Opinion: Don’t like the exam question? Just cross it out…

The place of religious schools in a secular society is always a subject for debate, but it comes to a head when you discover that some schools are redacting questions in GCSE exam papers because they wouldn’t approve of the answers.

All schools are required to teach the national science curriculum, and are inspected on that basis by Ofsted. We are told that to present creationism as science is not allowed. Yet one school – a Jewish girls’ secondary in this case, but the same question may arise elsewhere – has chosen to cross out questions which offend their sensibilities. This has the effect of reducing the number of marks that their students can be awarded.

The issue has been brought to light by a freedom of information request from the National Secular Society, prompting Lord Avebury to put down a parliamentary question to ask for further details from the Government and an opinion from the Children’s Commissioner. The examiner, OCR, states

… the most proportionate and reasonable approach would be to come to an agreement… 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… 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

Education minister Liz Truss judges this practice to be a “proportionate and reasonable response” to the school’s policy, but I believe that it is wrong in itself and unfair to the girls concerned to prevent them addressing subjects which their elders and betters have decided are not suitable preparation for their future (which, the school believes, is as wives and mothers with no thought of university).

* Ed was a Young Liberal in the late 1960s, a supporter on and off over the years and finally rejoined the party in 2010.

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23 Comments

  • Never mind about a “barrier to accessing the examinations “, what about a “barrier to accessing” education? Worse, it is obvious to me that OCR and possibly other examination bodies are likely to respond with self censorship to evade the issue.

    Quite simply, religions cannot be allowed to dictate what Science is.

    Truss is badly wrong: the response is neither ‘reasonable’ nor ‘proportionate’. What does David Laws think of this? Come to that, what is Gove’s position?

    However cranky or absurd, people may be free to hold whatever personal ideas they wish, but a line must be drawn when these ideas breach into the public space: Lib Dems need to make it clear that a Liberal society does not extend to tolerance of intolerant preconceptions.

  • The sooner our party takes a stand against religious indoctrination in state-funded education, the better. We fudged it in 1870, and we have lived with the consequences ever since.
    If you want your kids indoctrinated with stuff which is at best unprovable, and at worst patently false (as in the present example), pay for it yourself, and have them subjected to it outside school, at Sunday School or whatever, NOT at the expense of the state. The only RE taught at state schools should be comparative, and should include non-religious philosophies, too.

    This would upset a few religious extremists, and their misguided hangers-on, who would no doubt kick up a stink. That would have it’s own advantages in publicising a bold and liberal stance by the party. And it would have that rare dual quality among policies: it would be both RIGHT and POPULAR. I’m sure most liberal Christians would agree.

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 3rd Mar '14 - 1:31pm

    So, we can look forward to the Liberal Democrats withdrawing their support for the Coalition’s policy of creating religious so called “Free ” Schools then?

  • I mentioned the fact that girls are discouraged from going to university in passing, but it is at least as big an issue. Both policies restrict children’s life chances and border on child abuse.

  • About 8 articles down thread, Joe King pointed out the likelihood of different ethnicities and cultures being treated under different laws in 30 to 40 years. He was treated by barely cloaked derision for suggesting the obvious.
    But this article surely, is yet another instance of that same corrosive and incremental drift that Joe King was alluding to, whereby different cultures are treated differently for no reason other than politically correct niceties?

  • GPPurnell

    So to apply your weak logic, a supporter of religious education only needs to find one non-religious school that performs badly and has as strong an argument for religious schools as you do against.

    Clearly what is going on here is terrible and intervention is required, the school is not acting in the best interests of the children. But this is not typical of religious schools.

    I don’t think religious schools are any better or worse and I don’t think they are very effective way of “indoctrinating” any one.

    “The only RE taught at state schools should be comparative, and should include non-religious philosophies, too.”

    Exactly how much time do you want devoted to RE? You want to teach comparative religion and philosophy in the tiny time slot or are you suggesting we sacrifice Maths, English or Science for it?

