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Chairman East London Humanists Paul Kaufman wants state schools to be secular

PUBLISHED: 09:46 06 August 2014 | UPDATED: 09:54 06 August 2014

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What are "British values?" The decision by recently sacked education minister Michael Gove that these must now be taught in all British schools has stimulated an interesting debate.

His checklist is admirable: “Democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs.”

Like motherhood and apple pie, few are likely to disagree. But how enduring are these values?

There are many fine things about this country, including tolerance and freedom of expression, but this should not blind us to our shortcomings, both past and present.

Like most countries there is a long history of religious intolerance, from burning of witches and heretics through to the ban which exists to this day on Catholics taking the throne.

David Cameron only recently apologised for the notorious “Section 28” passed by the Tories to prevent schools from teaching homosexuality is acceptable, and many believe the attack by this country on Iraq was unlawful and caused lasting damage to our moral authority.

Mr Gove’s pronouncement was also ridiculed for implying there is something peculiarly British about these values.

This is far from the mark. For example numerous countries achieved women’s suffrage long before the UK eventually did in 1928.

Humanists are comfortable with the values Mr Gove listed.

What was breath-taking was his failure to recognise how his own policies contribute to the problems.

One is encouraging the proliferation of faith schools. These are by their nature divisive of our communities.

Separating children based on their parents’ religious belief undermines the chances of mutual respect and tolerance. Another major area of concern is academy schools where, by removing local authority supervision, the conditions are created in which religious extremism is able to flourish.

Surely the best way to promote these fine values would be to return all state schools to democratic local control, and to turn them into secular spaces for learning free from the influence of any one religion or belief. Read more Paul Kaufman.

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