CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS AND THE SECULAR AGENDA

In June of last year, I wrote a response to the criticism of a group of Christian schools. Several of the schools were due for Ofsted inspections, and I ended the blog with the words ‘Watch this space…’ suggesting that outcomes would ‘probably be determined solely by the current social orthodoxy… even at the expense of denying parents their right to educate their children “in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions” ‘. And that is exactly what has happened.

During a two day period in October, 10 schools within the group were simultaneously inspected, in each case by an HMI, even though previous inspection categorisations were mostly good or outstanding. The behaviour, courtesy and respect of pupils was of particular note, as it was in this recent series of inspections. Nevertheless, the outcomes, as I suggested, reflect the government’s agenda of imposing its one-size-fits-all agenda on all schools, regardless of their size and ethos. Here’s the odd thing – very little has changed in these schools since their last inspections, yet they have fallen to ‘Unsatisfactory’ or ‘Requiring Improvement’ even though they are doing nothing different. It’s an anomaly that the press was quick to spot, drawing the logical conclusion that Ofsted is picking on Christian schools.

The reports show some odd anomalies, too. One school was penalised for the lack of pupil-only toilet facilities, yet many new school builds force teachers and pupils to use the same toilets. Have these schools been similarly penalised, or was Ofsted looking for an excuse?

The provision of high quality careers advice is raised in some of these reports, and this has caused problems for Christian schools in the past. There are two issues here. The first is the capacity of a small school to provide careers advisers. The other issue is more fundamental. The current philosophy of careers advice is focused entirely on providing information about access to wealth creating employment. But for Christians, life is about being the person God created and gifted us to be. That may, or may not, involve higher education and a lucrative career, but any schools falling short of promoting this are being censured at inspection for failing to prepare their pupils for life in modern Britain.

Inspectors also appear to have taken an undue interest in the science curriculum, particularly the teaching of evolution. Why was just one small strand of the curriculum the focus of so much attention? And in all the schools visited? There was clearly a pre-determined agenda and Ofsted seems unaware that it is still legal to teach about a creator God.

After the publication of the reports, things became a little clearer. The Independent ran an article containing its previous content, together with allegations about historic abuse, before proudly claiming that the Ofsted inspections were as a direct result of their investigation. Since when did Ofsted schedule inspections at the behest of the media?

Former pupil Jonny Scaramanga is calling for a specific inquiry into ACE schools, saying that the inspections ‘do not go far enough’. Is he an HMI? Was he at each of the schools inspected in order to deliver this as a professional judgment? Or does he just have an axe to grind, seeing an opportunity to carve out a career in criticism?

And finally, there’s a huge question mark hanging over the role of the British Humanist Association in all of this, with its support of former pupils who claim that ACE schools espouse ‘a fundamentalist, creationist, homophobic, and misogynistic Christian ideology’. The website states that ‘The British Humanist Association has met with the Department for Education on numerous occasions to bring these issues to its attention’, apparently claiming success for having finally provoked action against ACE schools. Since when has a small anti-faith campaign group been able to influence government policy?

Can the government not see what’s going on here? There is a clear agenda, written by the BHA and a couple of former disgruntled students. After some sensational (but largely evidence free) promotion by a single journalist at The Independent, the Department for Education has responded. It is not the first example of the whistle-blowing mentality that is now so popular at the DfE. And those blowing the whistles are believed, with no thought given to the fact that they might be embittered, opposed to Christianity, or just plain wrong.

Ofsted is supposed to be an impartial judge. The Department for Education has been appointed by a democratically elected government with a responsibility to fairly represent all citizens, regardless of belief. The right of parents to teach their children within their community is enshrined in law, even when the values of that community are not consistent with those of wider society.

So why are Christian schools being kicked into touch by the government purely on the say-so of some disgruntled former pupils, a journalist with an axe to grind and an anti-faith campaign group? The Department of Education has some serious questions to answer about its attitude to the role of faith in contemporary society, parental rights in education and the neutrality of Ofsted.

THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION: SOCIAL COHESION

The concept of social cohesion was born in 2001, as the outcome of a report by Ted Cantle. Looking at white and Asian communities, he concluded that people were living parallel lives with little contact between the two contrasting cultures. The report attempted to present positive ways of creating a diverse society in which people of different faiths, cultures and communities could live together to the good of all.

The intention was to work towards the dictionary definition of cohesion: ‘the forming of a united whole’. Fifteen years on, social cohesion means something rather different – something much closer to the scientific definition of cohesion as being ‘the sticking together of particles of the same substance’. Where faith was seen as an essential part of personal and community identity, it is now seen as something toxic that should only be expressed in private.

