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Removing Church nominees from Education Committees: Good news from Petitions Committee

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The story so far: Our petition attracted over 700 signatures, some notable, and Spencer Fildes and I were invited to give evidence on it before the Public Petitions Committee last November (shown above; see here for more).  After submitting us to attentive but not unfriendly cross-examination, the Committee decided to write to a number of interested parties, whose submissions you will find on the petition website, together  with my own response. It met again last Thursday, to consider what action to take, and the official report  is now available here under Continued Petitions, and reproduced below for completeness.

Now read on: We had hoped that at this point they would decide to forward the matter to the Education and Skills Committee, going down much the same road as a related petition did three years ago. What happened, however, was potentially far more favourable to our case. It is relevant that the Convener is Johann Lamont, a very senior, independent-minded, and able parliamentarian, who has said of herself “I have been a committee convener, proud of building consensus where possible, to test legislation and to challenge the government of the day.”

While summarising submissions received, the Convener laid considerable emphasis on the equalities issue, referring to submissions from the Education and Human Rights Commission, and also (I was pleased to see) the Jewish Community, as well as our own response to submissions, in the following words:

The Equality and Human Rights Commission referred to its submission on the previous petition on this issue, PE1498, in which it comments on the requirements of the public sector equality duty. That was echoed by representatives of the Jewish community, and the petitioners, who note that, to date,

“none of these issues have been addressed”.

The petitioners maintain their position that the system is unfair and discriminatory, particularly in the light of changing demographics.

After brief exchanges with other members, she concluded discussion by saying:

We do not propose to close the petition until we have asked the Scottish Government specifically whether it has fulfilled its responsibilities with respect to the public sector equality duty. It is clear that there are strong feelings on both sides of the argument—what is interesting is whether there is a middle ground somewhere. We would want to know about the governance review and anything that comes out of it. On the point raised by the EHRC, I assume that the Scottish Government’s response to any of these questions will be assessed in light of its obligation under the public sector equality duty.

In other words, the issue is not going to go away. I do not know if the reference to “a middle ground somewhere” should be taken at face value, or whether it is simply a conciliatory gesture, but the real point of the paragraph is in the final sentence.  The Government is being very plainly told that it cannot pursue its previous policy of pretending all is well, and that there is a case here that it must answer.

We do not expect things to move at all quickly at this stage, because of interaction between consideration of our petition, and the current broad Governmental consultation on the entire Scottish school system, which was open to all for comment until early in January this year. This consultation made no mention of the issue of Church appointees, but one of the questions that contributors were invited to consider did mention equality (presumably having in mind the very real problems of social inequality and the way that these are passed down through the. education system), and the Scottish Secular Society in its submission took the opportunity to raise the matter of Church appointees.

Official report:

The final continued petition for consideration this morning is PE1623, by Spencer Fildes, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, relating to unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. The meeting papers include a note by the clerk and copies of the submissions received since our previous consideration of the petition in November.

The Scottish Government indicates that it has no plans to change the provisions, but refers to its education governance review, which has recently closed, and which sought views on the legislative framework that should be put in place to support education in Scotland.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities regarded that review as an opportunity for community representatives to participate actively in the consideration of education services. It also noted that, with regard to the action called for in the petition, its members did not feel that non-elected representatives carried undue influence.

Submissions from Muslim and Jewish representatives did not directly support the action called for in the petition but considered that there might be options to more widely reflect diversity in communities.

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council suggests that education committees could

“reflect the population of our schools more effectively”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission referred to its submission on the previous petition on this issue, PE1498, in which it comments on the requirements of the public sector equality duty. That was echoed by representatives of the Jewish community, and the petitioners, who note that, to date,

“none of these issues have been addressed”.

The petitioners maintain their position that the system is unfair and discriminatory, particularly in the light of changing demographics. Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

We need to ask the Scottish Government, having carried out the education governance review, to assess the position of unelected church appointees in view of the public sector equality duty. We should refer to the issue of faith community appointees, too.

Okay. We need to find out when the Scottish Government will publish the findings of the education governance review. It is clear that the Government does not plan to address this issue—I do not think that there would have been a specific question about it in the review consultation. It is perhaps an issue that people would have to have raised. We can ask the Government about that. It may be worth checking whether the Government has reflected on the position of unelected church appointees in view of the public sector equality duty.

We just need more information about what was in the review.

I think that the closing date for submissions to the education governance review was 6 January. I was interested to see the submission from my local authority. It may be some time before the Government gets round to replying, given that the closing date has just passed.

We would just be looking for the timescale at this stage. We do not propose to close the petition until we have asked the Scottish Government specifically whether it has fulfilled its responsibilities with respect to the public sector equality duty. It is clear that there are strong feelings on both sides of the argument—what is interesting is whether there is a middle ground somewhere. We would want to know about the governance review and anything that comes out of it. On the point raised by the EHRC, I assume that the Scottish Government’s response to any of these questions will be assessed in light of its obligation under the public sector equality duty.

If there are no other suggestions, is it agreed that we follow that course of action?

Members indicated agreement.

Highland Education Committee Church Appointee blames gays for bullying

The Strathspey Herald reports that:

‘A clergyman has used his position on a Highland Council education committee to criticize the alleged promotion of homosexuality in schools.

Alexander MacLean, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, also suggested that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people are bullied because they are “overt” and attract attention.” … Mr MacLean is one of three religious representative on the committee who have full voting rights under UK legislation.’ [Emphasis added]

The Strathspey Herald has grasped the central  point. The issue, as always, is not whether Mr Maclean’s comments are acceptable, but whether it is appropriate for him to have a legally assured privileged position on the Education Committee from which to advance them, over and above any support his views may have in the community and among the elected Councillors.   He holds that position as the result of legislation imposed from Westminster before devolution, even though education is itself a devolved area. So the Scottish Parliament can change this anachronistic and undemocratic law, and we are asking them to do so.

The episode illustrates more clearly than any words of mine the need to remove the Church nominees from their unelected positions of power. Mr MacLean is entitled to his views, but he is not entitled to a privileged platform at the heart of local government from which to promote them.

Unelected Church appointees on Council Committees; argument and counter-argument

nov24_0The story so far: Spencer Fildes and I defended our petition to the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee on November 24. The Committee (transcript here; see “New Petitions) listened most attentively, questioned us closely but not unsympathetically,  and agreed to write to a number of organisations  for their views. You will find full details, including petition text and links to the submissions received, at the Petition website. Now read on:

There may still be time for individuals and organisations to submit their own views, but the window is rapidly closing. We would suggest that any submissions  at this stage should be short and concentrate on the central issues, and that individual submissions mention any relevant personal details (e.g. parent, teacher, own schooling, professional qualifications and degrees). What follows is my own response, on behalf of  Scottish Secular Society. If you find some of this material (especially the analysis of the arguments put forward by defenders of the system) repetitious and boring, I can only agree.

Response to submissions

We respond here to the specific arguments raised in submissions to the Committee. To avoid repetition, we present some relevant general points, before dealing with the individual submissions.

[A personal note: I am submitting this on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, as their Science Adviser. I have spent my life as an educator, my own children were educated in publicly funded Scottish schools, and I am currently collaborating with Prof Roger Downie, Glasgow University, in a study of evolution education in Scotland.]

