Norway banned ACE. Could the UK follow?

Norway banned ACE. Could the UK follow? August 4, 2014

Could ACE ever be banned in the UK? We’ve occasionally looked at this question in the past on Leaving Fundamentalism, but I’ve most recently argued that it would be better not to ban them. As I said in my New Statesman article, it would be preferable to see the schools improving themselves, encouraged by a more thorough inspection regime. It may be, however, that this is just never going to happen to a sufficient extent—ACE’s supporters hold their beliefs too rigidly ever to change their minds. Then what?

In Norway in 2001, the answer was to ban part of the curriculum, but not for the reasons you might expect. It wasn’t creationism, or right-wing politics, or religious teachings that got ACE Norway into hot water. It was sexism. Many of the same international laws that influenced the decision in Norway also apply in the UK. To understand whether this could happen here, we have to look at the Norwegian situation.

It all started when the Norwegian gender equality ombudsman, Kristin Mile, declared that ACE’s 4th grade Social Studies PACEs violated the Gender Equality Act. Then Norway’s education minister, Trond Giske, announced that he would not approve any future applications to open ACE schools (Link is in Norwegian. Here’s an English translation by Katie Ritson):

 Giske warns Christian schools

Education Minister Trond Giske emphatically put his foot down over the equal opportunities curriculum used by ACE schools when he spoke at the Norwegian national conference for teachers on Tuesday.

Audun Stølås, NTB

Published: 07.Nov. 2000 13:25 Updated: 07.Nov. 2000 13:25

LOEN: – If the equality commission finally decides that the teaching materials used by ACE schools are in conflict with equality laws, each single school using these materials and requiring official approval will get a resounding no as long as I am minister for education in Norway, said Giske, who was roundly applauded by delegates at the teaching conference.

Giske read aloud from a textbook used by ACE schools. This said that “Since God’s word tells us that wives are to subjugate themselves to their own husbands, then this means that wives should obey their husbands. Wives who love their husbands in the way that God intended are happy to submit to their husbands.”*

Shall Submit

Trond Giske also read aloud exercises for pupils, in which the pupils are required to underline the correct answer to questions such as “(wives, dogs, cats) should obey their husbands. Wives should be (sorry, sad, happy) to submit to their husbands”.

Today there are ten ACE schools in Norway which follow an American curriculum. These schools are run by charismatic, free church organizations. Plans to open the school “Oasis” (Oasen) using the same curriculum in Songdalen just outside Kristiansand was provisionally halted by Giske after an equality ombudsman concluded that education on equality was at odds with Norwegian law on this subject.

Not recognized

Giske told the NTB that if the equality commission came to the same conclusion as the equality ombudsman, he will be sending letters to the existing ACE schools in Norway and asking them to explain their position with regard to this educational programme.

“I can’t approve schools that are in breach of our laws. Schools with this kind of curriculum are not just in conflict with the laws on equality, but also with the law on education and public administration” said minister for education Trond Giske.

*Note: Since the quotations from the ACE materials have been translated into Norwegian and then back into English, it’s possible this text varies slightly from the original. I would bet, for instance, that the original word here was “submit” rather than “subjugate”.

Of course, ACE Norway appealed the equality ombudsman’s decision. When the Equality Board of Appeals heard the case, it decided on a 4-3 majority decision that the reviewed ACE materials did breach the Equality Act. As a result, the PACEs were banned.

ACE’s objections amounted to the following:

  • The Equality Board of Appeals did not have sufficient competence to make this decision
  • ACE’s teachings complied with guidelines from the Ministry of Education and Research
  • There was an exception in the Equality Act for religious education, and the Equality Act did not apply to the internal affairs of religious communities.

The first two objections were quickly dismissed and we need not concern ourselves with them here. The third objection, however, is crucial. Because ACE schools are Christian, and because ACE integrates Christian teachings into every single academic subject, ACE Norway argued that everything their schools taught counted as religious instruction, and therefore exempt from the law.

Separate but equal

They also claimed that the PACEs do teach that men and women are equal:

The vision that emerges in the teaching aids related to gender issues can – with reference to the Bible – be summarized such that that women and men have different responsibilities in a family, while emphasizing that they are equal and are obliged to respect each other. It is also said that the father is the “leader” of the family.

