We need a sensible debate on the future of faith schools

Published in the Leicester Mercury newspaper on 27 June 2014

Many people were alarmed by the recent Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham. A “culture of fear and intimidation” had been created in several schools by hardline Islamists, and there was evidence of an “organised campaign to target certain schools”, according to Ofsted.

We should not make excuses for what happened in Birmingham and we should not brush it under the carpet. It is good that these unauthorised practises have been uncovered and it is right that steps are taken to address the issue.

The schools in question were not faith schools: they were secular schools being run by the local Council and by academy trusts. If they had been faith schools however, then a lot of what was found to be unacceptable would still be going on.

Public appetite for faith schools has diminished significantly. A survey by Opinium found that 58% of people believe faith schools should be abolished and 70% think they should not be state funded.

The central argument against faith schools is that young impressionable children are often taught to accept untruths as truths and to assimilate information through the prism of religion.

Newsnight recently featured a report on 30 private Christian faith schools, where children are taught that evolution isn’t true, and that the earth is only a few thousand years old. This of course contradicts the overwhelming evidence we have which proves that evolution is real and the earth is 4.54 billion years old.

Although the government has banned creationism from being taught in our 7,000 state-funded faith schools, private faith schools continue to operate as a law unto themselves.

Insofar as state funding for faith schools is concerned, to me it seems irrational and counter-intuitive. We don’t allow Council tenants to be housed on the basis of faith or NHS hospitals to have different wards for different religions.

Yet with state-funded faith schools we permit a religious apartheid in our education system, where the next generation of citizens are segregated along doctrinal lines, in accordance with their parent’s beliefs.

The late Christopher Hitchens claimed that faith schools were a “cultural suicide”. He argued that increasing them would turn Britain into somewhere like Lebanon, where people live in sectarian communities, and religious tensions are always simmering away ready to boil over.

Living in a multicultural and multi-faith society is a good thing but we must actively promote integration. We should have secular public services which treat all people equally irrespective of belief.

And all children should receive a well-rounded evidence-based education, with a healthy and inclusive understanding of other faiths and cultures, so as to prepare them for life in modern Britain and the wider world.

My first year as a Councillor – activities and achievements

Exactly a year ago today residents in Beaumont Leys voted to elect me as one of their local Labour Councillors to serve on Leicester City Council.

It was a tremendous honour and a huge privilege to have been entrusted to represent the views of local people, especially as I’ve lived in the area since I was 7 years old. Also as the son of immigrants, who came to this country from East Africa fleeing persecution, and as someone who was born and raised on a council estate in Leicester, it was particularly poignant to have been chosen to serve on the very Council that had once supported me and my family when times were tough.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love my party and my politics, but to be honest my love of politics merely stems from my love of people. That may sound like an awful cliché but it is the truth. In-fact I believe that if you’re not a people person and you don’t genuinely thrive on being able to solve problems and help make peoples’ lives that much easier, then you shouldn’t seek to hold public office.

Whereas if you have a passion for putting people first, for lifting hopes and aspirations, for fighting social injustice, and for leading by example and working hard, then politics isn’t just a career choice, it’s a moral imperative; an obligation to use your skills and expertise to serve the public and to try and make a difference in the world.

It’s been an incredible year and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’m grateful to my good friend Vijay Riyait and all the wonderful people mentioned in this post who worked tirelessly on the election campaign.

I’ve been fortunate to have two excellent co-Councillors in Vi Dempster and Paul Westley, as well as a good deal of support from our hardworking local MP Liz Kendall, and City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby. It’s a real pleasure to be part of such a great Labour team.

In addition to working closely with my fellow Councillors in holding regular ward surgeries, attending residents association meetings and carrying out specific casework and solving problems on behalf of constituents, here’s a summary of my other activities and achievements during my first 12 months as a Leicester City Councillor:

Policing:

  • Appointed as a Member of the Leicestershire Police Authority and attended numerous Authority and sub-committee meetings.
  • Delivered a speech on policing cuts at the 2011 Labour Party conference and discussed the issue with the Chair of the Police Federation.
  • Raised the issue of policing cuts in the Council chamber as well as in the local, regional and national press.
  • Led the Labour team at the Leicestershire Police Authority in fighting to save nearly 200 jobs and helping to secure neighbourhood and frontline policing.
  • Attended a special conference on the ‘Roots of Violent Radicalisation’ hosted by the Home Affairs Select Committee and Leicester East MP Keith Vaz.
  • Together with co-Councillors, approved funding for a local police community safety shop at the Beaumont Leys shopping centre.

