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COMMENT / SCHOOL CAMPAIGN: Getting the Blog Rolling

Barnet is an odd place indeed. If you're a humanist, that is.

Drive through it and you might not notice the high street, if you're changing the song on the MP3 player. On your way to the bigger and arguably more attractive market town of St Albans, a few miles further out of London on the Great North Road, you might not be especially bothered about its central position as an outlook over London and its attackers during the War of the Roses, its 16thC Tudor Hall is tiny and might escape your attention. Even the sizeable football club and the Saracens' stadium need scores of road signs given how likely visitors are to drive by. On your drive through here, you'd be hard put to know it's home to some of the best schools in the country, Grammar and State alike, making it VERY attractive to families wanting to escape the high rents of London but to be able to commute on the Northern Line. But one thing you won't miss in Barnet is its churches.

That's really where this blog comes in. Aside from the football and rugby, everything else mentioned above is policed by religious institutions, which literally dominate the landscape. The most prominent is St John's (pictured above), literally plonked right in the middle of the Great North Road as you head into the 'high' part of High Barnet. The beautiful, imposing 12thC powerhouse of Anglicanism forces visitors either right into the centre of Barnet and out towards  Stevenage or Cambridge or left towards St Albans or Bletchley, home to the WW2 code-crackers.

Religion doesn't offer itself as yes-or-no option in this borough, it is an either-or. 

My experience of choosing my son's school last January is what I'll use to illustrate how much sway religious institutions still have over the daily lives of Barnet residents, although I could (and will, watch this space) cite many other examples. 

As he was aged 3 at the time, we had to complete the online application to a primary school, and the nearest school, literally next door, is state-funded and gets outstanding Ofsted reports, blowing them out of the water each time. In fact, St Catherine's gets the following scintillating review, touted by Barnet council and Foxton's estate agents for anyone tempted to pop a sprog or buy a property in the borough: 

"Excellent teaching, supported by a vibrant curriculum, means pupils make rapid progress in their learning and personal development, giving them a firm foundation for their future economic well-being"

Great, right? Seems like we lucked out, landing in a place with such top-notch schooling for our kids. Oh but there's a catch. A pretty big one, which you've guessed by now if you didn't fall asleep in the earlier paragraphs.

Under the web fronter "Loving and learning as Jesus taught us" is the following explanation of the school's 'values'.

"Each child is encouraged to achieve their full potential and celebrate their uniqueness. At the heart of this is our strong caring ethos based on mutual respect and gospel values."

Thought you had the school thing wrapped up for your 3-year-old, Barnethumanist? Think again. There's a "supplmentary information form" (mightily stretching the word 'information') which requires parents to choose whether they are 

- Catholic
- Other Christian
- Other religion.

Unsure of where the Mormons, the satan-worshippers or Jedis fit in, I looked long and hard for a nonreligious option (the "don't want to lead your life by the values of slave-owning Bronze Age desert farmers" section, for instance). No such luck.

That's because there isn't one. I sat for three long evenings in front of that form, wondering if I would join the 6% of parents who ADMIT TO lying about their religion in order to get their children into a decent local school. Instead, I opted for riskier options (schools my son probably wouldn't get in to because they're further away), and purchased my year membership to the British Humanist Association to join their Fair Applications campaign.

So all in all, Barnet is still a great place to live. I've lucked out with the school my son has ended up at (a very good Primary school further down the road), and there is a lot going for this borough. It's a beautiful place, riddled with forests, farms and and up-and-coming market among other sorts of local life worth sticking around for.

I also (read slowly here before posting replies) don't harbour any ill-feeling against people who practice their religion freely and happily, often doing great things for people around them. I continue to enjoy the towering figure of St John's Church looming over the landscape, and feel I can appreciate its architecture like the best of Bible-thumpers out there. Better than most in fact, as I've bothered to read a book or two about its history. Hell, I'll pay the extra council tax needed to maintain such great monuments to Barnet's history and landscape, or throw in a few hours to help maintain it if need be.

But enough with faith schools. Enough fear-mongering and coercion of parents to fake caring about myths which are touted as 'value systems' regardless of how many times their leaders are found to abuse our children as well as their supposed positions of moral authority. Enough sneaking creationism into curriculum by quietly removing questions on evolution from A-level and GCSE exam scripts.

Keep religious ideology out of our schools. As the late Christopher Hitchens put it: up with this we shall not put.

The terms 'faith' and 'school' should not be used in the same sentence in any taxpayer-funded institution in any civilised society. Barnet's parents, children and even its church groups will be far better for religion being removed from school and a secular charter being adopted across the education system, like France among other European countries enlightened in this matter.

Sooner or later, this will happen, and history will vindicate those who made it work. Follow this blog to see its beginnings right here in beautiful Barnet. Next stop: shaming the leaders of this borough into acknowledging the school cheat scams and supporting secular school bids.

© David Kelly,  [2004] All rights reserved.


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