Animal farming in schools and the right to education according to ethical convictions

by Dr Jeanette Rowley

This week, it was reported in the news that vegans were outraged that pigs, raised on school property and used to teach young pupils about animal farming, were to be sent away to eventually be killed.

From the news reports, it appears that the ‘minority’ views of objecting vegan parents were regarded to be insignificant. The head, Chris Willsher of Priestlands School in Lymington, Hampshire, apparently justified his actions in an email communication to a vegan parent saying that “… realistically, we live in a community where the meat-eaters outnumber the vegetarians and vegans.” His statement does not tally with the schools stated value to respect and recognise the diverse backgrounds of all students and ensure all pupils are educated according to ‘citizenship’ principles. The school states on its website that:

The purpose of citizenship education is to equip the next generation of voters with the knowledge and drive to create change in the world around them. Not only are they taught the factual knowledge that will help them to understand the way that the world around them works, but also provides them with the skills they will need to effect change in the world around them, whether this be at a local, national or international level. Citizenship is delivered through many subjects across the curriculum…

Despite promoting the expected standards and values, it seems that vegan parents and pupils must submit to the misinformed majority when it comes to teaching young pupils the ethics of care and compassion for other sentient life. The Head’s statement is of enormous gravity and central to a discussion about power relationships and the legal obligations of schools to provide a suitable educational environment and atmosphere for young vegan pupils.

The right of parents to the provision of education that conforms to their moral convictions is provided in Article 2 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention). It was considered crucial by the drafters of the Convention to include this right, so that schools could not function as places of indoctrination. The aim was to ensure that the curriculum would be inclusive by being taught in an ‘objective, critical and pluralistic’ manner.

At the drafting stage of the Convention, there was widespread disagreement about the proposed content of including a specific right to education according to moral beliefs. Many questions were raised, such as what would be considered appropriate state education, to what extent should the state fund education to accommodate the various moral convictions of the parents of school pupils and how might the state ensure a balance between appropriate education and interference with the right to freedom of conscience.

Agreement on how to explicate this right was not achieved in time for the 1950 signing of the Convention and it was decided to deal with it later by including a Protocol. Throughout the discussion process, however, there was agreement on one issue: school pupils were vulnerable to abuse of power and could be indoctrinated into oppressive regimes. Such conditions would be contrary to fundamental human rights, the needs of democracy and create an unjust educational environment.

Discussions were completed and, in 1952, the First Protocol was ready for signing. It reads:

No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

It must be noted that the Protocol is to be read alongside the whole Convention and with specific reference to the Article 9 right to freedom of conscience. In addition, ‘the word “respect” means more than “acknowledge” or “taken into account”; in addition to a primarily negative undertaking, it implies some positive obligation on the part of the State…’

In 1952, the UK Signed the (First) Protocol, registering a ‘reservation’ against the Article 2 right to education – only to limit its duty in terms of efficiency and avoid unreasonable expenses in the provision of education according to the moral rights of parents. This reservation does not affect the obligation to respect the right of parents to teaching that is aligned with ethical convictions. It remains a right that protects diversity, democracy and the development of plural society. It is a right that targets the psychological harm of indoctrination.

Though relevant case law in this area highlights the complexities of one size fits all education system, it remains that the state cannot develop a curriculum and schools cannot teach a subject in a way that marginalises neither pupils nor important and cogent philosophies. It means that all the ethical convictions that qualify as important and serious under the Convention, must be given due regard in teaching (it is now quite well-known now that veganism has been dealt with by the European Court of Human Rights and qualifies according the criteria for protection).To justify an educational school practice by saying “… realistically, we live in a community where the meat-eaters outnumber the vegetarians and vegans” and at the same time disregard the vegan voice, indicates a grossly negligent omission to attend to legal obligations that are in place to target the imbalance of power and marginalisation of pupils in schools.

The critical issue in this matter is, of course, the archaic idea that there is homogenous agreement that animal farming is socially and morally acceptable, and that vegans are a static minority group who will just have to live with what they refuse to accept. This long-standing idea has the support of the state and all its institutions. It has been called speciesism, a form of entrenched prejudice establishing a dominant narrative in which it has been easy to dismiss veganism and justify the exclusion of the vegan voice. Despite the provisions of human rights and equality law, the claims of vegans are judged in the context of an entrenched prejudice against nonhuman animals. The narrative sets the agenda for the debate and the claims of vegans are assessed, in law, against the ‘legitimate aims’ of ‘legitimate’ enterprises that are protected by a falsehood that nonhuman animals are resources for human gain. Overall, vegans are set against the speciesist interests of the majority, but the marginalised in this matter are not only the objecting vegans: their disadvantage is nothing compared to that of the living beings that the school has mercilessly appropriated to create unnecessary projects, and who will now be subjected to a horrific end to their precious, short lives.

If the reports are correct, this school is bowing to institutionalised prejudice against nonhuman animals and, by dismissing the voice of vegans, is implementing a teaching policy that pertains to indoctrination. It is clearly either disregarding or out of touch with its anti-oppressive obligations under not only Article 2 of the First Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, but under one of the most important human rights obligations expressed by Article 18  of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This Article recognises and gives legal effect to the most formative human right of all – the right to live according to freedom of conscience, free from any coercion or impairment that would affect our freedom to choose an ethical direction. It is of great significance that attached to this Article is a provision obligating signatories to provide moral education for our children in conformity with our convictions (18.4). The right to freedom of conscience is tied up with a prohibition on indoctrination and explicitly warns that educational establishments are potential sites of oppression and inequality.

But what is equally important is that this Article exists to ensure that people benefit from the social and political conditions in which they can freely adopt ethical values. There must be no coercion or impairment that would affect a person’s choice. By conceding to the views of the majority, the Head of the school in question imposes a burden of marginalisation on veganism, making it difficult for those interested, curious and transitioning to adopt and maintain an alternative way of life. These conditions are unacceptable. As the vegan in the report states “[w]e should be teaching children compassion towards animals,” and “I find it difficult to see how we can teach them to be compassionate to all around them when we choose to exploit the most vulnerable in the most hideous of ways.”

What must be addressed, as a serious matter in our education system, is the false assumption and doctrinal message that nonhuman animals exist for our pleasure, our greed, and for ‘food’. Questions the Head of this school should answer revolve around his legal duty to ensure that the school teaches an anti-oppressive, critical, objective and plural curriculum. How did the school teach animal farming critically? How did it teach, objectively, the sentient status of nonhuman animals? How did it comply with the prohibition on indoctrination and marginalisation? How did it ensure that the rights of parents for the moral education of their vegan children were respected? And how did it ensure a psychologically safe learning environment for its vegan pupils?

Instead of justifying educational practices by referring to the minority status of vegans, the Head ought to have been alerted to the real and serious imbalance of power, and the inevitable accompanying marginalisation of vegan stakeholders. What is required, in this school and all schools, is teaching in the vegan paradigm of ethics and justice. This will address institutional entrenched prejudice and bring nonhuman animals from the margins to the centre. It will give the young pupils a chance to be released from unethical, speciesist indoctrination and return to their natural tendency to identify with other animals. Importantly, it will ensure that the rights of vegan parents are respected in accordance with current law, and that the needs of existing and transitioning vegan pupils are met. Furthermore, it will be compliant with the prohibition on coercion and offer all pupils the chance to adopt another philosophy and way of life, as is their right under international, regional and domestic human rights law.