Feature

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.