Education and young people:

  • Continued to work hard as a school governor at Soar Valley college and took on a new role as a governor at Beaumont Lodge primary school.
  • Delivered a speech on achievement at Soar Valley College in Rushey Mead.
  • Delivered a speech on aspiration at Babington College in Beaumont Leys.
  • Attended a special conference on the application of new technologies in schools.
  • Took up an appointment as a Member of Court at the University of Leicester.
  • Attended summer fetes with co-Councillors at Glebelands primary and Beaumont Lodge primary schools, and the Beaumont Lodge Neighbourhood Association.
  • Delivered a speech at the University of Leicester in support of the ‘Living Wage’ campaign being run by Labour Students.

Health and community:

  • Helped set up and Chair a new community task group to tackle domestic violence in Beaumont Leys and Abbey.
  • Actively supported the campaign to save the children’s heart centre at the Glenfield General Hospital in Beaumont Leys.
  • Attended a special event organised by the Somali community in Beaumont Leys.
  • Launched the British Heart Foundation’s Big Donation event at the Beaumont Leys shopping centre.
  • Attended the official opening of the new Beaumont ward at the Bradgate Mental Health Unit in Beaumont Leys.
  • Visited a new locally-run free lunch club at Christ the King church.

Transport and environment:

  • Voted at Planning Committee in support of modernising Leicester train station.
  • Participated in a special climate change and water management conference.
  • Worked with co-Councillors and local businesses to help tackle parking problems in parts of north Beaumont Leys.
  • Became actively involved in the work of the Castle Hill Country Park user group.
  • Attended a special conference on local transport policy in Leicester.
  • Helped secure 11 new grit bins for locations throughout Beaumont Leys.

Housing:

  • Attended a special conference on student housing and future strategy.
  • Wrote an article about increasing levels of homelessness and spent Christmas Day helping at a local homeless shelter to raise awareness.
  • Voted at Planning Committee in support of the creation of new housing developments and student flats across the city.
  • Hosted public meetings with fellow Councillors, the local MP and the Mayor to discuss traveller encampments and the on-going consultation on proposed sites.

Business and jobs:

  • Agreed to join the board of the Cooke e-Learning Foundation, a Beaumont Leys  based enterprise helping people to train for jobs.
  • Attended a conference and dinner hosted by the Indo British Trade Council.
  • Visited the Beaumont Leys Enterprise Centre to support local businesses.
  • Spoke in the Council chamber on the economy and drafted an article on how the Budget will adversely affect Beaumont Leys.
  • Hosted the 2012 HSBC English Asian Business Awards in Manchester and worked to secure Leicester as the 2013 host city.

Social justice and charity:

  • Lobbied the Foreign Office and raised the issue of the Sri Lankan civil war with Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt MP.
  • Attended numerous public events to oppose cuts to Legal Aid and lobbied the Solicitor General Edward Garnier QC MP on the issue.
  • Attended a fundraiser in support of ‘Unique Home for Girls’, a charity caring for orphaned and abandoned girls.
  • Visited the offices of Leicestershire AIDS Support Services and attended the annual World AIDS Day service at Leicester Cathedral.
  • Attended the launch of a 3-day festival organised by the Pushti Nidhi charity.

Culture and faith:

  • Met with Leicester Council of Faiths and attended events during inter-faith week.
  • Visited numerous places of worship across Leicester belonging to all of the city’s main faith communities.
  • Attended a concert of the Philharmonia Orchestra and an ‘Orchestra Unwrapped’ concert promoting music to school children.
  • Attended ‘Out of Africa’; an annual celebration of African culture hosted by Harvest City Church.
  • Attended an Inter-Cultural Evening hosted by the Chief Constable of Leicestershire Police.
  • Attended a lecture on Hindu and Christian dialogue hosted by the Leicester Friends of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies.

Attendance record at all Leicester City Council & Planning Committee meetings: 100%

Speech on aspiration delivered at local school in Beaumont Leys

Speech delivered at Babington Community Technology College on 5 July 2011

Good evening everyone. I’m Sundip Meghani. I’m a solicitor by profession. I’m also a Labour and Co-operative Councillor for Beaumont Leys. Most importantly, I’m a former Babington student, and I’m really proud to be back here at my old school to say a few words at this inaugural Asian Awards ceremony.

In case you’re wondering I started at Babington back in 1993, which makes me feel very old, because I know some of you weren’t even born then. I left in 1998. I went on to Brunel University in London to study politics and history, before coming back to Leicester to go to law school. I worked briefly as a television presenter, I qualified as a lawyer in 2010, and I earlier this year I was elected as a local Councillor. So I’ve been quite busy since I left school.

I’m grateful to Mrs Needham for inviting me here this evening, and I just want to take a moment pay tribute to her for reaching quite a milestone. For those of you who don’t know, Elizabeth Needham has been a teacher here at Babington since 1981, and this year marks her thirtieth year at the school. It’s because of people like her that I am where I am, and in my opinion, she is a remarkable teacher and a wonderful human being, and I’d like everyone to please show their appreciation of her with a warm round of applause.

