As a member of the National Secular Society, an atheist, a Chair of Governors at a non-religious school, someone who sets examinations, and someone who teaches equality and diversity the recent responses to news stories about the GCSE and A levels being moved for Ramadan were fascinating.
Religion has been, and continues to be, an important part of many people’s lives. Even if atheism, in an age of science and reason, is rising ( sometimes contrary to expectations), secularist principles will continue to be essential to allowing a diverse population to rub along together in peace. As the National Secular Society says:
‘Secularism seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens. Secularism is not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.’
Repressive societies by definition do not give freedom of conscience, whether they are too religious, persecuting minorities or calling atheists terrorists, or extreme ‘atheist’ states repressing religion (North Korea making the state the ‘religion’). So, respecting the right of people to follow their religion is as important to secularists as it to the religious. If liberal is to mean anything in liberal democracy, it means that.
Along with this, modern liberal democracies have become the most tolerant and diverse populations in the history of mankind. Legislation has been passed in the UK, as one example country, allowing same sex marriage, gender recognition (Gender Recognition Act 2004), and to protect individuals from discrimination (Equality Act 2010) on the basis of ‘age, disability, gender reassignment, marital or civil partnership status, pregnancy and motherhood, race (including ethnic or national origin, colour and nationality), religion or belief (including lack of belief), sex and sexual orientation.’ (termed ‘protected characteristics’.)
The Equality Act 2010 includes equality of access to opportunity, and it is entirely obvious that the effects of fasting during Ramadan on potential examination performance is an issue worthy of careful consideration. Young, still developing, children may find fasting hard. And to head off one potential argument, while some might argue religion is a choice, it would be difficult for a child to go against their upbringing and culture if it was felt fasting was important by their family.
Yet, this is a complex society, possibly the most diverse in history. There may be competing issues, either related to protected characteristics of other groups, other characteristics such as socio-economic status or class, or practical considerations related to timetabling itself. As the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) states:
In such a large, complex system where there is a large number of candidates taking examinations and a diverse range of subjects available, it is not always possible to meet each and every request. Exam boards will always aim to be as fair as possible to all. If a small change can be made for any one group that does not impact negatively on most students, it will, quite rightly, be considered – but these are made before the timetable is published.
I’m sure that the JCQ have consulted widely and discussed with relevant stakeholders before making this decision, as they have said. The National Secular Society made a similar point about the need for evidence, although some skepticism about evidence they cite about teenage alertness during the day which discusses irrelevant 7:30am starts in the US is required.
Secular principles mean defaulting to changing the exam times if possible, with the caveats that a wider assessment and consultation should show little or no detriment to others. This is complex; not a simple decision that one person can make or that one religious community can expect to be made without wider considerations. I don’t envy the JIQ with having the complexities of a national exam system, the British press, and these days social media.
Process is therefore important if the public are to have trust in how decisions are made. Transparency in the decisions of public bodies is now a widely accepted norm (witness the concern about David Cameron’s Freedom of Information review). If the JCQ’s statement (a short reactive statement after the event) is the sum total of information given on how a decision is made, then it is limited in scope for those who wish to be reassured they have in place robust systems for stakeholder consultation and assessment of the impact of the decision, and ultimately the decision made. A more formal Equality Impact Assessment being released might spread more light on such processes in future, and reduce the opportunity for some of the more inflammatory reporting (and in the case of where no change has been accommodated, reassurance that the consideration had not been dismissed out of hand).
For the Daily Mail comment section denizens wibbling on about ‘creeping sharia’ and claiming this is a Christian country, they should remember that the JCQ look at all religious holidays and that the majority of the UK population is probably non-religious.