Category Archives: Comment

HURLING HAND GRENADES

It’s not a headline you expect to read – a vicar observing that parents have been hurling a hand grenade into a school. But that’s exactly what Rev Giles Walter of St John’s in Tunbridge Wells is saying after a group of parents seemed determined to drive Christian teaching out of a Church of England primary school.

In addition to demanding the removal of Christian groups from the school, the St John’s Concerned Parents group is also demanding the removal of all crosses, Bibles and clergy.The problem, though, doesn’t only lie with the parents.

The school in question has built strong links into the local community, and assemblies and the Christian units of the RE curriculum have been delivered effectively for years by workers in the local parish church, together with CrossTeach, a charity based in Tunbridge Wells which offers support to schools on a voluntary basis. The Vicar has been taking assemblies for 24 years and CrossTeach has been working in the school for 15 years. Nothing they are doing has changed. And yet on Monday, the head decided to banish not only the charity but also parish workers from taking any further RE lessons or assemblies, saying that ‘the past few months have been stressful, tiring and a distraction from our focus’. He has, however, allowed CrossTeach to continue running a club which children can attend voluntarily.

It seems it all began earlier this year when some parents raised concerns at the Parents Forum – minutes of the meeting show that the head passed on those concerns to the church. Presumably, this didn’t resolve the situation, as a formal complaint was made to the governors. Not content with this, the parents started an online social media campaign against the teaching of Christianity in the school, claiming that nothing was being done about their concerns. On Monday, for the purpose of restoring peace, the head decided to act.

His actions, however sincerely motivated, are seriously misguided: the repercussions will go far beyond the walls of his school. Why has the head made this knee-jerk reaction while the governors are still considering the complaint and coming to an evidence-based conclusion? In part, the evidence shows that some of the parents’ claims relate to ‘assemblies which had nothing to do with CrossTeach or from events at local churches’, so why was he not led by the evidence?

The head does assert that ‘CrossTeach has not done anything wrong… they do not deserve the tarnishing of their good name and allegations of extremism that have taken place over the last few months’, but in the ‘best interests of all concerned’ he still went ahead and excluded them from RE lessons and assemblies anyway. The head is fed up with noise from a small group of parents who don’t like Christianity being taught in a church school, so he has punished all groups equally, even before due process is complete.

One thing is for sure – succumbing to activist parents will leave this head very vulnerable next time a different group of parents want their own way – he has shown his willingness to cave to parental pressure regardless of the truth or justice of a situation. And with an Ofsted inspection long overdue, he should probably expect the phone call any day now, having drawn so much attention to himself this week in the national media.

He now has to lead a fractured school; a community in which he has allowed a few parents (just 25) to dictate policy at the expense of the many. By criticising their workers, he has damaged his relationship with a parish church which has offered spiritual and pastoral support to the school for so many years. He may protest that it’s the fault of the parents, but he alone must accept the consequences of acting independently of his governing body and against the will of the ‘quiet majority’. The loss he has caused to his school and the wider community is immeasurable.

And where was the diocese in all of this? You might hope they would be robustly defending the teaching of Christianity in a Church of England school. Instead, the Diocesan Director of Education issued a statement expressing his gratitude for their action. It rather begs a question about the role of the DDE in the head’s decision.

Sadly, the repercussions from this reached much further. Anti-Christian lobby groups leapt on the news with unconcealed glee, renewing calls for tax funded faith schools to be closed and congratulating parents for their success in getting Christianity thrown out of the school. One group even posted online ‘Well done to the Kent parents who got an extreme Christian homophobe group removed from future school assemblies’. If that isn’t intolerant, from an organisation that prides itself on spreading tolerance and kindness, then what is?

And so, the secular liberalists trot out their warped and well-worn accusations for another airing. Christians are homophobic. Christians are toxic. Christians proselytise. Christians are extremist. Religion is divisive. Christianity is a damaging ideology. Christians are hate-filled extremists.