Since I left Babington 13 years ago Mrs Needham has kindly invited me back twice. The last time was to speak at Prize Giving back in October 2003. I have to be honest, I do wonder why it’s taken her 8 years to ask me back! But I am glad to be here and I’m really glad to see so many students, parents and teachers, coming together in the spirit of success and celebration.

I’m here today to talk to you about the future and to share my thoughts on what tomorrow has in store for students here at Babington. Let me start by being blunt. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to difficult. As a young person in this country you don’t get a choice. You have to go to school. You have to go into further education up until the age of 18. What you do after that is your business. And if you plan to go to university, then let me tell you, you better make it your business to find out more about it.

In some ways, it’s a lot tougher being a young person nowadays than it was 10 years ago. Educational Maintenance Allowance, money that students were getting to attend college, is being abolished. University tuition fees are being increased. And unemployment amongst young people between the ages of 16 to 24 is at more than 20%. Now I’m not here to blame the government and I’m not trying to scare you into stressing about the years ahead. The point I do want to make however is that you can do something to help yourself, and to help your future.

You can begin to take action today, to make sure that your tomorrow is bright, is exciting and full of potential. You have it within your power to kick-start your adulthood in the best possible way. You can achieve an excellent quality of life. You can acquire a fantastic job that you feel passionate about. And you can create a future where you are in the driving seat, and where you decide what you do with your time.

Whether you want to make a difference or start a family, become a multi-millionaire or travel the world. Your ticket to fame, your passport to success is a good education.

Education is everything, education is the silver bullet. It’s the only way that those of us from backgrounds where we haven’t had everything handed to us on a silver platter, can get ahead. It’s the only way that those of us whose parents and grandparents had to work long hours in backbreaking jobs, can break-free and do something that we enjoy. And it’s the only way that those of us who want to reach our full potential and achieve bigger and better things, can go on to create a life of opportunity and fulfilment.

None of the adults here today can give you a hunger for success. It’s something that you have to find deep within yourselves. And even if you do find that burning desire, that lofty ambition, that aspiration to be successful, you’re still only halfway there. The rest of the journey is to dedicate every ounce of strength and every fibre of your being to achieving that dream, and to achieving those aspirations.

And I’m not saying for a moment that it’s going to be easy. You’re going to have to work harder than you’ve ever worked before. You’re going to have to be more committed and more focused to your studies than you ever have before. And you’re going to have to listen to your parents, trust your teachers and help each other, more than you ever have before.

So to all the students in this room – I want you to listen to me very carefully. I need you to make a commitment today. I need you to make a commitment to me, to your teachers, to your family, and to each other:

I need to commit to regularly attending school and to soaking up as much knowledge and information as you possibly can. I need you to commit to aiming high, thinking big, dreaming the impossible and being optimistic. I need to you to commit to setting about achieving everything that you want in life – and when you get knocked back – I need you to get up, dust yourself off and get back on track. And I need you to commit to making our city and our country the most incredible place to live in the world, where anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

Mrs Needham is going to have my personal email address. I want you to ask her for it tomorrow. I want you to email me in 5 years’ time, and I want you to tell me what you’ve done, what you’re doing, and what you’re going to do in your future. I’m already proud of each and every one of you. And when I get that email in 5 years’ time, I want to be even prouder.

Thank you for inviting me, have a wonderful evening, and best of luck for the future.

Roll of Honour

In Hinduism teachers are considered to be second only to God. Students are taught from a very young age to pay homage to their teachers in order to receive their blessings and their wisdom. In my opinion teachers are the lifeblood of our society. By carefully imparting knowledge from one generation to the next, like batons in a relay race, our teachers help bring about the evolution of our collective human consciousness.

I think most of us tend to remember those teachers who had a lasting impact on our lives. What they did and what they said. The things they taught us and helped us to understand. The way they believed in us and trusted us, inspired us and encouraged us to become better, and to achieve anything we set our minds to.

Just before I’m admitted to the Roll of Solicitors on Monday morning, I want to pay tribute to a number of my former teachers, the men and women who helped make me the man I am today. I am forever grateful to these people, my heroes, for the immeasurable role they’ve had in my life:

Mr J Piper, Mrs E Needham, Mr J Catton, Mr G Campian, Mr J Singh, Mr D Bennett, Mr A Hogg, Mr A Holbrook, Mr M Donnelly, Mr G Tipping, Mr A Cooper, Ms Bhatia, Mr P Crompton, Ms A Crellin, Ms G Kenyon, Mr R Naik, Ms S Zafar, Mr S Nwanuforo, Mr A Wright, Mr D Nixon, Mr B Hicks, Ms M Bakht Ur Rahman, Mr E Hobden, Mrs B O’Reilly, Prof B Blank, Prof A Glees, Prof J Fisher, Mr A Gray, Mr C Stevens, Ms R Grimley, Ms S Peaple, Mr G Hipwell.

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defence. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.” – Sam Seaborn, The West Wing