BANNING PARENTS FROM RE OPTOUT

RE has hit the headlines again this week, with Derek Holloway, the Church of England’s lead RE officer, stating that parents should be banned from removing their children from RE lessons. A number of reasons are given, which contain some very broad, and false, assumptions.

Parts of the reasoning are, frankly, sinister. There are oblique references to far right political groups, religious fundamentalists and minority faith groups, all lumped together and all creating a ‘dangerous’ precedent. This is exactly the kind of hysterical rhetoric that fans the flames of suspicion, hatred and distrust. If you’re going to make inflammatory accusations, at least have the courage to name these ‘dangerous’ people. Surely the Church, of all institutions, should be engaging in dialogue to promote understanding and trust?

No doubt there are parents who use the opt-out to select and control what their children learn about religion. I don’t think they should, but I defend their right to do so. But it’s also a false assumption that a few hours of RE lessons will reverse the effects of a home culture. The Church assumes too much power to itself if it really thinks that a school curriculum can change society. People change society – children and young people don’t learn to ‘live well together’ because of RE lessons. They learn to live within the communities in which they are raised and they learn to live well when the adults that raise them are compassionate, respectful and empathetic models.

Even more concerning is the quality of the flimsy information on which the call to ban the opt-out is based.  No evidence is provided beyond social media comment and anecdotal feedback from some RE advisers. Since when did social media constitute empirical evidence or valid grounds to change the law?

And last but certainly not least, opt out should be protected for one very simple reason – sometimes, teachers get it wrong. I once had to use the right myself as a parent, in a situation which became unnecessarily distressing.

The school which my children attended included a visit to the local Buddhist monastery as part of the Year 9 RE curriculum – it was a popular visit which was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. However, one year the teacher responsible decided that students would participate in a meditation session in the temple. My child politely asked to be excused from this particular activity as they were unhappy with participating in a religious act, although they were happy to observe. Permission was refused and the result was one very angry fourteen-year-old. I wrote to the teacher concerned, explaining that students had the right not to actively participate in religious observance and I assumed that my letter would conclude the matter. It didn’t.

I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I had provoked this action purely because I am a Christian, and I could hear the word ‘bigoted’ hanging unspoken in the air. In fact, although my child came to church quite happily and enjoyed a busy church-centred social life, there was a clear understanding that active worship wouldn’t be part of the experience. The objection was to being required to participate in any form of religious activity, in any context. It was a step too far.

Eventually the issue reached the Deputy Head and I had to invoke my parental right of withdrawal. But by then the whole trip had been ruined. My child had to publicly defend a principle against a teacher who ridiculed their position (I’m proud of the fact that this was done both respectfully and robustly) and I had to intervene not because of my own belief, but to defend my child’s right to not believe.

So, teachers get it wrong and the opt-out must remain. I was not ‘exploiting’ my right as a parent. I was exercising my duty to defend my child’s views against power-broking adults. I was not ‘breaking the law and seeking to incite religious hatred’ as charged by this article. I was requiring a school to show respect for my child’s wish not to participate in religious observance.

The Church may believe that the right for parents to withdraw children from RE should be repealed. But you cannot remove parental opt-out in one context without removing it in all others. The new Relationships Education curriculum is unlikely to privilege the teaching of marriage and family as the essential building blocks of a strong society. So will the Church, which has welcomed these government proposals, demand that parental rights are removed from RSE, too? You cannot embrace a pick ‘n’ mix approach to opt out. Either parents can exercise their right to remove their children from any or all teaching which conflicts with their religious, philosophical or moral views, or from none of it.

However deplorable the Church of England may find views which are contrary to its own, it is not for the Church, the state, or anyone else, to dictate to parents on matters of belief or conscience.

MEASURING HAPPINESS

According to the latest report from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, 15 year olds in the UK are amongst the unhappiest in the world. The full wellbeing study involved 540,000 young people in 72 countries, although only 48 of those countries took part in the happiness measuring part of the study. With 15.6 percent of British respondents saying they were unhappy, the UK ranked 38th out of 48.

That is one way of looking at the statistics and one on which headline writers were keen seize. Despite the dystopian gloom, when asked how they felt about life, the average score for life satisfaction was 6.98, while 28 per cent of those questioned said they were very satisfied with their lives. So what are the factors which make a difference?

Given the amount of time and money devoted to this study (the rationale document alone runs to 270 pages) it is surprising that the conclusions derived from a mass of data only tells us what we already know. That is, that teenagers who feel part of their school communities and who enjoy good relationships with their teachers are more likely to be happy and perform well at school.

It’s also no surprise that ‘parents can make a big difference’. Students are happier (and perform better academically) when their parents take time to talk to them, engage in some kind of activity such as eating a meal together, and take an interest in what they are doing in school. In other words, strong family relationships lead to happier, more secure teenagers who ‘develop a sense of control over their future and the resilience they need to be successful in life’. And that works best when parents, teachers and students all work together. No surprise there, then, as any caring parent or teacher could have told you, without the need for the study.

