The Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has prompted confusion by criticising the Catholic Education Service for ‘unintentionally blurring’ the line between faith and the illegal promotion of political views by suggesting schools direct pupils to an anti-gay marriage petition, while determining that a school which followed that suggestion acted legally.
The Education Secretary determined that St Philomena’s secondary school in Carshalton, south London, whose assembly on the Coalition for Marriage campaign to pupils as young as 11 was uncovered by PinkNews.co.uk earlier this year, did not break the rules on political partisanship.
An anonymous pupil said the teacher delivering the assembly had described gay relationships as “unnatural” and had delivered an “out-dated, misjudged and heavily biased” presentation on marriage. She had further “encouraged” pupils to sign the petition, which has been designed to stop the government’s plans to allow gay couples to marry.
The school had acted on a communication from the Catholic Education Service, sent to nearly 400 schools across England and Wales, suggesting they “draw the attention” of their 339,500 pupils to the petition.
The Catholic Education Service was not aware at the time the Coalition for Marriage petition is only meant to be signed by people over the age of 16.
Section 407 of the Education Act requires schools to take all reasonable steps to ensure pupils are given a “balanced presentation of opposing views” on all political issues.
A letter from Minister of State for Schools Nick Gibb to the National Secular Society this week said, on the case of St Philomena’s, that Mr Gove had “considered the description of the assembly at which the petition was discussed, and has also taken into account the religious character of St Philomena’s School and the freedom faith schools properly have to teach about sexual relations and marriage in the context of their own religion.”
Considering this in addition to the school’s personal, social, health and economic education and religious education, as well as its ethos, he concluded that the school did not break the law on political partisanship.
A Welsh government investigation concluded that it was likely that schools who promoted the anti-gay marriage petition had provided an unbalanced view of a political issue, contrary to the Education Act. Welsh Minister for Education and Skills Leighton Andrews wrote to the schools telling them to promote an opposing view to their pupils, one in favour of marriage for gay couples, to redress the imbalance.
On the wider issue of the Catholic Education Service writing to all Catholic secondary schools in England and Wales suggesting they draw schoolchildren’s attention to the petition, Mr Gibb said the Education Secretary was concerned the CES had “unintentionally blurred the distinction between discussing issues that are a matter of faith and promoting partisan political views”.
He said: “This may have led to some schools not presenting a sufficiently balanced picture to their pupils. The Secretary of State has, therefore, written to the Catholic Education Service to express his concern.”
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “We are pleased that the Secretary of State has acted on our request to write to the CES to remind them of the law.
“We do not, however, share his anxiousness to give the CES the benefit of the considerable doubt over them having breached the Education Act.
“By seeking to excuse their actions over the letter as ‘unintentional’, it seems he is hinting that they may be unlawful – and we do not see any basis for Mr Gove’s conclusion that the actions were ‘unintentional’.
“The letter seems just one more element in the Church’s carefully-thought-out strategy to exert political pressure on the Government, in this case by abusing their privileged access to pupils in publicly funded schools.”
The British Humanist Association’s Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson said: “If St Philomena’s hasn’t broken the law, then why did the Catholic Education Service need a rebuke from Mr Gove at all?
“And why did the Welsh Government conclude that schools which followed the CES’s advice, like St Philomena’s, would have broken this law?
“Mr Gove’s conclusion seems to be at odds with the evidence and with itself.
“However, first and foremost, it is disappointing that there is no sign of compassion from the Department for Education for gay and lesbian pupils at schools like St Philomena’s, who had to sit through an assembly in which gay marriage and civil partnerships were described as being ‘unnatural’. Such behaviour will leave pupils feeling isolated from the very body that is meant to be looking after them; it cannot be right that this is an acceptable part of the British school system.”
The Catholic Education Service could not be reached immediately for comment this evening.