General points

1] Several submissions refer to the presence on the Education Committees of other non-elected members, such as parent, teacher, and pupil representatives, and Council officials. We would have no objection to the presence of religious representatives on the same terms, i.e. by invitation of the elected members, and non-voting.

Religious representatives hold the only positions within the entire Scottish government structure that are not answerable to the electorate or their chosen representatives. They are chosen without reference to the general public, and then imposed on Councils regardless of the wishes of the elected members; none of the submissions opposing our petition address this central fact.

2] (This matter was raised in Committee): the minutes of Falkirk Education Committee for September this year show that the religious representatives there do vote on divisions, including divisions on topics not directly related to religion, and we have verified that this is also the case elsewhere.

3] It is claimed that the religious representatives are independent, non-political, and broaden representation by their presence. We disagree on all counts. They may be independent of party, but that is only because they are independent of the electorate, and we do not see that as a strength in a democracy. They are, instead, totally dependent on their nominating Churches, and pursue those Churches’ agenda in Committee. Fully one third of the representatives are clergy, and there is no reason to regard the others as more broadly representative than the elected Councillors.

4] Our opponents refer extensively to the importance of religion. Religion is indeed important, and so are many other things, such as science and physical health. We trust our schools and the Education Committees that supervise them to teach pupils about science and health, without imposing on them representatives of the Royal Society of Edinburgh or the local Health Boards. Why this strange need for supervision by special interests when it comes to religion?

5] The petition is criticised for singling out religious representatives, as if this were an attack on religion. This is a straw man argument. Religious representatives are not singled out by us, but by the uniqueness of their situation. They are insulated from the discipline of the ballot box, and are the only persons so privileged within the entire Scottish government structure. We would object on the same grounds if there were similar protected positions for the irreligious.

The Scottish Government response

The Scottish Government response represents a significant change from its earlier position when responding to PE01498, a closely related petition 3 years ago. Their more recent response makes interesting use of the past tense (“was viewed as providing support to the authority“) and while stating that there are no plans for change, now stops short of declaring support for the status quo. The new response also invites the Scottish Secular Society to take part in the current consultation on education. We will of course do so. However, we are concerned in case the two processes (petition and consultation) interfere with each other, since we regard the subject of the present petition as a free-standing issue.

Submissions from the Consortium of Scottish Local Authorities, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Scottish Parent Teacher Council

COSLA appears neutral, denying excessive influence by the religious representatives, but making no arguments in their favour, and referring, as if by contrast, to the broader question of community representation (see [1] above).

We regard EHRC as supportive, reiterating their earlier position. This specifies three issues under the Equality Act, specifically the need to:

eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation; Advance equality of opportunity between different groups, and Foster good relations between different groups

and states that

“the Commission believes that, as concerns have now been raised, an appropriate course of action for Scottish Ministers may be to assess whether these provisions and the policies and practices which flow from them meet the requirement to give due regard to the three elements of the Equality Duty listed above.”

We agree, and note that none of these issues have been addressed by any of the opponents to our petition, nor by the Scottish Government in its responses to date.

The Scottish Parent Teacher Council completely supports us on the central issue that the Churches should not have the right to appoint voting members of the Committees, and is generally in favour of membership of these Committees being broadened. It makes a number of detailed recommendations to that end, but these lie outside the scope of our petition.

Other submissions in support

With one exception, individual submissions from a range of backgrounds and belief positions are strongly supportive; we let these speak for themselves. Note that Iain Campbell is founder of the Western Isles Secular Society, while Janet Briggs is Secretary of the Glasgow Unitarian Church.

Michael Zimmermann, of Clergy Letter Project, is rightly concerned about the disproportionate influence of science-denying fringe Churches. As emerged in Committee, what matters here is not merely that such views are educationally unhelpful, but that they are unrepresentative, so that their empowerment demonstrates fundamental flaws in how the system operates.

Edinburgh Secular Society draw attention to the lack of progress since they first raised the matter in 2013. They point out that the Churches have not owned the schools since 1872, now represent a minority of the population, and that their representatives are unelected, unaccountable, and use their influence to further their special interests. One example is the frustration of attempts to set up joint-campus schools. Those who wish to pursue such a divisive policy should do so by standing for election.

Glasgow Theosophical Society supports the petition on general grounds, and is specifically concerned “that the present arrangement does not support non-religious individuals and groups or promote the views of rational philosophy in shaping educational learning.”

Hostile submissions

Although our general points (above) anticipate many of the arguments against us, we prefer to discuss the hostile submissions in detail for completeness, and in case we appear to acquiesce. We apologise for the unavoidable length of this section, and make repeated references to General Points [1] through [5] in an attempt to minimise repetitiveness. The one hostile submission from an individual, Andrew Strachan, has already been discussed in Committee.

Church of Scotland accuses the petition of selective quotation from an outdated document. We had in fact intended to quote in full at greater length, to avoid such an accusation, but were advised by the Clerks to be selective for reasons of brevity. The petition gives the full citation to the source we used, and unfortunately the Church of Scotland does not provide a reference to the current version.

Turning to matters of substance, CofS denies, despite having itself introduced the term, that its position is one of privilege, but states no reason for this view, other than its own benignity. It denies that its representatives are “unelected”, since it considers its internal process (which it does not describe) to be a form of election. This completely misses the central point, that the representatives are not answerable to the general electorate. CofS refers to its 1.7 million adherents (less than a third of the population, and even this according to figures cited in the petition is an overestimate), but gives no details of how they are involved in the process, which we suspect of being restricted in practice to a handful of highly active members. It also asks how the petitioners know that the 37% (latest figures give 52%) of non-believers are unhappy with the Church of Scotland representatives. This is irrelevant to our arguments, but we could equally well ask what makes the Church imagine that nonbelievers would be happy with the situation if they knew about it, as most do not?

The CofS submission draws the usual misleading analogy between the religious representatives and co-opted Council members (see [1] above), and makes the unsupported claim (see [3] above) that its appointees broaden democracy and make it more participatory.

Finally, the submission denies our claim that present practice “violates equality by excluding non-believers, and many believers”, on the grounds that some small faith groups also have representatives in some districts, such as the Bahai in Shetland. We do not follow the reasoning here. How is an atheist, or for that matter a Bahai, in Glasgow, rendered any less excluded from the making of the decisions that affect them by the fact that there is a solitary Bahai religious representative taking part in decision-making, 300 miles away?

The Scottish Catholic Education Service claims that “[T]his current petition is discriminatory in nature against religious bodies as it refers solely to unelected Church representatives.” For refutation, see [5] above. It is worth repeating that our objection is not to their being Church representatives, but to their being unelected, imposed, and voting.

The Catholic Education Service refers to the “many unelected members” of Education Committees; for our response, again, see [1].

“Church representatives … operate on a non-political basis and therefore make a valuable and objective contribution to the local community.” For rebuttal, see [3].

Unaware of the self-contradiction, the Catholic Education Service in its very next paragraph describes its Church’s representatives as committed to the pursuit of a very specific agenda, saying that “their role in doing so is seen by the Church as vital to the welfare of Catholic schools.“ This passage shows a marked lack of confidence in the ability of Catholic voters to look after their own interests. The reality is that we will have Catholic schools as long as there is demand for them, but here the Catholic Education Service seems to be demanding protection over and above this.