Then, faith schools were seen as positive community spaces; they could play a part in shaping a cohesive society by building bridges between diverse groups. Now they are regularly described in the press as ‘silos of segregation’ which are responsible for creating ghettoes. There are groups such as the Accord Coalition and Fair Admissions Campaign which argue for open access to faith schools (even though many of them already are) and humanist and secular activists that are calling for faith to be removed from all schools. If only, the argument goes, expression of religion was removed from all public spaces, we could use schools to build a socially cohesive country.

But they miss various key points about faith. What we believe, our worldview, is part of our individual identity and therefore a vital part of how we see the world and how we interact with others in that world, not just those within our own communities. Imagine if a government suddenly decided that in order for everyone to be equal we should be a neutral skin colour when in public, say green. We could be any skin colour we like in private and in our own community, but in public, we must be green in order to overcome racial prejudice or stereotyping. Ridiculous? Of course.

Yet that is exactly what the liberal secular argument suggests about faith. Leave your identity at home. In public, you can only express approved, liberal thoughts; we must all think the same. But as France is finding out, requiring a public conformity that denies individual identity in the cause of enforcing secular orthodoxy is costly. It drives resentment underground. Western society is seeing not greater cohesion, but increasing polarisation.

So, if our personal systems of belief (and humanism and secularism are both belief systems which inform a worldview) are part of our uniquely individual identity, how can we create this ‘united whole’ from such diversity? The answer is relationship and that is at the heart of our Christian faith, because God is relational.

The apostle Paul was teaching in a similarly polarised society and he wrote to the church in Galatia that ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). Belief, race, gender or status don’t matter to God, so they shouldn’t matter to us. And the Bible has plenty to say about how that should affect the way we live in the world. We should value others above ourselves, bear with one another, love, forgive and be like faithful friends.

The key to social cohesion can’t be found in government mandate or academic reports. It isn’t about enforcing a single orthodoxy in all of our schools. It isn’t about removing faith from the public square. It’s about the quality of relationships. It’s about building bridges between people based on foundations of respect, regardless of difference.

Paul urged people in the church in Rome to ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’ (Romans 12:15-18). The key to a genuinely cohesive society lies with you and it lies with me as we live our faith in our communities.

THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION: ECONOMIC GROWTH

‘Education is the engine of our economy’, according to Schools Minister, Nick Gibb. Its purpose is to prepare the next generation of workers to feed the Minotaur which we have created; a controlling monster which must be constantly sated to allow us to compete globally. And so a society which has built itself on the ‘shifting sands of self service’ has designed an education system underpinned by the values of consumerism and individualism. We are, quite simply, valuing our children and young people by their potential monetary worth and, in the process, teaching them to use the same measure in valuing others.

This thinking pervades government policy and therefore curriculum content. Language lessons teach us to navigate other countries as tourist-consumers, not as guests. Maths teaches students to think about what they can get, but rarely what they can give. There is a 16+ core maths skill programme which focuses on how to split the bill when you didn’t have wine, but not whether you might miss a social event occasionally and contribute to a food bank collection instead. It teaches how to source the most cost-effective mortgage, but nowhere does it suggest that renting may be a better option than buying. It offers nothing at all to those young people who face the prospect of remaining with their parents because they can’t earn enough to finance any other choice.

When she was Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan became very enthusiastic about a scheme that used tax data to show which degree subjects yielded the most lucrative careers – the database could then be used to inform A level choices. Subjects were classified as ‘facilitating’ and ‘non-facilitating’ depending on their economic worth, and suddenly I found myself after a lifetime in teaching and youth work labelled a non-facilitator by virtue of having studied music at university. Directed by government mandate, we educate children to know the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.

The result is communities disjointed by envious competition. Society’s economy is founded on transaction; acquisition; wealth, and the constant question: What’s in it for me? And it’s this self interest that creates our current economic model, not the other way around. As Justin Welby observes: ‘We believe that if we can fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will automatically follow … It is a lie …that casts money, rather than humanity, as the protagonist of God’s story’.

Contrast that with God’s economy. It’s one of relationship; of limitless love and free grace, and of the question: Who has God created me to be? In Christian terms ‘education is intended to draw out the full human potential of each child of God’. Take a look at What If Learning for an example of what this looks like in practice, when teaching and learning are rooted in Christian faith, hope and love. Instead of a curriculum designed to create economically successful units, it offers a curriculum that embeds in its approach the love of God for His creation and the dignity of every person.

The Westminster Catechism says that our ‘chief end …is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’. What difference would it make to our teaching if we fully embraced that, provoking awe and wonder through our teaching and sharing our enjoyment of God as creator of this wonderful world in which we live?