To respond:

  • Parents have a legal right to remove their children from RE lessons and assemblies. There’s no justification for small but very vocal minorities to insist on removing Christianity from schools.
  • Part of high quality RE teaching involves examining Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, sin and life after death. If you disagree with the Bible, critique it and present a robust argument against it. Simply calling something toxic because you disagree with it is not a valid form of debate.
  • RE teaching is not confessional and therefore does not proselytise. Children are taught about belief. They are not taught to believe.
  • Disagreement and divisiveness are two different things. It’s important to know the difference, particularly in an academic setting.
  • Christians are not hate filled. The social capital created by Christian churches in our society has been recognised by successive governments – one recent report made it clear that were it not for religious groups, voluntary youth work in this country would scarcely exist.

Graham Nicholls, speaking for Affinity, an umbrella group of which CrossTeach is a member, said it is a ‘sad reflection on the misunderstanding and suspicion there is about Christianity in Britain today’. Groups like CrossTeach, together with church workers the length and breadth of the country, work in our schools to introduce children and young people to what Christians believe the Bible says: students evaluate what they hear for themselves.

Banning Christianity might solve a short term local problem for this head, but in the bigger picture it just serves to increase and further embed the misunderstanding and suspicion on which the parents’ campaign was founded.

HOW SHOULD WE BE TEACHING RE?

Earlier this year, I asked if we should still be teaching RE. During the course of this year, RE Commissioners have collected evidence and points of view about Religious Education from a wide range of contexts. After visiting many schools and sifting through mountains of written and oral evidence, the Commissioners recently published their interim report Religious Education for All. This is to be followed by the full report in September 2018.

The overwhelming conclusion from the process to date is that we should certainly still be teaching RE – that question is no longer being debated. But the Commissioners now have the difficult task of determining what that should look like in a multicultural society where many think that religion is merely an historical artefact. To help in these deliberations, a period of consultation has just started, during which anyone is free to register a view – you can check through the consultation questions here.

First, the history of RE teaching in this country, which is best understood as an eccentrically English phenomenon. Religious Education is a statutory subject – every school must teach RE to the age of 16 and every school should be inspected for its RE provision. Faith schools write their own curricula, teaching RE through the lens of their particular faith. Before the state got involved in education (and compared with Christians, they were very late to the party) this was essentially either Anglican or Catholic. The Jewish faith also has a long tradition of education in the UK. These schools not only provide their own curricula, they are also inspected by diocesan inspectors – Ofsted cannot inspect RE provision in a school with a religious designation. One suggestion is that this should be standardised and under some form of central control.

All other schools used to follow a Locally Agreed Syllabus, produced by their Local Authority’s Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE). As academies and free schools are able to design their own curricula, they don’t have to use the Agreed Syllabus. In fact, the evidence shows that many academies and free schools have taken advantage of this freedom and don’t teach any RE at all. They are breaking the law with impunity and Ofsted is doing nothing about it.

One solution to the range of provisions that have evolved is to establish a National Entitlement to RE by which all schools, regardless of their status, would be bound. You can find the proposed entitlement on page 12 of the consultation document. It would certainly offer cohesion and clarity, whilst still allowing faith schools to teach according to the tenets of their own faith. Questions 53-57 give you an opportunity to comment on a National Plan, which relates to training and provision. You can also comment on how schools should be held to account for RE teaching. This is important to ensure that all schools actually offer effective RE teaching, and that no faith school exclusively teaches its own faith.

Another of the points from the Commissioners report relates to expanding the role of SACREs, which they suggest could take a key lead in RE teaching. You can comment on the structure of a SACRE in the consultation (questions 44-49). Currently, every Local Authority (LA) has to fund a SACRE. Some are excellent; others less effective. They consist of 4 groups of people. There are Christian denominations and other religions, which each provide one representative: this group should reflect the local religious context. The Church of England nominates its own representatives from the diocese. Teachers and heads are invited to join by the LA, and the LA itself provides members which should reflect the political viewpoints of the area. Governors can also be included.