The Catholic Church submission also refers to the legislation independently ensuring the continued existence of denominational schools, the legal requirement that the Catholic Church must, like other interested parties, be consulted over Council education policy, and the special entrenched role of the Catholic Education Service and the Council of Bishops in the management of Catholic schools. These are presented as reasons for the continued presence of the Catholic Church representatives on Education Committees, whereas on the contrary they are reasons for regarding those representatives as redundant. Nor do they excuse the fact that nominees from all churches have, and use, the right to vote on all matters of educational policy, whether their own denominations are particularly affected and indeed whether or not religion is specifically involved (see [2] above).

Interfaith Scotland reports that “diverse traditions support having a religious voice on Education Committees to ensure a balanced and nuanced approach to education in Scotland which includes an understanding of the potential religious needs of an increasingly religiously diverse Scotland,” and go on to speak of the role of faith groups in Scottish society. In response, we refer to [4], and also raise again the implied neglect of the educational needs of the nonreligious. To the extent that the religious do have special educational needs, these can surely be met, and generally are, from the religious community’s own resources.

Finally, Interfaith Scotland aspires to greater inclusiveness, as in the examples (also cited by CofS) of Bahai and Muslim representatives. This is mere tokenism, since religious views are so diverse that it would require an enormous commitment to accommodate them (how many different representatives would be needed merely to accommodate the diverse Presbyterian groups in Glasgow, for example?)

The Muslim Council of Scotland, MCS, claims that religious representatives do represent the majority of the population. This is no longer true, but is in any case irrelevant to the issues of discrimination and lack of democratic accountability. MCS deplores sectarianism, prejudice, and hate crimes, and argues for mutual understanding. Few would disagree. It further states “We believe that it is vital that the views of all faith and belief groups, are taken into account to inform committee decisions. Therefore, we would like to see wider representation where views of all faith groups are considered.” This is an interesting agenda, but it cannot possibly be achieved by representation of all groups. For instance, within Scottish Islam alone there are at least two major groups (three if one accepts the claim of Ahmedis to be regarded as Muslims), each with its own internal divisions. MCS suggests dealing with this problem by having one faith group speak for several others. We don’t see how this could possibly work.

MCS refers to “the very human values adopted by the Scottish people, over the years such as wisdom, compassion, integrity and justice,” and the role of religion in developing these. Yet the relationship between religion and morality is, as we point out in the petition itself, debatable, and the suggestion that religion is necessary for appreciation of these values is deeply offensive to non-believers. MCS recognise that many elected Councillors belong to religious communities, but notes (correctly) that that is not the sole determinant of how they vote. But why should it be? MCS claim that the religious representatives are not unelected, since they are elected by their own faith groups; for rebuttal see our response to this argument as advanced by the Church of Scotland.

MCS further states “This petition singles out religious representatives on Education Committees. Other Local Authority Committees, in fact the practice of the committee system as a whole, invariably include unelected voting members representing other bodies”. This is not true. In the cases that we have examined, the other nonelected members are always non-voting. Moreover, they invariably derive their mandate to serve from the elected Councillors; see [1]. MCS states that the religious representatives’ contributions are “often greatly appreciated”. Maybe. Under our proposal, if Councils do indeed appreciate such contributions, they have but to ask for them. MCS then repeats the argument from the alleged diversity of religious representatives; here, again, see [3].

To summarise this section, our opponents use, repetitiously, a limited range of by now familiar arguments, none of them addressing the core issues in ways that will stand up to examination.

Conclusion

We rest our case on broad principles of democracy, equality, and fairness. In this we are supported (SPTC), or at least not opposed (COSLA), by those most directly affected, while EHRC agrees with us that the questions we raise require an answer; we are also supported by some religious groups and all but one individual commenters and respondents. As might be expected, we are opposed by those organisations whose undemocratic privileges we seek to remove, but their arguments will not stand examination. The system we have inherited is anti-democratic, unfair, and discriminatory. Changing demographics only underline its anachronistic nature. The time is ripe for change.

Prof Paul S Braterman, MA, DPhil, DSc, on behalf of Scottish Secular Society

Presentation to Parliament: Removing Church nominees from Council Education Committees (Petition PE01623)

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Update: the transcript of the meeting is now available at http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10656 then “New petitions” then “Local Authority Education Committees”

The petition progresses. Yesterday, Spencer  Fildes and I (actually, mainly Spencer) gave evidence to Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee. The petition itself is now closed for signature, but submissions from  organisations, or from individuals, especially I would suggest parents and teachers, remain welcome at petitions@parliament.Scot. (Suggestions: specify PE01623, and keep it short.)

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Johann Lamont, Convener, leads the Committee’s questioning

As I reported yesterday, the Committee heard us with close attention, questioned us for almost half an hour, and resolved to seek further testimony from interested bodies. We could not have wished for more at this stage. There will now be an interval while responses and other submissions are collected, for consideration by the Committee, probably early in the New Year. The Committee will then have to decide whether to close (i.e. kill) the petition, or to forward it to the  Education Skills Committee for further consideration. It would be unwise to attempt to predict which of those options it will choose, but they clearly agree that we have raised an important and timely issue.

I posted the BBC’s Parliamant Live coverage here yesterday, and the full Parliamentary video of the proceedings is avvailable here. But time to let Spencer have his say:

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Spencer makes his opening presentation

Thankyou, Convener, and my thanks to the Committee for inviting us.

At present, every Council Education Committee in Scotland is required by law to include three full voting members nominated by the Churches. Voters and their elected representatives have no choice in the matter. This legal requirement dates back to 1929, and in its present form to 1973. It is so broadly worded, that it could well apply to any future education system.

We believe this current system is out of place and does not reflect a constantly evolving, rapidly modernising Scottish democracy. We would not dream of allowing the Churches to impose members on this Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee. But that’s what we’re doing to Scottish councils.The Scottish Secular Society believes it is time for change. Currently, the future of Scottish education is under active discussion. Now would be the perfect time to review the status quo.

One major consideration is the fact that parents who hold no belief now represent the majority among primary school parents. This has now created a democratic deficit across Local Education Authorities.

To address this changing demographic, we respectfully suggest that the simplest change would be to relax the requirement. We would like to see the law allowing, not compelling, the elected members to appoint up to 3 such representatives, and to decide whether or not to give them voting powers, much as they do right now for parent and teacher representatives.

To gauge the views of Scotland’s MSP’s on this matter, we wrote to every one of them to find we have considerable cross-party support. Two MSPs actually thought that the system already was the way we would like it to be, and approved of that. Other MSP comments, in brief:

“there may well be merit in looking afresh at this again”, and “there should be a greater amount of autonomy in choosing the best people whether they be religious leaders or not”, “I am broadly supportive of the concept of members of Education Committees being elected”, “it is up to each local authority to decide who should be on the education committee.”, “the current arrangement must change” and “the status quo is an anachronism”.

Our supporters include

  • Professor Dame Anne Glover, who was scientific adviser to the Scottish Government and then to the EU
  • Clergy Letter Project, which represents 15,000 ordained clergy worldwide
  • The Secretary of Glasgow Unitarian Church.
  • Glasgow Theosophical Society,

As our petition statement shows, the present situation is undemocratic, unjust, encroaches on human rights, and is highly problematic in enforcement. In addition, it is unnecessary, infringes local autonomy, and is the opposite of participatory democracy.