This argument is not exactly persuasive. ACE was arguing for complementarianism, the theological belief that while men and women are equal in value, they have different God-given roles. In other words, separate but equal (which didn’t work out well last time it was tried). If you’re the sort of person who believes that, you’re not likely to listen to a filthy heathen like me, so here’s one Christian on why it doesn’t work, and another on why accepting gender equality need not even mean viewing the Bible as less authoritative.

In any case, that separate-but-equal argument was never going to wash with the Norwegian authorities, because the Equality Act requires not just equal status, but also equal rights and opportunities. The PACEs patently don’t teach that.


The Equality Ombudsman argued that ACE still had the right to teach its religious views on gender in religious studies lessons. The problem was that the objectionable material came in Social Studies PACEs. But ACE Norway claimed this wouldn’t work. They argued (as ACE supporters often do) that children will be confused if they are taught one thing at home and at church, and another thing at school. They said that the exception for religious education textbooks wasn’t enough, because then the students would hear contradictory messages between social studies and RE materials.

I actually have some sympathy for ACE’s position here. It reminds me of anti-creationism campaigners saying that it’s fine to teach creationism in RE lessons, as long as it’s kept out of science. I don’t think they’ve thought this through. It doesn’t make sense to have teachers in the same school blatantly contradicting each other over factual claims. The problem is that people don’t realise how RE is taught in these kinds of schools.

When most people think of RE, they think of generally comparative teaching: Christians believe x, Jews believe y, Muslims believe z. When religion is taught in conservative evangelical places like ACE, it’s taught as The Truth: This is what God says, so we know it’s true. It might sometimes be taught comparatively, but the starting point is still “We know what’s right; here are some incorrect views”. The Norwegian Equality Act provisions aren’t set up to deal with that kind of absolutism. I think the Norwegian authorities imagined that the social studies lessons would teach children about equality of opportunity for people regardless of gender, and religious studies lessons would say “Some people have different beliefs”. That’s not the case here, and any adequate decision about what can be taught needs to bear that in mind.

The Equality Appeals Board ruled that all this was not their problem. Their job was to uphold the Equality Act, and ACE were violating it:

For schools and educational institutions using teaching materials in the teaching of Christianity/religion that are not based on equality between the sexes, there could possibly be a contradiction between the learning materials for religious instruction and teaching materials for other subjects such as social studies. Whether or not this will lead to good or bad educational results is not for the equality authorities to consider.

UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

Here’s where it gets relevant to the UK: The Norwegian Equality Board of Appeals based its decision in part on CEDAW and European law, which applies in the UK. CEDAW is implemented in the UK, and every four years the government reports to the UN Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. As you can clearly see, ACE’s teachings violate CEDAW. The Norwegian tribunal referred particularly to articles 2f, 5a, and 10c (emphasis from the Norwegian Board of Appeals’ report):

Article 2 States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women and, to this end, undertake:

(f) To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women;

Article 5 States Parties shall take all appropriate measures:

(a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women 

Article 10 States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in order to ensure to them equal rights with men in the field of education and in particular to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women:

(c) The elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of education by encouraging coeducation and other types of education which will help to achieve this aim and, in particular, by the revision of textbooks and school programmes and the adaptation of teaching methods;

If the Norwegian Equality Board of Appeals was correct in its assessment that ACE violates CEDAW, then the finding would be equally applicable in every country that has ratified CEDAW. That’s every country where ACE is sold (except, shamefully, the USA).

International Law

The other reason the Norwegian case is so relevant to the UK is that their decision referred to European and International law also applicable in the UK. They wrote of the Ombudsman’s finding:

this interpretation is not in conflict with … international obligations enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

In Norway’s opinion, the decision to ban certain ACE materials did not conflict with the ECHR. While this has not, to my knowledge, been tested in the European Court of Human Rights, it suggests that a similar ban in the UK would not be unlawful.

Religious rights vs gender equality

So here’s what it boils down to: When religious rights conflict with other rights, which rights trump the others?

For ACE, it’s clearly religious rights. ACE Norway argued:

The parents’ right to educate their children in accordance with their beliefs is an essential part of religious freedom. The ombudsman’s decision is a clear restriction of this right and thereby also of religious freedom.

Christian Education Europe’s Greg Hibbins, getting hot under the collar about the increasing pressure on ACE in the UK, made a similar argument in the Manchester Evening News:

Our parents are taxpaying citizens of the UK. We are a democracy and people still have free choice, if they want to pay to have their child educated in line with their convictions they rightly have the option to do that.

I wonder how far they are willing to take this argument. Do they really mean parents have the right to educate their children in line with their convictions no matter what those convictions are?

