. One of the most important functions of the exam system is to impose generally recognised standards on the schools whose students take those exams. To allow schools to censor the exposure of their students to the central concept of the life sciences is to default on this vital function.

Indeed, Government policy relies on the examination boards carrying out this function. The Education Minister assures us that as of this September, Yesodey Hatorah, a voluntary aided school, will be required to teach evolution because it is part of the National Curriculum. However, the Free Schools being so recklessly created at the moment are not required to follow that Curriculum. The Government tells us that such a requirement is unnecessary, because the Free Schools will have to follow good educational policy, in order to prepare their pupils for exams.

Exams which, as is now clear, the schools will be allowed to censor.


Sex, Lies, and Pam Stenzel; what my Freedom of Information request dredged up

The Stenzel story received more coverage in last Friday’s Times Educational Supplement Scotland, in conjunction with a closely related story about the uneven quality of sex education in Scottish high schools.

In brief: the school has failed in its basic responsibilities. It invited an ill-informed speaker on the basis of her reputation with the discredited abstinence-only US sex education movement, and because her message suited their agenda. It did this without bothering to check her credentials, or even her own website, where they would have seen how poor her qualifications were. It invited her to disseminate disinformation that even the head teacher describes as “contentious”, on topics of life and death importance including cancer and mental health. And finally, the task of evaluating and discussing her materials is assigned to the very RE teachers who suggested inviting her in the first place, using, as a teaching aid, the video of her error-laden talk.

The core problem is that sexual health and relationships education in Catholic schools in Scotland is delivered as part of the “Called to Love” module of religious education, and that in these schools the religious education curriculum is determined by the Scottish Bishops’ Council. So life-and-death factual information is entrusted to teachers with no training in biology or health-related issues, while the actual content is determined by a similarly unqualified committee of professional celibates.

As promised, I give here the replies that I received from Renfrewshire Council, the local authority responsible for St Andrew’s Academy. First I give those where the reply seems to be of interest, with my comments, but then, for the record, I include the others at the end so that you can see I am not quote mining.

What fees were paid to Ms Stenzel for her visit, and what contributions were made towards her expenses, and other incidental expenses connected with the visit, such as the cost of busing in children from other schools?

Ms Stezel did not charge fees for this event.

Comment: although she did not charge fees, she was, according to an eyewitness (see Garry Otton’s account on the Scottish Secular Society web page), doing a brisk business in the sale of her CDs.

What were the sources used to pay such fees, contributions, and expenses?

The costs of Ms Stenzel’s flights from Belfast to Glasgow and return were paid for by the school fund of St Andrew’s Academy. There were no other costs.

Comment: you might be wondering how Ms Stenzel, who is based in California, came to be in Belfast. She was there by invitation of Precious Life, a group opposed to abortion in all cases including rape.

An eyewitness was told that one of your RE teachers visited Ms Stenzel in California. Did the teacher receive any assistance from school or other funds for that trip?

A teacher of Religious Education attended the Diocese of Los Angeles R. E. Congress 2013 in California. She paid her own expenses for this Continuing Professional Development opportunity. Amongst other lectures she attended during the conference, she also attended the lecture by Ms Stenzel.

You read that correctly. The Diocese of Los Angeles organized a lecture on sexual morality.

Was the school aware that Ms Stenzel has no formal training or qualifications regarding the health matters that she discusses, her only academic qualification being a first degree in psychology?

The School and the church authorities were aware of Ms Stenzel’s reputation and the message she delivered in her books and her lectures.

Translation: we didn’t know and we don’t care. So what if she doesn’t know what she’s talking about? We agree with what she’s saying.

In evaluating her qualifications, did you take into account the fact that this degree is from an extreme Conservative US evangelical university, LibertyUniversity (founder, Jerry Falwell; funder, Sun Myung Moon), which collaborates with AnswersInGenesis and requires its biology professors to embrace Young Earth Creationism? (Such Creationism is of course incompatible with Catholic teaching.)

The school was not aware of this.

Comment: the school had not even bothered to visit Ms Stenzel’s self-description on her own website.

Were you, and other teachers involved in the decision to invite Ms Stenzel, aware that she would repeatedly claim that having more than one lifetime partner was dangerous and damaging (eyewitness report: “No one has ever had more than one partner and not paid”)? Did you consider the effect of this claim on children whose parents clearly have had more than one partner, including those remarrying with the full blessing of the Catholic Church after bereavement or annulment?

Having viewed her video/presentation the school’s head teacher was of the view that her general theme was to promote celibacy before marriage and monogamy during marriage as the best way to have positive relationships.

Comment: we approve of her general theme, so don’t bother us with troublesome details.