It is unnecessary, since denominational schools have their own separate mechanisms of governance. Many Churches are already involved in individual schools, including non-denominational schools. Believers, like everyone else, can and should vote, take part in public debate, and stand for office, however, unlike what we are challenging today – religion in this case should be afforded no privilege over those who may hold no belief.

It infringes on local autonomy because laws handed down by central government (in this case, the 1973 and 1994 Westminster governments) are imposed on local Councils regardless of their wishes.

It is certainly not participatory democracy. The broader community is not involved, and the appointees are answerable only to their own Churches.

Finally, many councils have difficulty filling some positions, and there are some, in our view, with questionable appointments. If the system was meeting a legitimate need, such recruitment problems would unlikely arise.

The Church of Scotland itself admits that the system requires an element of reform, and the simplest, is the one that we suggest.

Scotland’s regions are highly diverse. We believe Local Councils themselves are the best judges of local needs, have a local mandate from their voters, and should be free to use it.

In conclusion, we would respectfully ask you to seek opinions from organisations representing non-believers as well as believers, and from organisations concerned with schooling and with human rights, such as Time for Inclusive Education and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, with a view to forwarding our petition to the Education and Skills Committee.

Update on petition unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees, Scotland

nov24_0This morning, Thursday November 24, the Public Petitions Committee listened to our evidence most attentively, and agreed to what we had asked for at this stage, namely for them to write to interested parties for their views. A pleasant occasion, which you can watch in full here.

The petition is no longer open for signature, but organisations and interested individuals may submit by email to petitions@parliament.scot , with “PE01632, Unelected Church Appointees” as the subject line.

Here is the BBC News Live report:*

The Public Petitions Committee takes evidence on on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. MSPs consider PE01623 from Spencer Fildes

nov24_2The committee begins this morning by considering PE1623 by Spencer Fildes, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. Evidence from Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman from the Scottish Secular Society.

PE1623 calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish government to remove the constitutional anomaly that imposes unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees.

10:05 Spence Fildes makes an opening statement on his petition PE1623, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society, on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees.

nov24_3Mr Fildes says the current system is out of place. Mr Fildes says religion should hold no privilege over those who hold no belief. He says the current system of unelected church members is certainly not participatory democracy.

Labour MSP Johann Lamont says there is currently a governance review of Scottish education and asks if this may be a way to address the issue. Mr Fildes says the Scottish Secular Society is participating in the consultation and has “chucked its oar in”.

nov24_4Paul Braterman from the Scottish Secular Society says there are concerns where committed creationists are nominees education boards.

SNP MSP Angus Macdonald says church appointees do not always have voting rights. [No he didn’t; he knows better. He was actually suggesting having church appointees without voting rights, as sometines happens for other non-elected committee members]

Mr Fildes says the argument is not against church appointees but the way they are appointed. He says to give the position just because someone is religious is wrong, they must be there due to the will of the local authority. Mr Fildes says the Scottish Secular Society run a facebook page where they canvas people’s opinions. He says the anecdotal responses regularly bring up this issue of unelected church representatives on education boards.

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The Scottish Secular Society representative says church members are imposed on the boards. SNP MSP Rona Mackay asks about other non-elected representatives on the board.

Mr Fildes says where there is a need by the local authority for expertise that is ok. He says if a local authority decided to have a church representative that would be fine. Mr Fildes says we need to get to a point that it is a win win for anyone. He says the Scottish Secular Society stands for “Freedom from religion and freedom of religion.” Mr Fildes he backs freedom of speech, however he is against imposed church appointees.

nov24_7andlast10:35 Committee convener Johann Lamont asks her fellow MSPs to consider the action the committee will now take. Tory MSP Brian Whittle agrees with Ms Lamont’s suggestion to find out if the Scottish government has changed its view on the issue. Ms Lamont says the committee should write to COSLA to find out local authority views.The committee agrees to contact a number of organisations with interests in the petition:

  • the Scottish Parent Teacher Council
  • the Association of Directors of Education Scotland
  • the Church of Scotland Education Committee
  •  the Scottish Catholic Education Service
  • the Educational Institute of Scotland
  • Interfaith Scotland
  • the Muslim Council of Scotland
  • the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland and the Humanist Society Scotland

* http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-38050473 24 Nov 2016, lightly edited to remove redundancies

How the Church of Scotland justifies its unelected Education Committee appointees; assumption, presumption, and privilege

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Our petition to the Scottish Parliament seeking to remove these unelected representatives is still open for signature here

As regular readers will know, moves are afoot to remove the three Church nominees who sit, with no regard to the electoral process, on every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland (you can help by simply signing our Parliamentary Petition here).

In England, the legal requirement is for two such representatives, one from the Church of England and one from the Catholic Church. Something ought to be done something about this, although the English educational system, disrupted and fragmented, is now largely out of the hands of the local authorities anyway. There is much be said about the situation developing in England, little of it complimentary, but that is not my present concern.

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Schisms and mergers among Scottish churches since the Reformation; Wikidwitch via Wikipedia. Click on link for clearer image

The requirement for three church appointees reflects the fractious history of Scottish Protestantism, and the presence of these representatives is a relic of the Churches’ historical input. The representatives exert power on local authorities’ most important committees, their Education Committees, over and above the power they would exert as citizens, and the Churches to which they are answerable thereby exert power over and above the power that they certainly exert, and in a democratic society must be free to exert, as associations of individuals. This is not about religion; it is about power. It is not about rights; it is about privilege.

Consider the Church of Scotland’s own code of practice for its religious representatives, which states:

Since the state assumed responsibility for the provision of school education in 1872 the Church of Scotland has been granted a statutory role as part of the education authority of the day.  This privileged position reflects the historical link between schooling and the church. For that reason, if for no other, it is important for church representation on local authority committees with a responsibility for education, to ensure a respected presence across Scotland. This may be achieved by establishing good relationships; by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools.

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The Church of Scotland offices in Edinburgh. The Church of Scotland Education Service appoints a representative to every Council Education Committee in Scotland.* Illustration by Kim Traynor via Wikipedia

Where to start? Let’s start with the description of the Church of Scotland as a national church. How seriously should we be taking this claim, when in today’s Scotland only a fifth of the population say that they belong to it, while twice as many say they have no religion. It’s not even as if people turned to the Church on special occasions; Humanist weddings in Scotland now outnumber those of any religious denomination. Then there is the disingenuous reference to the historic link between schooling and the church. The reality is that in 1872 what had been the Church of Scotland was split into two (soon to be three) major fragments, not to be reunited to form the present-day Church of Scotland until 1929, and that in any case the 1872 Act combined church-run and local authority schools in what was intended to be a single non-denominational system. But all this is a minor detail compared with the major presumption, that such history could possibly justify a special place for the Church. The Church could perhaps claim some kind of inherited property rights over pieces of land or buildings, but the idea of an inherited right to influence children’s education is morally repugnant. Thirdly, there is the assertion of a statutory right to seek to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church. What, one wonders, could this interest possibly be, over and above the interests of the pupils themselves, and the broader community to which they belong? Then there is the reference to Christian values. I will have much more to say about these in a later post (hint: Euthyphro’s Dilemma; Justification through Faith; the Churches and sexual morality; the 10 Commandments).