    “If you want your kids indoctrinated with stuff which is at best unprovable”

    Not all subjects are “provable” some subjects attempt to test critical thinking on subjects where there is no “provably right” answers.

  • Max Wilkinson 3rd Mar '14 - 6:07pm

    What is David Laws doing to stop this?

  • Chris Manners 3rd Mar '14 - 6:46pm

    I’m not the biggest fan of your party, so feel free to ignore my advice.

    But wouldn’t secularising state education be a good “radical centre” policy to have?

  • I think every one is missing the real scandal here, namely the opening, examination and modification of GCSE exam papers prior to the exam, outside of the exam room by people other than the pupils sitting the exams – giving clear scope for cheating. Therefore the results from such papers should be declared null and void and the pupils sent revised marks. The school should also have it’s OFSTED rating downgraded to Grade 4 – Inadequate, until such time as it can show that it has the ability to correctly oversee the formal exam process.

    I think the outcry from pupils and parents and the risk of failing to attract new students would be sufficient to bring the school’s concerned back into line.

  • Roland, you have a good point, though it would appear to be happening with collusion from examiner and government (and I would like to know how far back this practice started).

  • Chris Manners 3rd Mar ’14 – 6:46pm
    Yes Chris it would be and should have been done years ago. In relation to children religions operate like tobacco companies in that they know if you don’t get them young you probably won’t get them at all.

    And yes Roland that is a good point which I hope David Laws, who has been pretty quiet lately, is having a good look at.

  • Peter Chivall 4th Mar '14 - 9:55am

    This is the inevitable result of the academy and ‘Free Schools’ policies of ‘setting schools free’ of local authority control, but continuing to pay for theor running costs. Sadly, although the 2010 legislation, like the Health Service reorganisation, drove a cart and horses through the Coalition Agreement, the Leadership was too weak to stand against it. Whether that was the result of half the LibDem side of the Quartet being an ‘Orange Booker’ followed by a Highland MP whose constituents were not affected by either decisions (as devolved matters), I do not know.
    What is certain is that the Party’s representative body, the Spring Conference, in 2011 made very plain by large majorities, that they opposed both policies, root and branch.
    Perhaps that’s why the Westminster Village branch of the Party, having failed to abolish Spring Conference, now wants to replace Conference decisions by armchair voting from the comfort of a Home Counties drawing room.

  • Roland

    Very good point

    Peter Chivall

    “This is the inevitable result of the academy and ‘Free Schools’ policies of ‘setting schools free’ of local authority control, but continuing to pay for theor running costs. ”

    That is simply not the case. This school is failing to act in the interests of its pupils and breaking rules regarding exams. Neither of which is unique to “Free Schools” or “Academies.”

    We could, if we had time, pick up occasions when local authority schools had failed to act in the interest of pupils or broke rules regarding exams.

    There are arguments for and against either model but it is not “Free Schools Bad, Local Authority Good” that just shows you to be incapable of or unwilling to engage in more nuanced discussion.

  • Psi, when you say —
    ” …. that just shows you to be incapable of or unwilling to engage in more nuanced discussion. ”
    Did you consider for a moment that to say this might make you look foolish?

  • I agree with much of what Peter Chivall says. Even though I am in my armchair in the comfort of a Home Counties drawing room .

    To be honest it is the front room of a crumbling Victorian semi in Kingston upon Thames.
    So not quite as posh as a drawing room but I hope Peter will appreciate the support.

  • John, if you want to call it a drawing room you can.

  • JohnTilley

    I am aware that most people read a whole sentence rather than just teh end of it.