Were you aware that Ms Stenzel, in all her talks, makes a number of claims that depart considerably from received and informed medical opinion, and in many cases have been explicitly refuted, including the claims that 30% of all sexually transmitted diseases including gonorrhoea are incurable and life-long; and that abortion leads to an increased risk of depression?

The school’s headteacher is aware that this area is deeply contentious across the medical profession. The facts of the case are followed up in R.E. classes using the most up-to-date medical knowledge.

Translation: we know that the medical profession insists that what she was telling the children is a load of bollocks, but we are going to carry on repeating it anyway.

I understand the event was filmed. Who owns this film and how will it be used? Who paid for the filming? Who will have access to the film?

The R.E. department of the school filmed the lecture for curricular use. There was no cost. The R.E. department would envisage using excerpts in their R.E. programme.

Comment: see translation of previous item.

Were you aware that she would conjure up from nowhere, as a question she was unable to answer, the possibility that chlamydia could lead to sterility?

As the head teacher did not have a script prior to the event, he was not aware that she would raise this issue.

Comment: the head teacher claims to have seen a video of her presentation before inviting her, but presumably failed to notice this minor detail.

Were you aware that she would grossly misrepresent the effectiveness of HPV vaccination, which she describes as effective only for 4 out of 18 strains of HPV, without mentioning that the vaccine is by design specific for HPV-16 and HPV-18, the very strains most capable of causing cervical cancer (which is why the vaccine is targeted against them)?

As with the previous question, the head teacher was not aware that she would raise this specific point about HPV vaccination.

Comment: as previous.

Do you know why, given her concern about cervical cancer, she failed to mention Papanikolaou (Pap) smears, which have been saving lives since 1941? And what measures are the schools taking to remedy this grave omission?

The school’s head teacher does not know why she failed to mention this issue.

Translation: we’re not really interested in keeping the children healthy. All we are really interested in is scaring them into being good.

Were you aware that by giving the impression that condoms are largely ineffective in preventing the spread of AIDS and STDs, the talk was in direct contradiction of official Scottish Government advice, as available at here:  “All young people must be given advice on “safe sex” and how to avoid or limit their exposure to infection. Young couples are encouraged to use a method of contraception and condoms to protect against transmission of infections.” [note that this advice refers to all young people] and, through that link, at “Always use a condom that carries the British Kite Mark or European CE safety mark during sex. This prevents your partner(s) becoming infected with HIV, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and herpes.”?

Ms Stenzel’s message about condoms were [sic] linked to the church’s message about celibacy and the fact that STDs are increasing in Scotland.

Comment is superfluous.

Did you or any one else involved with this visit take into account the possibility that the effects of her presentation are liable to include couples refraining from condom use, in the mistaken belief that it was ineffectual in preventing disease transmission, and individuals refraining from seeking medical attention for STDs, in the mistaken belief that they are incurable?

Ms Stenzel’s message about condoms was linked to the church’s message about celibacy and the fact that STDs are increasing in Scotland.

As for previous item.

Did you or anyone else involved in this visit take into account the extremely high probability that the effect on some pupils will be to totally discredit the schools’ teaching regarding sexuality, including the need to behave responsibly and to take appropriate precautions?

The school’s head teacher did not anticipate the outcomes you describe.

Comment: the NHS Health Education Department (see story here) can go jump in a lake.

Are you aware that studies in the US have shown that “abstinence only” sex education programs, extensively funded under the George W Bush administration, have been shown to be completely ineffectual?

In terms of Section 17 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, we have no recorded information to answer this question.

Comment: we don’t wish to know that. (However, Ms Stenzel knows it perfectly well, and when challenged about it is on record as saying that it doesn’t matter because she is telling the truth as she sees it, and because she is answerable only to God.)

And just for the record:

Which schools took part in this event?

All Catholic secondary schools of the Diocese of Paisley were invited to attend the meeting on 8 May 2013. Almost all sent some pupils, accompanied by their Religious Education teachers.

What part or parts of the school curriculum did this event address?

This talk complemented the S3 Religious Education course “Called to Love” which is a central part of the Relationships and Model Education element of the S3 syllabus in a Catholic school.

Was the school aware that, according to publicly available tax data, in 2011 (the most recent date for which this information is available) Ms Stenzel’s operation had an annual budget in excess of $268,000?

The school is not aware of the annual budget of Ms Stenzel’s operation.

Which teachers were consulted before authorizing Ms Stenzel’s visit? In particular, were teachers involved in education regarding biology, health, and human sexuality consulted? What opinions did they express?

All staff in the School were informed of the visit. There were no objections to the visit.

In view of the well-known emotionally disturbing nature of Ms Stenzel’s presentations, what notification was sent to parents and to senior pupils, and what measures were taken to ensure their consent to the pupils’ attendance? (Please supply copies of relevant material as distributed to parents. I have an eyewitness report that one student, from St Ninian’s, denied parental involvement, and said that he had been sent by his teacher).