Finally, there are the stated objectives of endeavouring to influence … the development of the curriculum, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools.

Such endeavours by the Church, as by any other body, are a welcome ingredient of public discussion in our pluralist democracy. What is completely unacceptable is the pursuit of these objectives by means of an inherited privilege that lacks all democratic legitimacy.

Unless one believes (and one is forced to conclude that the Church leaders really do believe) that the ecclesiastical authorities have access to a kind of wisdom not granted to lesser mortals, what possible reason is there for the Church to have special reserved powers to influence the curriculum that affects all pupils (Church-connected or otherwise? For religious and moral education, the policy of Scotland’s Education Department is that the teaching of this subject (and it is actually a curriculum subject!) should educate but not indoctrinate, so that special Church influence in this area is completely out of place. And to conclude, the policy on religious observance states that it should represent the shared values of the community to which the school belongs, transcending denominational boundaries.

Thus, by its own accounting, the Church of Scotland plans to use its unelected appointees in ways that subvert the very educational system that they are there to influence. The policies of the other Churches making such appointments are presumably similar, and the argument used to justify the existence of these appointees turns out on inspection to highlight the need for their abolition.

*Exception: Orkney, which as of summer 2015 had no religious appointees. The Church of Scotland did, however, have two appointees, contrary to the law, in Midlothian and West Lothian.

This post uses material that first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, under the title Democracy or theocracy; the bid to reform Scotland’s educational system

This post is also available at http://www.secularsociety.scot/church-scotland-justifies-unelected/

Clergy back call to remove unelected clergy from Council committees in Scotland

Petition “…to remove the constitutional anomaly that imposes unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees” (signatures still urgently needed; you can sign and comment here)

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Image from Clergy Letter Project website home page

This just in, to the Public Petitions Committee, from Michael Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Clergy Letter Project, which exists to promote the acceptance and celebration of science among believers. It states, more clearly than I could ever do, the reasons theological, educational, and ethical for removing the existing power of the Churches to nominate three representatives to Scottish Local Authority Education Committees; a large enough bloc to swing the balance of power on 19 of Scotland’s 32 such Committees:

I am writing in reference to “PE01623: Unelected church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees” and in my capacity as the Executive Director of The Clergy Letter Project.  The Clergy Letter Project is an organization of more than 15,000 ordained members of the clergy who believe that religion and science can be fully compatible.  Additionally, our members believe that religious doctrine should not influence the content of secular education.    The underlying premises of The Clergy Letter Project are two-fold.  On the one hand, many of those who are promoting a religious presence in secular educational institutions are doing so on very narrow grounds.  In other words, in almost every case, the specific educational goals being promoted are completely at odds with the religious beliefs of many other individuals.  On the other hand, many who are promoting a religious presence in secular educational institutions believe that their religious beliefs trump science when they see the two in conflict.  The thousands of religious leaders who comprise The Clergy Letter Project understand that the importance of religion lies in its spiritual value rather than in any particular pronouncements about the material world.

Mandating that three religious leaders must be appointed to each Local Authority Education Committee privileges religion in a manner that is likely to do damage to the educational opportunities open to students.  Let me hasten to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any particular religious leader serving on a Local Authority Education Committee, if that is the will of the community.  As citizens, religious leaders should have all the rights that every other member of the community has.  But mandating seats on the Committees for religious leaders simply because of their religious beliefs is unfair and runs the risk of severely compromising the very nature of the education the Local Committees were established to protect.

I urge you to take this petition very seriously and take steps to ensure that Scottish students receive the highest quality of education possible.

Michael Zimmerman

Executive Director The Clergy Letter Project

www.theclergyletterproject.org

mz@theclergyletterproject.org

#ElectNotSelect; Remove Church appointees imposed on Scottish Education Committees

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Debating chamber at Holyrood. Photo Mogens Engelund via Wikipedia

Sign the petition here, and your signature will go straight to Holyrood, and help get rid of the absurd legal relic whereby

Three of the full voting members of every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland are unelected nominees of the Churches, whether the voters or their elected representatives want them there or not.

The time is ripe for change. Our petition, Unelected church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees, has widespread cross-party support in principle among MSPs. But we need to show that there is public support for change, or timidity will triumph.

Click on link to see the full petition, and, if you agree, to sign. Remember that the Education Committees, on which these Church appointees sit, control a larger part of Council budgets than any other Committee. They are the ultimate employers of School Principals and teachers, as well as being represented on senior teacher selection panels.  They decide on the opening and closing of schools, and whether a school should be denominational or nondenominational, and control local practice in such matters as religious education, religious observance, and instruction about sex in human relationships. The Church appointees vote on these matters, and in addition discuss policy directly with Council officials. You will find a full listing of the appointees, how they came to be selected (e.g. only answer to a newspaper advertisement; nominated himself after losing an election), and which ones are known Young Earth creationists (half a dozen; many more probable) here.

Why are these appointees there? Because District Council Education Committees must, by law dating back to 1929, include three appointees of the Churches, nominated by Church hierarchies, and immune to the electoral process. These nominees actually hold the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees, whether anyone wants them there or not, and they don’t even need to declare their outside interests!

Who selects them? One is selected by the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one by a third religious organisation (it must be religious) chosen by the Council with regard to local demographics. Fringe creationist churches are overrepresented here, as are the Episcopalians, with a mere 25,000 communicants but ten allotted slots.

This blemish on our democracy is also a breach of our right to equal treatment under the law, because it creates positions of power within our system of government that are only open to certain believers. Believers, moreover, in dogmas no longer accepted* by most Scots young enough to have children within the school system.

Since we are dealing with the law on a devolved matter, education, the Scottish Parliament is the only body with the power to remove this constitutional anachronism, which is why the Scottish Secular Society is petitioning them to do so.

Our petition will initially be examined by the Public Petitions Committee, who are greatly influenced by the number of signatures, as well as by the content, and intellectual weight, of individual comments. They can close (i.e. kill) the petition, or write to interested parties, including the Scottish Government, and then forward it to the Education and Skills Committee. This latter Committee, on which we know we have support, can then require the Scottish Government to state and explain its policy.

This theocratic anachronism that has survived only because unexamined. Given the choice, we are sure that the present Scottish Government (any Government) would rather let sleeping dogs lie. Help us to deny them that choice.

Want to do more to help? Sign (obviously); showing professional titles and degrees will add weight, as will indicating if you have a special interest (e.g. parent, pupil, teacher, Minister).

Publicise on your social networks, using #ElectNotSelect, and sharing the petition link (here) and, if you like, the link to this blog post (here).

Write to your constituency and region MSPs. Keep it brief. The very fact of your writing is more important than the details of what is in your letter. Mention the petition by name and number, and the issue of democracy. Mention also any reason you may have for personal interest in the matter.

But keep to the constitutional aspects. Attacks on religion in general, or broadening the discussion to include its role in the educational system, gives ammunition to our opponents. And we will have opponents; no one gives up power without a struggle.

You can also send a comment to the Committee. Keep it brief, and we would ask you to stick to the issues of democracy and equality; see preceding paragraph. If you belong to any relevant professional organisations (e.g. teachers’ unions, parent-teacher councils), write to them as well.