A contentious issue on which you may wish to comment is that of parental opt-out (questions 50-52). The advice of the Commission is that removing the parental opt-out would prove legally very difficult, but there are strong views on both sides of the argument. The provision is open to misuse –there is growing evidence that parents are removing their children from parts of the curriculum with which they disagree – this simply reinforces negative stereotypes and deprives children of the chance to understand the multicultural society in which they are growing up. On the other hand, removing parental opt-out completely brings its own problems and it’s impossible to guarantee that what is taught will always remain non-confessional. There is also a powerful argument in favour of retaining opt-out simply because any further erosion by the state of parental rights and responsibilities should be opposed.

When you have finished reflecting on how best to structure RE in contemporary, pluralist society, share your thoughts with the Commissioners by submitting evidence. This is an exciting opportunity to express your views on the shape RE teaching for the future, to ensure that it is a vibrant, relevant part of every school’s provision and every student’s entitlement.

EDUCATE NOT INDOCTRINATE

A poll of Conservative councillors conducted by ComRes earlier this year shows a significant gap between grass roots opinion and the actions of central government when it comes to matters of personal morality. It amounts to a call to government to stop indoctrinating children and concentrate on the business of educating them.

Nearly 9 in every 10 respondents want the government to focus on the economy and Brexit instead of the liberal causes espoused by the Department for Education and enforced by Ofsted. There is an equally clear point made on the issue of parental rights – nearly 80% think that parents, not the state, should decide how and when their children are taught about adult relationships. In addition, 62% felt there was an undue focus on political correctness and gender identity. It amounts to a clear message from the grass roots. Schools should educate not indoctrinate. Personal morality is the province of parents. The state has no right to use education as a social engineering mechanism by embedding liberal ideologies.

There are plenty of other people saying this, too, of course. The problem is that growing numbers of concerned parents are actually afraid to speak, because anyone who voices an opinion contrary to that of the liberal glitterati is immediately labelled as homophobic and prejudiced. More than half of the poll respondents think that making toilets in schools unisex in order to conform to transgender policy is wrong, but try saying so. For parents this is an impossible situation because both they and their children find themselves labelled as intolerant bigots in need of reprogramming. And so, the education service can continually reinforce its own righteousness in saving future society from toxicity and hatred. Suddenly Nineteen-Eighty Four seems less dystopian and more prophetic.

Ofsted, in its self-appointed role as the Ministry of Truth, committed to rooting out all thought crime, also comes in for criticism. More than half of those who responded to the poll think that ‘Ofsted appears biased in favour of an ideological left-wing agenda’ and 38% supported the idea of Ofsted being scrapped altogether, replacing it with an accountable, objective service. There are plenty who would agree with that.

On the issue of content in the proposed Relationships and Sex Education, there was an overwhelming call for the teaching of traditional marriage. This might be expected in a poll of Conservative councillors, but it is a view amply supported by the evidence. As David Cameron said, ‘Family is where people learn to be good citizens, to take responsibility, to live in harmony with others. Families are the building blocks of a strong, cohesive society. This isn’t a hunch. A whole body of evidence backs it up.’ So why are successive governments ignoring the evidence?

On one issue the respondents were almost unanimous – respect and consent in relationships. There is a problem with this, though, when it comes to definition. Evidence says that children don’t possess the cognitive skill to accurately judge the speed of an oncoming vehicle until they are about 14. The law says they can’t drive a car until they’re 17. To protect their health and wellbeing, they can’t purchase alcohol or cigarettes until they’re 18. So by all means teach about consent, in the same way that schools teach about the dangers of substance abuse, if the age of consent in taught and enforced. Consent as the pundits would have it taught is merely as a means of self-defence so that children and young people can engage in sexual activity at ever-younger ages and ‘stay safe’.

Christianity is often seen by its opponents as a list of rules drawn up by a narcissistic God who just wants to spoil our fun. But actually, the rules are there for our own benefit. We are born biologically male or female. It’s empirically proven that a strong, secure marriage is most likely to lead to happiness. Children are raised most effectively in loving homes with secure parental relationships, and with both a mother and a father to give them a rounded perspective.

So the evidence is there, and it all goes to prove that living in accordance with God’s design for humanity really is the best way to live.