The reasons which teenagers give for their dissatisfaction are also no surprise. They centre on anxiety about academic performance and bullying, both of which are already voiced as concerns on a regular basis. When we live in a culture of measurement where students are valued solely for their exam results and potential as future economic units serving the god Economy, is this any surprise? It’s further confirmed by the fact that the countries which are top Pisa test performers (China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao) also report the highest levels of unhappiness, exceeding those in the UK. Proof, if it were needed, that valuing academic performance rather than the person performing is a sure route to unhappiness.

Bullying is also endemic in many of our schools; again, an understandable fact of life when the only thing that matters is the race to the top. Statistics in other studies show that 84 percent of disabled young people report bullying and the commonest reasons for being bullied are red hair and body shape. Boys, according to the OECD study, are more likely to be a victim of physically aggressive bullying, while girls are more afraid of spiteful rumours. Again, no surprise, and no need for a study to demonstrate what we already know – bullying is the ugly face of our society and teenagers are simply following the model provided for them.

But the question is, what do we do about it? The 2010 Equality Act, together with extensive programmes to enforce it in schools, should have made bullying a thing of the past. Clearly, it has failed. That is, in part, because it requires students to respect ideas, points of view, beliefs and personal opinions. We should be teaching children to respect people as fellow human beings, not what they think or believe.

But there is a much more fundamental cause of the lack of happiness in our young people and it isn’t one that schools can solve, because it is a problem created by wider society. One of the aspects of unhappiness that the OECD notably failed to study was the impact of family breakdown on young people, even though this is one of the most commonly cited reasons for unhappiness. It’s not just about broken relationships within the family, but also about lost friendships when the breakdown necessitates house and school moves.

So, in order to start nurturing strong, secure teenagers, let’s prioritise stable marriage and strong family life in our proposed Relationships Education curriculum. Study after study shows that strong families are the route to strong communities and societies. Let’s value our children and young people for who they are, not what they can do – people made in the image of God and loved by Him.

When, as they did so many times, the people of Israel turned their backs on God and went their own way, the prophet Jeremiah told them that God had plans for them, plans to give them hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). And that is what we all want for our children and young people – hope and a future. It’s a hope that is found in the gospel of Christ.

 

THE CASE FOR PRIVILEGING MARRIAGE AND FAMILY

‘Families are the most important institution in our society. We have to do everything in our power to strengthen them’, proclaimed David Cameron in 2009: very few would disagree. A recent amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill, to include Relationships Education in all schools, says that children are to be taught to respect relationships of every kind as being equal. Except that, by the government’s own declaration, they are not. One relationship – that of family, is the foundation on which a strong and stable society is built. So why is it not privileged above all other relationships?

From the beginning of human existence, people have lived together in families – the book of Genesis describes Adam and Eve living and working together, and raising their children together. Family is the place where we raise our young, giving them love and care, and creating a place of safety until they reach maturity and are ready to take their own place in the world. Family provides a framework within which we pass on values to the next generation – something we do whether or not we act intentionally. Every action we take and every conversation we have transmits something of our values to our children. Family is a place to share the fun and the sadness of life and a place where parents protect their children from the harm of outside influences until they are ready to meet the challenges of life. You just need to look at the depth of parental concern about protecting their children online to see that instinct in evidence.

But family is not just a private matter. Family is a public institution, because it is where we learn how to care for others as we are cared for, how to trust others as we are trusted, and where we learn to live at peace with others. Our belief in the value of family is so central to our thinking that children are adopted into a new family when their birth family breaks down.

And yet, Relationships Education won’t privilege family. Why not? Because relationships would no longer then be equal; because we would have to acknowledge that exclusivity and faithfulness within marriage are necessary for families to be strong and stable. Because to do so would be to create a hierarchy of relationship.

That would, of course, conflict with the liberal equality agenda, which says that everyone can live as they wish as long as nobody gets hurt. The outworking of that, though, is that the most vulnerable people, ie children, do get hurt, because they have no voice. And so, slowly but surely, we are teaching successive generations of children that relationships are transitory, only lasting until it’s time to move on, as if the need to please ourselves somehow makes us victims of circumstance, rather than being the person in control.

In 2014, David Cameron returned to his theme of family, saying, ‘I think it’s absolutely right that government should do everything possible to help support and strengthen family life in Britain today…doctors, teachers and police officers listen to their patients, pupils and the local community instead of ministers and bureaucrats in Westminster, Whitehall and the town hall.’ So, let that be the basis on which RSE is founded. Teachers and governors listen to parents and pupils, not central government. Consult parents on curriculum content and allow them to retain the right to remove their child when that content directly conflicts with their moral or religious views. And above all, privilege family and marriage as the key foundations on which to build society.