When? As soon as possible. The more immediate support we can show, the more organisations will be willing to support us.

Notes: We will be accused of attempting to drive the Churches out of public life. On the contrary, our petition, explicitly, would leave Local Authorities free to consult or co-opt church representatives, much as they can and do co-opt representatives of parents and teachers, if they choose to do so.

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St Mary’s Edinburgh, seat of the Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews. Photo Michael T R B Turnbull via Wikipedia

The Church appointees are non-party, but they are not non-partisan. Nor are they independent, since they owe their positions to their hierarchies.

The Churches have claimed that the system somehow broadens and strengthens the local roots of democracy. In reality, most Church appointments are made by remote hierarchies, with the Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews making appointments from Highland to Dumfries and Galloway.

Scotland, we are often told, is a Christian country. To the extent that this is true, special representation of religion is unnecessary, because Christians vote, and are free to stand for election, just like everybody else.

The Scottish Secular Society is a faith-neutral body, and one of our Board members sits on Scotland’s Inter-Faith Council.

*Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2014, Tabel 2.4, downloadable here, shows 68 percent of 18-24 -year-olds and 56 percent of 25-39 -year-olds describing themselves as “no religion”

An involuntary asylum seeker

Haifa Amg's photo.

Haifa addressing Scottish Secular Society, 2nd June 2016

Haifa Amg does not want to be an asylum seeker. She wants to be a doctor, and was studying towards this in Glasgow. Then the Saudi Arabian authorities took action that made this impossible.

Haifa is one of what must be a small number of women funded by the Saudi government to study abroad, and had a scholarship that paid her fees. Saudi regulations required her to have a male guardian, but in her case this was no problem, since she was accompanied here by her husband Amri, a teacher of mathematics, and their children. What neither of them realised was that Amri would be asked to act as a conduit for unofficial payments from the Saudi government towards a group who were converting a church  into a Wahhabist (which by many definitions would make it extremist) mosque.  This he was unwilling to do. The Saudi government imposed escalating pressures, culminating with freezing their Saudi Arabian bank account, and suspending Haifa’s scholarship. No scholarship, no bank account, no money to pay fees, no longer a student, loss of student visa. Haifa and family were left with two choices; to return to Saudi Arabia, where they could expect savage punishment, or to seek asylum. Unsurprisingly, they chose the latter, and their hearing is in August. The Draconian regulations that apply to visa seekers in the UK forbid them from working meantime. Rather than have the family sent to a detention centre, they have sold all their valuables, and survive on the goodwill of well-wishers.

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Haifa and Amri at Scottish Secular Society meeting, after her talk

I had the privilege of hearing Haifa address the Scottish Secular Society last Thursday, and here, with her permission, is what she had to say. As you will see, her family is being punished for the crime (and in Saudi Arabia is indeed is a crime) of unbelief, and it is this punishment that has frustrated their plans, and brought them to their present situation. As for the Saudi authorities, they come across as incompetent and inconsistent. Not for the first time, I have the impression of a lot going on behind-the-scenes. A new king came to the throne of Saudi Arabia early in 2015, since when the regime has become even more repressive, and I wonder if there is any connection with the events described here. I also wonder if the London Embassy, which issued Haifa’s scholarship, was aware of her husband’s record of dissent back home; they certainly seem to have been taken by surprise when he would not serve as a tool for their mission of advancing Wahhabism. But it is time to let Haifa speak for herself:[1]

‘It is a mysterious thing – the loss of faith – as mysterious as the faith itself’; George Orwell

That evening, I successfully rejected the idea of the validity of Islam as the true path in my life, when Amri, my husband, showed me a YouTube video on how the Jews perform their prayers.

It was a shocking moment. I got it… Islam is a religion resembles other religions as simple as this!
So there is nothing supernatural about it.

That day was a revolutionary day, I abandoned the Quran, I completely stopped praying.

Let me tell you about the old me.. The devout Haifa.

I was brought up in a conservative environment. My family was considered moderate, they were not very religious in their day, as they were used to have a satellite TV at home, which meant I had access to a variety of international channels. I spent my childhood as normal amongst my family, and life carried on as usual.

At fifteen, the family moved out to another area with a different ambiance, an ultra-conservative environment. The people in the neighborhood, where our new home located, forced my father not to install the satellite dish on the rooftop, it was considered a sin. A sin to have channels, except of course,
the two Saudi official channels that promote Wahhabi tenets. Therefore, I began to change, I became very strict, and with the help of my new friends at school, there was a transformation in my personality, I believed it was an enlightenment.

I worked very hard to memorize the Quran. Many verses of the Quran contain the direct and indirect indications to use violence, and deeply misogynist attitudes. At the time, I came to understand that great mental effort to memorize them was going to be for the sake of God. That God that lived within me a great deal of my lifetime, literally I was haunted by him. I was haunted by the literal truth of the Quran and the eternal punishment,

As a result of this horror, I became to be known with my strict beliefs which were praised and encouraged to have, as they were considered a high level of faith. And they are still promoted.

My brothers insisted to install the satellite TV after a while nd indeed they managed to do so, however my strict religious behaviors developed.

I did not like it.

I did not want a satellite TV at home, so I started to spend my time in a solitary, praying, memorizing the Quran, reading the hadith and studying for my school.

I remember that I prayed A LOT more than normal, I genuinely cried in my prayers to be accepted late at night. I fasted A LOT, and there came a period throughout my adolescence to fast every other day,
as this is the perfect method to fast according to the Hadith.

At high school, I was popular in preparing Islamic seminars preaching Wahhabism and advising the rebellious girls to repent.

In fact, the political Wahhabi doctrine is nurtured and inculcated at early stages of childhood in state schools. This kind of education is still taught, in addition to mosques where the Quranic lessons and seminars preaching Jihadism take place

The aim to belief in Jihad is to serve the long-run purposes, They inculcate its significance in people’s brains, And when it is needed, it is just activated

So when it comes to Jihad, I truly talked to myself that I would go for Jihad sometime, because the martydom for the faith is one of the fastest ways to enter the paradise. It felt so real, it really did.

Wahhabism is there … in the air!!!

And of course, with the great help of media, Television, radio, newspapers and social media. The government shapes the mentality of the people in Saudi Arabia, and tries its hardest to spread it worldwide, directly and indirectly

When I look it now, all these means contribute to build a radical personality which is a very dangerous to have in a society,

But the truth is I did not know!! My critical thinking was not enhanced or in another word was deliberately ’deactivated’. My mindset was totally controlled to blindly accept what was given without questioning.

Basically I was a victim of fear and horror that are promoted day and night and sponsored by the government, and there was a pang of remorse resulted if I did not pray properly, or even if I happened to accidently hear music which is forbidden

In my society I lived within, it was 100% of the people who believed the way we lived was the true way of life. It was very impossible not to join.

There was no space or time to think for myself. To think of the validity or morality of many things in my belief. No room to critically think about the contradictions I had been experiencing, which were obvious to see but just I needed to open my eyes and before that I desperately needed to open up my mind’s doors. At the time, my consciousness was unconscious.

Indeed, Wahhabi ideology that oppresses people is enforced by the authority. And by the use of scare tactics, they force you to believe it is the true and only way to a normal life. They shape your mentality to just think about what is going to happen to you afterlife. Every moment in every minute in everyday,
you feel that fear from the hell takes you to the certainty of its existence.