Letters were sent to the parents of all year groups from S3 – S6 in St Andrew’s Academy. No parents objected. Many parents came with their children to the event. It is also sent to the same age groups of pupils in TrinityHigh School. Other young people who attended were from schools outside Renfrewshire. As such we have no further information about how they informed young people.

Were you aware that her talk would be deeply insulting to males, and would include an anecdote about how she had humiliated a boy by asking him where his vulva was?

The school’s headteacher has had no feedback that would suggest that this presentation was insulting to males.

Comment: an eyewitness reported this anecdote, but I have relegated this evasion to the “boring” category in comparison with other items.

What plans exist or are contemplated to invite Ms Stenzel again?

There are none.

Comment: they have her recorded anyway. No need.


Out of control sex “education” in Scottish Catholic schools; background to the Stenzel Horrors

The underlying problem is that factual information about sex is, in Scottish Catholic schools, delivered under the Religious Education heading as part of the “Called to Love” module of sexual health and relationships education (SHRE), and tailored to suit Church doctrine, not scientific or educational reality.

A Scottish Parliamentary report, described here in Friday’s TESS, refers to “worrying” comments from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that Catholic schools had prevented NHS officials from scrutinising their SHRE.

In the words of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (I asked them), Religious Education in Scottish Catholic schools “is set out in statute with the Catholic Education Commission having responsibility for the faith content of the curriculum on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland.  Religious education in Catholic schools takes place within the context of the wider Catholic faith community, in partnership with home and parish, and as part of the school curriculum’s Experiences and Outcomes.”

So there are no checks and balances. If it chooses (and it does so choose) the Bishop’s Conference can decide that agnosticism and atheism are not to be discussed as real options on a par with religious faiths. Even worse, it seems that the Bishop’s Conference can and does dictate the factual content of SHRE regarding human sexuality, refuses to even discuss the matter with NHS officials, and feels (and is) at liberty to override explicit Scottish Government guidance, when that guidance says (here and here) that

All young people must be given advice on “safe sex” and how to avoid or limit their exposure to infection. Young couples are encouraged to use a method of contraception and condoms to protect against transmission of infections.


a condom … prevents your partner(s) becoming infected with HIV, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and herpes

This leads to such horrific episodes as Pam Stenzel’s school visit in Paisley last month. I reported on this earlier, and have now heard back from the Local Authority in response to my Freedom of Information request. The visit has also been the subject of a story in today’s TESS, and I am happy to have been able to supply some if the information used there. If happy is the right word; we shouldn’t have to keep fighting against reality-denying nonsense in our schools, whether that nonsense is about creationism or about chlamydia.

Tomorrow, I am going to the Edinburgh Secular Society conference in Edinburgh where I will be talking about both those issues. On Sunday, I will post here the full response of Renfrewshire Council to my Freedom of Information request. There you will see, among other things, that the school who invited Ms Stenzel did not know about the highly questionable quality of her academic qualifications, that it regards nonsense claims she made as “contentious” when in fact they are downright wrong, and that her talk (filmed for future use) is in any case justified because it fits in with the overall message about being good.

More later.

One week left – petition to change opt-out to opt-in for Religious Observance in Scottish schools



[Update: the petition was duly submitted with 1516 signatures, and Mark Gordon (for himslef) and Caroline Lynch )for Secular Scotland)  have been invited to give evidence to the Petitions Committee in September]

Only one week remains to sign the Secular Scotland Petition to the Scottish Parliament (you can sign here), to change the procedure regarding registration for children to take part in Religious Observance in schools from opt-out to opt-in. This petition has already attracted widespread attention in broadcasts, local and national newspapers, and discussion forums both secular and religious.

I and others have already rehearsed the arguments. Parents (and children) are not being informed of their rights, and in one extreme case (the Edinburgh School Handbook template, no less), the existence of RO is not even mentioned. RO receives input from committees with their own dynamic, including in at least one case from a prominent advocate of six-day creationism. Children are left thinking that the school requires them to take part in religious ceremonies that they don’t believe in, and those parents who are aware of their rights and wish to assert them are presented with bureaucratic hurdles, up to and including the need for a personal conference with the head teacher.

My own view is clear. Children should only be taking part in religious observance if they want to be, and I do not understand why anyone, whatever their own personal beliefs, would wish it otherwise. The view from the Catholic Church, and from the Free Church of Scotland, who find themselves in agreement over this (as over so many things these days), is that the change would cause disastrous disruption to the fabric of society, and be a prelude to the complete removal of religion from the public educational system. Such anxieties speak volumes.

