I’m an agnostic. (I used to be an atheist but I couldn’t handle the commitment.) Anyway, there is a part of me that feels deeply uncomfortable about teaching God in schools. I love teaching religion, though: whether it’s Rama and Sita or Buddha under the Bo tree or stories of the Prophet or Jesus’s preaching, there’s something that inspires wonder about having children of any age think about the Big Questions and how our main faiths have tried to answer them. Religions of all kinds have some of the best stories, too.
I struggle, though, with Teaching God, by which I mean telling kids that God Did This or This Happened. Elsewhere in the curriculum, we as teachers say that there are no absolute certainties, except in mathematics. In literacy, we learn about viewpoints and how to distinguish between fact and opinion. In science, we teach children that everything has to be tested and checked to make sure it’s right. In Key Stage 2 and even earlier, children learn that even a website such as Wikipedia should be viewed with a degree of scepticism since anyone can write an entry. So why then tell them that X happened because the Bible says so?
There’s a really odd split in schools, between developing a sense of nuance and critical enquiry on one hand, but on the other saying “THIS HAPPENED. THIS DEFINITELY HAPPENED BECAUSE IT’S IN AN OLD BOOK.” There have been times when I’ve seen in schools this kind of puzzled hand-raising met with a stern “because I said so” and I’ve been desperately disappointed. We’ve been trying to encourage children to have a critical kind of thought, and as soon as they show it, we squash it.
While other countries bin religion at the school gate, our schools are the result of a botched settlement in the 1944 Education Act, which brought (mainly rural) schools run by religious foundations under the control of the state, sweetened by a guarantee of teaching religious education. What that means in practice is that schools have to teach RE, but parents can withdraw children (and teachers can withdraw from teaching it, though we’ll come to why that’s a nonsense in a minute). Schools under local authority control are often pinned down into ‘daily collective worship’ as well, although that’s often fudged into a ‘celebration assembly’ or secular alternative with maybe a couple of hymns.
I can tell you that in practice it also means you can be asked at a job interview to be a teacher how you would ‘fit in’ to the ‘Christian ethos’ of the school. Schools can advertise for candidates as being ‘ideally a practising [Catholic]’. Some school interview panels or selection panels may contain a vicar or other religious type. Essentially, religious discrimination is not only tolerated, but completely OK. And no one seems to have a problem with this.
Maybe it’s me who has the problem. Maybe your religion is the most important part of being a teacher and I should either just lie about it or recognise that I will only ever be suitable to teach in the more secular schools. I can’t help thinking that some good teachers might be turned down because of their beliefs rather than because of their abilities. (Sure, you could apply to a religious school but excuse yourself from all religious components – I wonder how that would go down…?)
So with all that said, let’s talk about the situation in Staffordshire, where a school sent out an extraordinary letter (I’m linking to the Daily Mail here, but there it is) telling parents that their children had to attend a workshop on other faiths and cultures, and that if children were kept away, they would have a discrimination note placed on their permanent records.
First things first. Learning about other cultures is a good thing, whether it’s a visit to the local synagogue or having a priest come in to tell you what happens at their church. Education is all about opening children’s eyes to things they might not have experienced yet. In some areas where there’s a very diverse mix of different groups, children may meet a lot of children from other backgrounds; in others, they might not meet anyone else who comes from anywhere different, or is any different. It’s in the latter where I think it’s most important to do the reaching out, to stop children from being isolated in their own community and not seeing any further than a mile or two down the road.
So, a workshop on another religion is a good idea, especially in an area like Staffordshire where there have been a lot of tensions down the years. At some schools you might not meet anyone from a different background and it’s a worthy thing to broaden children’s horizons to show that, whatever they might have heard at home about other people, they can make up their own minds from what they see and experience. Some children stay in little islands of their own locality, never meeting anyone else, never seeing beyond a bus ride away; in that kind of climate, fear and prejudice can take over, if they’re allowed to.
Where the grey area comes in is making something about another religion compulsory – because for an ordinary RE lesson, parents have the right to withdraw children. Sure, you can say it’s topic work, or PSHE or something like that, but it becomes confusing. For example, I was teaching at a school recently where a letter was sent out telling parents at a (mainly Muslim) school that they had the right to withdraw their children from a part of the school play which had a nativity scene. Understandable, you might think. Imagine if that letter had said those children had to attend, under pain of being labelled racists.
It’s all about the tone, I think, and what it implies. Perhaps there had been a lot of resistance to the idea of a workshop on Islam in that area, and perhaps parents were threatening to take their children out of school. If you see that letter as a response to that, it becomes a tiny bit more understandable – though it is still painfully overbearing and threatening.
The problem is, on the one hand, some schools are allowed to be so religious they can basically discriminate on religious grounds. On the other hand, parents are supposed to have the choice. In my opinion, the problem comes from there not being a clear definition of where religion ends and school begins. If we knew all state schools were secular, and that was that, there would be some clarity. Church schools could opt out.
Heavy-handed and threatening letters from schools don’t help. They are easy ammunition for the likes of the Daily Mail to pursue a ‘political correctness gone mad’ agenda and portray education as a liberal-left bastion trying to enforce multiculturalism on parents. As ever, the extreme outliers are seized upon as evidence of a wider truth that doesn’t really exist.
Tone is so important. Choice is important. If parents want to opt children out of mathematics, they shouldn’t; if they want to opt them out of studying another religion, I think that’s permissible, even if I think it would be a good thing for children to study as many other cultures as they can before they leave school. You can’t force diversity on people; it doesn’t work. And as any teacher knows, if you try and use only negative sanctions to try and enforce compliance, all you will find is resistance.
In the meantime, there seems little pressure to try and secularise education, and we’re left with an unhappy compromise.