- says Mr Gradgrind in the opening paragraph of Dickens' Hard Times (sorry, of course you knew that already).
'The National Secular Society and Liberal Democrat peers used the Human Rights Act to force New Labour to give pupils over the age of 16 the right to boycott school assemblies. The climbdown followed a revolt by children at St Luke’s, a Catholic sixth-form college in Bexley, south London. They signed a petition that said their faith school was "more concerned with religion than education". And they do seem to have had a good case.
'Instead of learning about computing, the use of English and other fripperies, pupils heard gruesome lectures at assembly from one Barbara McGuigan, an American anti-abortionist and founder of Voice of Virtue International. "It was just disturbing and went too far," an 18-year-old girl told the Times Educational Supplement. "We were shown pictures of foetuses aborted after 12 and 20 weeks - it was met with disgust. Some people were crying and walking out."
'The head, who has since been suspended, also made them carry a statue of the Virgin Mary around the college while singing hymns [...]'
- writes the frequently admirable Nick Cohen in his Observer column, smelling a secularist cause celebre. As such it leaves, in my opinion, something to be desired. A few observations:-
- Doesn't the petition tend to count against the usual secularist complaint that faith schools brainwash their pupils?
- Does Nick know for a Fact that this school is in dereliction of its responsibility to teach the kids how to use computers? Or is his 'instead of' just a lazy rhetorical non-sequitur?
- Hasn't Nick rather lost sight of the fact that nobody is compelled to send their offspring to a faith school? If these kids are unhappy there, shouldn't they be asking their parents to move them to another school, rather than running to the National Secular Society and the courts? Or could it by any chance be that the alternative local schools have a somewhat less impressive record in the frippery-teaching department?
- As for the statue-carrying business, it seems to me to offer the kids a useful exercise in the virtue of counting blessings. At my school they made me play rugby - what wouldn't I have given for a good human rights lawyer to get me out of that!
- The appearance of an aborted foetus is surely a piece of factual information to which no Gradgrind could object. And relevant too, since the statistical expectation is that at least one or two of these kids will sooner or later look to the abortion clinic to get them out of a tight corner. But of course this is where Nick moves the goalposts. The kids shouldn't have to digest this particular fact because they find it disturbing and disgusting. So when a group of assorted fundamentalist sixth-formers get up a petition complaining that it is disturbing and disgusting to be taught that their ancestors were monkeys, will Nick's enthusiasm for pupil-power continue unabated? I'm inclined to think not.
- This is of course part of a trend. Stop me if I've blogged about this before, but it's no coincidence that church schools started getting it in the neck big time from the secularist left at precisely the time that Islamic schools found their way onto the political agenda. I'm sure Nick doesn't seriously believe that a bit of statue-carrying is going to turn these kids into crazed fanatics, incapable of integrating with the rest of society. But it's so much easier to launch a generalized attack on 'faith education' than to admit that yes, actually there are specific concerns raised by the prospect of separate schools for a religious minority whose integration into mainstream society is already problematic.
And if Nick is so worried about schools being socially divisive, I look forward to reading his clarion call for the nationalization of Eton. Yes, I know we've had a bit of hand-wringing about the old school tie's stranglehold on the media, but when it comes to action it seems to be a lot easier to demand that choice be removed from parents who can't afford to pay for it than to take on those who can.