For the Equality Board of Appeals, the conclusion was the opposite. Norway had an obligation under CEDAW to end stereotyped cultural representations of woman, and this took precedence.

The decision was made with a 4-3 majority; the dissenting minority agreed with ACE that banning these materials would result in an unacceptable restriction on religious freedom. Interestingly, the minority were all men. Regardless, the majority opinion held, and the Equality Commission report concluded: “ACE Norway are banned from using teaching aids that are contrary to the Equality Act”.

So is ACE misogynistic?

It was only the 4th grade PACEs that took the hit; the report said “According to the majority’s view, the material presented is not sufficient to consider teaching materials for other grades.” This leaves us wondering what they would have concluded if they’d looked at the rest of the curriculum. I’d argue it’s an even more difficult call. Explicit sexism of the kind found in the 4th grade Social Studies PACEs is rarer in the rest of ACE (though far from non-existent). What you find instead is that whenever a woman is depicted in a PACE, she is taking part in a stereotypically gendered activity: washing up, cooking, sewing, or making the bed. Taken in isolation, few of the PACE stories are offensive: There’s nothing wrong with a story about a woman making sandwiches for her family, or a picture of her knitting. But when over an entire curriculum the only pictures of and stories about women show them doing these things, the net result is that children are left with the impression that this is all women are for. I’d argue that the entire ACE curriculum is misogynistic, but this is only obvious from reading a large proportion of it.

What happened next?

ACE Norway withdrew the banned PACEs immediately (they continued to be used elsewhere in the world, including the UK). Katie Ritson (who translated the newspaper article above) told me that a Norwegian Google search found reports of ACE schools in Norway abandoning the curriculum (there were only 10 in the first place) following this decision. Are there any left today? I’m not sure. I haven’t been able to find any, but as I’ve previously noted, not all ACE schools are listed online. If any readers can tell me more about ACE in Norway today, please leave a comment or send me an email.

Technically, from the report it seems that not all ACE materials were banned. It would theoretically still be possible to teach the curriculum, while leaving out the parts that Equality Ombudsman had complained about. In practice, this would be thin ice to tread, since there’s a lot of other ACE material that is not based on gender equality.

Differences in UK law

I’m not a lawyer, and I welcome comments from any experts, but it seems the obvious difference between the two countries’ Equality Acts is that in Norway, the Equality Act had rules explicitly for teaching aids (textbooks etc). Teachers were still free to make contradictory comments in lessons, but the books had to be based on gender equality. In the UK, it seems the situation is if anything reversed; the UK Equality Act Part 6 (Education), Chapter 1 (Schools), says “Nothing in this Chapter applies to anything done in connection with the content of the curriculum”.

Again, these pieces of legislation are ill equipped to deal with ACE’s unusual teaching methods. In ACE, it doesn’t make sense to talk about a distinction between the content of the books and what is taught, because during PACE time, the students teach themselves from workbooks. In ACE, textbook content and classroom delivery amount to the same thing. In my view, if the PACEs are saying things which a teacher could not lawfully say to students, then they must be contrary to the Equality Act. So what can teachers lawfully say in class about gender? Can they say wives must submit to their husbands?

I’m interested in this part of the UK Equality Act:

(2) The responsible body of such a school must not discriminate against a pupil—

(a) in the way it provides education for the pupil;

(b) in the way it affords the pupil access to a benefit, facility or service;

(c) by not providing education for the pupil;

(d) by not affording the pupil access to a benefit, facility or service;

(e) by excluding the pupil from the school;

(f) by subjecting the pupil to any other detriment.

If a school were teaching girls that there were certain roles of leadership which are not open to them, or that they must obey and submit to their husbands, or that they could be responsible for provoking male lust, would this count as discrimination against girls?

If it would not, then isn’t the UK failing in its obligation to end all forms of discrimination against women?

This post refers extensively to LKN-2001-1, the Equality Board of Appeals report on the Accelerated Christian Education case in Norway (Klagenemnda for likestilling – LKN-2001-1). This was painstakingly translated into English by Tulpesh Patel—hours of work that he did free of charge. It’d be great if Tulpesh could get some recognition for his efforts. Click on the Donate button in the sidebar, or click here to donate something (even £1 or $1 would be welcome), mark your donation “Tulpesh Patel”, and I’ll send him the money.

Here’s the full report in Norwegian, and here’s Tulpesh’s translation in English

Check out Tulpesh’s blog Scicommbobulate (it’s in English!).

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