For what it’s worth (and I know that facts are not worth very much in some discussions), both the petitioner, Mark Gordon, and the supporting organization, Secular Scotland, are very much in favour of the retention of Religious Education in schools, given the important role of religion in cultures worldwide, both historically and in the present. Moreover, neither is demanding the removal of Religious Observance from schools (there is indeed a separate petition to that effect, in which, however, Secular Scotland plays no formal role). My own view is that the public discussion that would result from the change to opt-in would help rejuvenate RO, because its advocates, with inertia no longer on their side, would be forced to find a role for it suitable for today’s Scotland, in which the traditional beliefs can no longer be taken for granted.

Religion and Creationism in Schools: England, Scotland, and the US

In the US, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is generally agreed, despite the ravings of a few noisy radical revisionists, to imply that no Government-run institution, such as a public school, can advocate a religion or sponsor any kind of religious observance.

In the UK, the very opposite is the case (I would like to hear from readers about how this matter is handled in other countries). Schools are actually required to incorporate both Religious Education and Religious Observance into their timetables. Religious Observance means, in general, a school assembly with hymns and prayers, and may also include taking part in church services, and visits from ministers of religion. Religious Education, in theory at least, is something entirely different – a faith-neutral liberal arts subject, explaining without proselytising what the contents are of the world’s main religions, and how they respond to philosophical scrutiny. In practice, the teaching tends to be heavily weighted towards Christianity, which is perhaps well justified given Western cultural traditions. Less justifiable is a tendency to assume that Christianity is true, a difficult problem to avoid when most of those who opt to teach the subject will themselves be believers. There is also a very specific problem in primary schools, where the boundaries between different subjects is blurred, and where children hearing, for example, the story of Noah’s Ark will not know whether it belongs alongside the story of Little Red Riding Hood, or of dinosaurs, or somewhere else altogether.

In principle, parents (or, above a certain level, pupils) have the right to withdraw from Religious Observance and/or Religious Education. Reality on the ground is more complicated, if only because of bureaucratic hurdles, and the entire Religious Observance system is coming under increased critical scrutiny. I will report further on this as events unfold.

As a result of these different attitudes towards religion in schools, the tactics adopted by creationists in the US and  the UK are diametrically opposed (I discussed this on pandasthumb a couple of years ago). American creationists claim to be teaching the best available science, and support this claim by describing parallel universes, in which (for example) the fossil record is full of inexplicable gaps, while the Grand Canyon is readily explainable in terms of Noah’s flood. Pandering politicians then claim to be exposing schoolchildren to the best available science, or educating them by exposure to a concocted controversy. In England, officially at least, the authorities are having none of it. After some close questioning, in which I am proud to have played a part, the Education Secretary was pressured into describing himself as “crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact”, and the Department of Education also clearly states in its materials that it recognises Intelligent Design as a variety of creationism.

None of this, however, affects what happens in Religious Education, as long as it doesn’t claim to be science. So creationists in England, trying to smuggle their material into schools, will find it much easier if they can do so in the name of teaching about religion. This is a growing problem, in view of the current Government policy of establishing schools free from local authority control, many of them run by groups with religious affiliations. Then the way is open for pupils to be taught evolution as an examination requirement, while also hearing it that it is in conflict with the school’s preferred interpretation of Christianity, or (a recently emerging problem in England) that it is un-Koranic.

In Scotland, the situation is different again. Education is “devolved”, meaning that it is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, rather than the UK Parliament at Westminster. Evolution is in the syllabus, but when it comes to creationism and Intelligent Design the Scottish Qualifications Authority has repeatedly ignored calls from teachers and others requesting guidance similar to that on offer in England. The stated reason, incredibly, is that no such guidance is necessary, because creationism is not a problem in Scottish schools.[1] As for the actual motivation, that requires a little knowledge of the present state of Scottish society. Growing numbers of Scots, especially younger Scots, have no religious affiliation, and secular marriages (in Registry Offices, or carried out by recognized Humanist celebrants) outnumber religious marriages. On the other hand, Biblical literalism retains its hold in some areas, especially the Highlands and Islands, where a former Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (not to be confused with the Church of Scotland, nor with the Free Presbyterian Church, or others with almost identical names) continues to describe evolution as “dangerous pseudoscience”. Scottish politics is in a state of flux, with the collapse of support for the Westminster coalition parties and an upcoming referendum on total independence, so the Education Minister in Edinburgh doesn’t want to upset anyone. But if he lets his civil servants says anything on the topic, someone is bound to be upset, and his only escape is to pretend that nothing needs to be said.

More later.

[1] SQA to me, 4 Nov 2010: “There is no evidence from HMIE [Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education] school inspections or other sources to suggest that creationism or ID is currently being taught in schools in Scotland.”

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