  • Terry Gilbert 4th Mar '14 - 11:33am

    I don’t think ‘the Leadership was too weak to stand against’ the Conservatives’ education policy . I think the Leadership was strong enough to stand up to the overwhelming majority of conference who thought it a bad idea BECAUSE THEY BELIEVED IN IT THEMSELVES. Peter Chivall make a good point about Danny and the other Scots not being affected, but many of our ministers and senior advisors had privileged education at fee-paying schools. The main outlet for their (admittedly liberal) concern for the poor ill-educated masses seems to be ‘lets try to make as many state schools as we can as much like the private schools we went to as we can, and everything will be alright’. They are just like Gove, in fact.
    The craven fawning over religious schools (highlighted in the article above) and the corporate, business-run schools is just a symptom of this. Such people make convenient allies in their struggle to allow the private sector in (codename: ‘independent’ or a ‘a good mix’), to try to create the impression that ‘ordinary’ state education is not good enough. And they are using taxpayers money to achieve this (at a time of supposed austerity!), whilst undermining local democratic accountability to boot.
    i suspect most ordinary people just want their local school to be a decent one that is convenient to get to (both for environmental reasons and and because working parents are time-poor these days), that is fairly funded compared to other schools, and that does not completely undermine the world view they wish to impart to their children (whether religious or not).
    So, 1. Equity and fairness between schools, 2. Secular neutrality, and 3. Local planning and democratic accountability. These three should therefore be at the root of sound education policy for our party. This would, I suspect, attract far more support than the half-baked mess we have at the moment, which satisfies no-one except a stange alliance of elitists and religious fundamentalists that we have (or share with the Conservatives) at the moment.

  • Ian Hurdley 4th Mar '14 - 1:40pm

    In order to understand and challenge another person’s point of view, you at least have to know what it is. If you are denied the opportunity to be aware of it you are at an immediate and serious disadvantage, whether you know it or not. And how far does the school take this? Do they cross out physics questions about the size and age of the universe? Any questions that imply that there are rocks more than five or six thousand years old? Suggestions that early humans migrated out of Africa, not Eden?
    To be clear, this is a Christian asking.

  • Terry Gilbert

    I suspect most parents want a school that is best for their child.

    Your point about making state schools like private ones seems odd, if state schools can learn something from private ones then why not. I imagine the other way around, they are quick to steal good ideas from state schools.

    Your three objectives seem odd. I would suggest:
    Schools must act in the best interests of Children (including trying to help them achieve their best);
    Schools must act fairly and the system must treat each school fairly.

    Assuming equality of schools is an excuse for interfering in all, if you want intervention when something goes wrong you can’t say equality of treatment of schools works. Schools that are in trouble need intervention that would be unjustified in a school performing well.

  • No one has asked how they got to see the questions with sufficient time to decide to do this, let alone do all that crossing out?

  • Psi wrote: ‘So to apply your weak logic, a supporter of religious education only needs to find one non-religious school that performs badly and has as strong an argument for religious schools as you do against.’

    Not at all. Firstly, this is by no means the only example of religious schools behaving badly. Secondly, while performance is important, this issue is a question of behaviour, not performance. Religious schools are teaching children things which are quite often PATENTLY FALSE. You say it is atypical, but all religious schools do this, to a greater or lesser extent, even my relatively benign (compared to the above awful case about the Jewish school changing exam papers) local C of E primary, which though evolution and planetary science is accepted in science lessons, confuses them with myth and superstition in assembly and elsewhere. I can assure you these schools are most certainly NOT teaching critical thinking about their God!
    This is not just a question of inadequacy, a question of degree; such schools are making a complete category mistake. They are teaching things that are known through the scientific method to be WRONG, not just teaching the right things badly (which might, as you say in another post, be solved by intervention).
    Your point regarding comparative RE requiring more hours than maths or English is absurd. There is no reason why such a large amount of time should be devoted to it. The basic need is to make children aware of the various world-views that exist, that people feel strongly about them, and that they have a right to self-determination in this regard in a free society – that is all. If they want to study it in depth, they take it as an exam subject.
    Your point about provability is also a red herring. Of course, not everything is provable and a degree of critical thinking would indeed be appropriate here! But there is a difference between being ‘at best unprovable’ (I was being too kind, perhaps…) and provably wrong, as religious doctrine so often is.

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