Stop fudging over morality agenda

Parental rights and governmental insistence on teaching principles of morality are incompatible, argues Fred Naylor. It has long been a principle that pupils should be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents, provided that it is compatible with good education and the reasonable use of public funds."

What kind of government, or would-be government, would make a statement like this? There is no problem avoiding unreasonable expenditure. The efficiency clause is a perfectly reasonable condition, provided it is not used as an excuse. The catch lies in the word "good". Who is to determine what constitutes a good education? If it is to be the government itself, as is implied, the statement would not be out of place in a Nazi or Soviet-style society.

These reflections were prompted when I recently had a very close look at the Conservative Government's 1985 White Paper, Better Schools, from which the statement is derived. My misgivings were confirmed when I read under the chapter entitled "The independent sector" that this sector "provides opportunities for parents who wish their children to receive forms of schooling not found in the mainstream, for example ... in those (schools) where the process and aims of education are intended to reflect and transmit a particular religious or philosophical view of life".

There it was, as clear as daylight. Article 2 of Protocol No 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, guaranteeing parents protection by the state of their right to have education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions, was to be restricted to about 7 per cent of the population.

The rest were to be denied a basic human right agreed by the nations of Europe in 1950 as a safeguard against a repeat of what had happened in Hitler's Germany, when the state used the schools to fashion the minds of its young people - claiming that it alone knew what was good for them.

Furthermore, there was a strong implication in the White Paper that education for the majority of our children should not reflect and transmit any particular religious or philosophical viewpoint. This is highly significant in view of the Government legislation only three years later which required schools to promote a national curriculum, which - among other things - would promote the spiritual and moral development of their pupils.

Could the spiritual and moral development of our school population really be dissociated from a philosophical view of life? Or was it the Government's intention to use the national curriculum to establish collectivism as the new state religion?

Having recently been involved - when supporting Manchester parents in search of Christian worship for their children - in suffering a reverse at the hands of minister John Patten, I began to hear alarm bells. A national curriculum, which was so foreign to our liberal traditions, had been accepted only with great reluctance. Kenneth Baker had been persuaded by civil servants to force it through because of its potential for raising standards in the cognitive field, but here was evidence that it was seen as early as 1985 as a vehicle for social engineering.

As secretary of the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education, I wrote to Conservative Central Office in October 1995 to seek an assurance that the policy of the present government did not exclude parents using the maintained sector from the protection of rights afforded by the European Convention. After all, was not the Prime Minister stressing the importance of parental choice and opportunity for all?

This proved a very embarrassing enquiry for Central Office, made three times in six months, but never answered. The next step was a letter to the Prime Minister, acknowledged - but never answered.

Undeterred, I wrote another letter to the Prime Minister, suggesting that if a positive assurance were not forthcoming, an approach would be made to the European Commission complaining of "constructive denunciation" by the UK government of its solemn obligation, freely undertaken, to protect the right of parents under Article 2 of Protocol No. 1.

This produced a reply but no assurance. What it did do, however, was to provide additional evidence to support a complaint to the European Commission.

The Government argued that reservations about this article had been entered in 1952 - concerning compatibility with efficient instruction and training and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure - to bring it in line with section 76 of the 1944 Education Act. This was really irrelevant, unless it was the Government's view that any public expenditure for this purpose was unreasonable - in which case our complaint was vindicated.

It failed to realise, however, that Section 76 had been emasculated by the interpretation the Court of Appeal had placed on it. In Watt v Kesteven County Council (1955), it was held that a local education authority's duty to educate in accordance with parents' wishes is not an absolute obligation. Lord Denning ruled that it was open to the county council "to make exceptions . . . if it thinks fit to do so".

Since this 1955 judgment there has been no amending legislation, and therefore by bringing Article 2 into line with section 76 the Government has reneged on its solemn undertaking. Last month I and a number of Christian and Muslim parents submitted our complaint against the UK government to the European Commission.

The truth of the matter is that the heart-searching now going on about teaching right and wrong is the result of an increasing pluralism in society. Consensus has broken down. As Professor Antony Flew and I argued in our recent pamphlet, Spiritual Development and All That Jazz, important issues of morality and choice have simply been fudged.

Believers and non-believers, for example, are never going to agree on the religious and philosophical view of life they wish to see reflected in the curriculum. The result of this fudge is best seen in the Office for Standards in Education's guidelines to its inspectors.

"Spiritual" has been so deconstructed that OFSTED is at a complete loss as to its meaning. The same will certainly be true in respect of any new set of "agreed moral principles" emanating from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. The Government must recognise, as must we all, that parental rights and the compulsory teaching of moral principles regarded as good by the Government of the day, are totally incompatible.

Fred Naylor is honorary secretary of the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education but this article is written in a personal capacity.

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