My life was guided by fear, and inspired by ignorance, and this strategy still works with many others.

So how come I ended up to be a big fan of Bertrand Russell whose principles and views contribute to build up a new understanding of life on the basis of evidence, science and knowledge?

At the age of 19, I was told that Amri’s family proposed to deliver me to their son, Amri, I did not personally know him but I heard he’s a good guy and a mathematics teacher. I agreed to marry him,
despite the fact I did prefer a Mattawa, a very strict person like I was.

Amri is a different person, he is a rebellious son, he did not pray at the mosque, or show his religious attitudes to his people. He was considered  shocking in his day on account of his advanced views in religion and politics.

Amri spent almost his childhood amongst the doves and pigeons, he loved them. He started with one dove, and ended up with more than 100.

While I was in a solitary to practice my faith, Amri was in a solitary with birds on the rooftop of the family’s house, that consequently gave him abundant leisure to reflect on politics and theology. Those moments of reflections developed his understanding towards the conception of religion in Saudi Arabia
and its close association with the authority.

Indeed, he was exceptional in a society of which Raif Badawi said:

‘The whole society is forced into one singular line of thinking and one simple philosophy under the ruling regime. This line of thinking trusts that everything it believes is the shiny truth’

While I was practicing my religious beliefs, Amri , on the other hand, rejected them. He refused to accept the ideology which prevailed amongst his people. A society that was forced to blindly accept a body of ideas which were unquestionable, and questioning was taboo.

Amri’s enlightenment completely differed from mine. He spent his days at the family’s house,
supporting his sisters’ rights of education. He even managed to buy a computer from his allowance
in order to allow his siblings to learn more and eventually brought the internet to help them expand their mindsets. He used to have debates with his father about the relationship between the religious authority and the government on the way they control people and manipulate them.

Amri was dreaming to study politics. However, at the university he was told ‘these studies were not for ordinary people, if he had someone to pull strings in order to get into the school of politics, he should ask them to help’.

Amri chose mathematics instead, his great pleasure, it is the language of truth as he always says.

His attitudes, however, were unacceptable and inappropriate in politics, religion and his lifestyle too. So in order to tackle these issues, he needed to change. He needed a religious woman to convert the “infidel”. The marriage was an attempt to convert the rebellious son.

Indeed, Amri accepted me despite my narrow-minded views. He used to say to me ‘if I had something I believe was right, I could convince him with logic not by force’

I could not dictate what it was inculcated in my mind to him. We had countless discussions and debates at home about some Islamic stories and historical events, analyzing their rightness, morality, and intrinsic values as some are difficult to believe. And others are unethical to accept to believe in.

I began to change because I started to critically think. Truly, I started to enjoy the discussions, I was heard, and able to voice my opinions. I was able to speak out that rational voice inside my head that encourages me to question and analyze the reality I had been living.

With Amri, there was a different world, a world (which was our home in Saudi Arabia) where we could discuss anything, anytime no boundary lines. It was indeed what was meant by the freedom of expression.

With Amri I could not wait to trip the ‘mind’ fantastic. He changed my attitudes towards life with logic and love throughout the years,

and that moment in that evening was the point when I said enough is enough. Enough of favouring the comfortable myths over the facts.

Amri was an excellent and passionate mathematician teaching high school students. We together produced handbooks in order to facilitate the maths curriculum and to make it enjoyable too. The students loved and enjoyed them and started to change their attitudes towards math.

Our goal from that was to make the students think differently about the philosophy and the facts behind the numbers and equations, as we do with our own children.

Exactly like Bertrand Russell, said

‘I should make it my object to teach thinking, not orthodoxy, or even hetero- doxy. And I should absolutely never sacrifice intellect to the fancied interest of morals.’

Amri also worked hard in order to develop a new educational system at school. It was a challenge but he really enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, he was forced to transfer from  school to another, because he failed to show his Islamic beliefs in public. Persecuted even by the educated society, but he carried on his career as he loved.

Amri’s ambition did not stop at teaching, he wanted to fulfil more, so he applied at the educational ministry in order to get a scholarship to complete his postgraduate overseas. He was interviewed and successfully passed, waiting for the application to proceed.

at the time during the Arab Spring and its revolutions, Amri expressed his views to his colleagues about
the promises and the positive changes the Arab Spring might bring to Saudi Arabia.

Afterwards, and out of the sudden, his salary was suspended for three months, and then he was sacked without any justifications, his dream to study abroad was over because his job was over

What a harrowing experience!! After years of contributions and hard work, he was fired. We did not know what to do. Amri’s dream was crushed. I knew how important it was to him, I could do nothing but support. We were devastated but we must find a way.

I forgot that I got excellent high school qualifications, so Amri reminded me, encouraged me, and fully supported me to think about our family’s future very seriously. I felt dizzy, trembled and then I fell sick for a while as it seemed to me there would be a very challenging life ahead, but I was ready somehow,
I needed a push. Amri was the only one who changed my attitudes towards my own life, so I would do the impossible to support.

What was the major I wanted to study abroad? specifically in the UK? At the time, I did think of two things, medicine or cooking!! ‘Yes these what I wanted to study’. I said. But my priority would be sure for medicine as it is my dream,

At the time, It was very difficult to find an offer at a medical university, so I applied for a culinary art management at the University of West London, imagining that once I finished my studies I would be able to open an organic restaurant somewhere.

I set a plan to manage to get English qualifications, but Amri asked me to be in 10 weeks.

“I said what?!!! Are you serious? I cannot do it, I cannot speak English, all I knew was my basic English grammar at high school, and this has been for a long time ago”

It was an imperative necessity to do so, there was no option but this, so I must do it for my family.

I needed to meet the deadline, the English test!! Without a soul knowing what we had been doing,
I studied at home practicing reading, listening, writing and speaking all at home.

And that day had come, the exam day ‘the exam was on Cambridge university standards’ Oh .. It was intense that day!! I managed to get the required English qualification exactly as I planned and I obtained the university’s offer too,

We could not apply for the visa within our country, fearing that if the authority found out what we had been planning, they would prevent us or they might arrest Amri. So we escaped to Egypt!! Amri somehow knew about Egypt as he went there during the Arab Spring. We could enter it without a visa.

We spent a while in Egypt in order to get British visas. Indeed, we managed to obtain them
and were supposed to stay there until we would be able to travel to the UK according to the visa entry date.

Out of the blue, the Egyptian military staged a coup over the elected president. We witnessed people protesting in the streets and a state of emergency was declared. It was definitely unsafe for us to stay there, so we fled Egypt to Morocco. There, we spent one month and then travelled to the UK at last in August 2013.

When we arrived in the UK we had savings in our bank accounts, but no income, so we needed a sustainable income. Therefore, I applied at the Saudi embassy to get a scholarship as all self-funded students do once they arrive in the UK, but I was rejected.

I was refused to get the scholarship unless I could meet conditions and terms which were not applied on my classmates at the university at the time, and indeed I successfully met them and because my position in the UK was much stronger than to be in Saudi Arabia, I successfully secured a government-sponsored scholarship after a while.

