The National Secular Society calls for an investigation into a faith school that insists the universe is 5778 years old and engages in gender segregation.
The National Secular Society has urged the government to investigate a faith school that insists the universe is 5778 years old and forbids men and women from shaking hands.
Beis Yaakov Primary School, a state-funded faith school for girls ‘from strictly orthodox Jewish families’ in Barnet, has prompted concern from the NSS due to its educational policies and codes of conduct.
According to the voluntary aided school’s visitor’s guide, creationism is taught as fact, evolution is not discussed, and pupils are taught that ‘the age of the universe is accepted as 5778 years old.’
The visitor’s guide explains, ‘Parents choose this school because our ethos closely mirrors the values and life styles of their homes.
‘The society in which our girls live is a very protected one. They do not watch television and many do not have access to national newspapers or libraries. Pop culture is unknown and exposure to other religious experiences very limited.’
For this reason, ‘all references to TV programmes and the Internet should be avoided.’
Regarding the code of personal conduct within the faith school, the guide says, ‘Men and women may not shake hands nor touch in any other manner.’ Men must also avoid walking between two women and vice versa.
The school’s dress code makes skull caps or hats compulsory for men and forbids women to wear trousers. Additionally, women must wear tops that cover the collarbone and elbows and wear stockings or tights. Married Jewish women ‘must cover their hair.’
In a letter to the academies minister, Sir Theodore Agnew, the National Secular Society wrote that ‘given evolution is now a part of primary science curriculum, the school’s refusal to teach or discuss evolution in any form clearly indicates the school is in breach of its legal obligation and should face sanction.’
The letter went on to acknowledge that the ‘teaching of the established scientific consensus around evolution’ should not be undermined.
State-funded schools, said the NSS, including free schools and academies, should not teach creationism as an evidence-based scientific theory. The secular organisation argued that whilst creationism might be covered as part of religious education lessons, it must not be taught in a science class.
Evolution is part of primary science curriculum, as per the Department for Education’s statutory guidance for science programmes.
According to the programmes, pupils should be taught to ‘recognise that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago’ and ‘identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution.’
The NSS also raised concerns regarding the school’s insistence that ‘personal relationships must not be discussed at all’, suggesting such a prohibition could place children at risk by denying them the knowledge and life skills needed to stay safe and develop healthy relationships.
The letter likewise expressed concern at imposing faith upon pupils, rather than ’empowering them to develop their own beliefs’, suggesting that, in doing so, the faith school could not ‘possibly promote mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths.’
Gender segregation was also a point of contention. The NSS stated that the practice is ‘counter to British values, and that the requirement for married women entering the school to cover their hair is in violation of the Equality Act 2010.’
The NSS went on to state that the faith school was ‘preparing its pupils only for life in an insular religious community’ rather than ensuring ‘children become valuable and fully rounded members of a cohesive society’.
Despite its clear failings, the faith school was rated as ‘Good’ by Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, in 2015.
The NSS is now calling on the Department for Education to instruct inspectors to investigate whether this school ‘meets the requirements to receive public funding or even be registered as a school at all.’Stephen Evans, National Secular Society campaigns director, said:
The schools we all pay for should educate and open young minds, not indoctrinate them. Having an official policy stating that the age of the universe is 5778 years old clearly undermines the teaching of established scientific theory.
Religious demands and parental preferences must no longer provide cover for the state to ignore children’s independent rights. All young people should be entitled to the highest standards of education, regardless of their background.
Any school that promotes creationist beliefs as fact, shields its pupils from modern technology and media, and promotes discriminatory dress codes is clearly unfit to teach.
Sarah Mills is a managing editor and writer at Uncommon Ground Media.