I managed to change my major to medicine after successfully completing my A-levels, as the Home Office suspended the University of West London from issuing international visas. So we moved to Preston, while the Saudi government funded my pre-medical course at the University of Central Lancashire, but during the second semester of it, I was instructed not to continue within the University of central Lancashire,

I was confused, shocked and angry, an academic year to be lost just like that. All because the educational department at the embassy did not investigate, that the course was not complied to the current system, According to the paragraph seven in its regulations and terms, and therefore they asked me to fail in the exam in order to retake another course within another university in accordance with the system.

At the time, my dream to study medicine became a nightmare. What on earth was I going to do?!!!
It was impossible to find another medical university in the UK within a short period of time.
So I was instructed to apply at the University of Glasgow for a pre-medical course. And as the Saudi government has a mutual agreement with the university of Glasgow for a medical degree, I successfully obtained an unconditional offer in the course based on an interview and a higher English qualification.
The embassy proceeded my application at the University of Glasgow afterwards.

Meanwhile, we had very hard times dealing with the Saudi government. Amri was electronically elected via elections held online to be the chair of Saudi Students Club in Preston. Amri’s duty was to assist Saudi students in their academic issues.

He was instructed to continue efforts started by his Saudi predecessor of converting a local church into a Wahhabi mosque, ‘they wanted Amri to complete the purchase’ He was also asked to stand up every Friday prayer to call for donations from the local Muslims in order to support activities held in the mosque. Amri felt uncomfortable and therefore he informed the government about these suspicious behaviors.

Surprisingly they responded to Amri, just to follow the current system. Amri realized that he had to end his duty, as this was not what he was supposed to do, to be used and manipulated in order to achieve interior motives. Within one month, he resigned and his resignation was officially accepted.

After the resignation, money began to appear in his British bank account, without his consent or prior knowledge. The money was transferred by the Saudi embassy in London. Amri is concerned about the money-laundering issues associated with terrorism, as the money might be used to train or equip jihadists in the UK. With the use of Wahhabi ideology, this money might be used to help drive terrorism.

Amri indeed made a stand. He did not submit to their orders to do what they wanted. Instead he requested an official statement from the embassy to clarify why the money was deposited into his bank account. Amri was trying to safeguard himself not to breach the law in the UK.

Therefore, the government started to abuse us as a family by using their totalitarian methods. They gradually began to oppress us, step by step.

They began by frezzing my home bank account which we used to save money into, so I could not access to it anymore, and when I phoned the bank to unfreeze it, I was asked ‘to come back home to sort it out’

Then, they suspended the monthly allowance my children and myself should receive according to the scholarship agreement, and Amri was told the embassy would take their money back by deducting it from my scholarship. Besides, he received phone messages that if he did not listen to them, my scholarship would be affected as a result.

Two Saudi nationals were sent to our home’s doorstep in Preston, shouting threats that they would take revenge.

My children witnessed this incident, they felt insecure, haunted, that those two people might come anytime to attack us. They were haunted by every single sound they heard at night. And there was no way to calm them down but to sleep with them in their room.

Could you imagine that feeling of horror every night you go to bed; you don’t know whether you wake up in the morning or not, feeling unsafe..uncertain?

After a while, he was invited to travel to London to discuss this matter at the embassy, and Saudi officials threatened and blackmailed him that they would prosecute him back home.

Amri had been asking for an official statement, what are they really concerned about he is wondering?!
Is issuing this letter a real issue for them?

Finally, after these attempts failed to discipline him,the Saudi authority refused to pay the tuition fees to the university of Glasgow despite the fact that they  had confirmed the scholarship prior to the commencement of the course. They had even provided me with an official letter to confirm the scholarship to the Home Office in order to obtain the visas.

They cancelled the scholarship because it is the only and the shortest way to get Amri back to Saudi Arabia to punish him.

So this is it. This is our experience as Saudi citizens under the repressive system. Manipulation..Abuse and with the use of scare tactics they impose what they want on their citizens.

1] I have very lightly edited the English when it seemed to me unclear. The unedited original is on Haifa’s FaceBook page, at https://www.facebook.com/haifa.sham.7/posts/250280668669734

Scottish victory over creationism gets 300,000 FB Likes, international attention. What next?

On May 12, the Education and Culture Committing of the Scottish Parliament formally closed consideration of the Scottish Secular Society’s petition, as having run its course. This petition sought guidance to exclude creationism from Scotland’s publicly funded schools. The Committee had asked the Scottish Government to clarify its position, and in his reply the Minister responsible had finally brought himself to say that creationism should not be taught in science classes. For more on the year-long process that led to this point, see here and here.

Last Sunday, May 24, the Herald, one of Scotland’s leading newspapers, reported on this final act, and I duly recorded the story in the petition bibliography, expecting to hear no more. I was wrong.

The Herald story itself remains top of the “most read” list at time of writing, after 5 days, and has attracted 57,000 on-site Likes.

NCSE, National Center for Science Education. Defending the Teaching of Evolution in Public Schools.To my surprise, the story has gathered international attention. A story in The Independent (does that count as international? Are England and Scotland part of the same nation? Do not attempt to answer this question here. The same comment applies to a summary by the London-based National Secular Society.) A report from our good friends at the California-based National Center for Science Education; also from Patheos. Favourable comment from Russia Today. An interview on The Sceptic’s Guide to the Universe, the leading US podcast of its kind (episode #516, about half way through; 100,000 downloads).

IFLScienceAnd a story on I Freaking Love Science [1], whose FaceBook posting had earned 292,706 Likes, 38,006 Shares, and 9,754 comments in its first 24 hours. A followup hostile letter in The Herald, May 31, notable for the comments it drew which were the very opposite of what the writer was hoping for; a report on that letter by The Sensuous Curmudgeon, a widely read and superficially facetious but in fact well-informed critic of Creationists.  A further commentary in the Herald on June 2 by Andrew Denholm, Education Correspondent, who celebrates a victory for common sense, while denying that anything has happened. (I will add details here if yet more stories appear about the Petition.)

So what has happened, and why does it matter? What has happened is that the Scottish Government has moved from merely saying that creationism is not part of the syllabus, to saying that it should not be taught in science classes. A shift from “need not” to “must not”. In terms of mechanical application of the rules, no real change. In terms of framing and context, pivotal. If Creationism is not scientific in the science class, how can it be scientific elsewhere?

In the course of its submission to the Scottish Parliament regarding our petition, the Society for Biology commented:

We recognise that questions regarding creationism and intelligent design may arise in the classroom, for example as a result of individual faith and beliefs or media coverage…. [W]e urge the Scottish Government to provide teachers with appropriate training opportunities to develop the skills to answer controversial questions posed in science lessons in a clear and sensitive manner.

Quite so. But why only in science lessons? Creationism is, and should be, regularly discussed in Scottish schools, not in the context of science, but in that of Religious, Moral, and Philosophical Studies (RMPS).

As most readers will know, “Creation Scientists” and Intelligent Design proponents want to claim scientific respectability for the doctrine of separate special creation. The Government’s new position will make it far harder for them to do so. Nonetheless, it would run counter to the entire spirit of RMPS for instructors to tell students what to think. So teachers, who may themselves have had little formal training in biology, have to convey quite detailed evidence in such a way that students can come to their own well-informed conclusions. My colleagues and I are putting together materials that all those involved in these classes might find helpful, and would appreciate suggestions.

1] Filter-protected version of the real name

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