NEW SETTLEMENT OR OLD ARGUMENTS?

The Westminster Faith Debate report A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools has, as expected, provoked heated debate. Is it time for a new settlement? Yes, and then again, no.

There are several problems with the report’s assumptions. The first is its definition of religion as a sociological phenomenon that just won’t go away. And if it won’t go away, then it has to be accommodated or endured. And if it has to be accommodated, let’s make sure that it’s as inoffensive and bland a form of religion as we can possibly make it – an amalgam to bond society. That’s 3 assumptions stemming from a limited understanding of spirituality.

The report is much more far-reaching than anything that has gone before with its proposal for all faith and independent schools to be ‘invited’ to the party, but it’s also hardly surprising. Matt Ridley in an attack on faith schools last year argued that faith is a ‘virulent infection’ and the best protection against it is ‘a mild and attenuated form of the … virus’ viz. the nationalised fusion curriculum that this report advocates.

On the issue of abolishing a statutory requirement for collective worship I broadly agree with the report’s suggestions and I agree for very personal reasons. We live near a Buddhist monastery which my children visited as part of their Religion and Philosophy curriculum. But when one of my children was told that she also had to take part in temple worship, she refused. As she met with no support from the teacher concerned (himself a Christian) I stepped in. I was upset by 2 things – a refusal to accept that no pupil should be forced to participate in an activity against their will and also the blank incomprehension of why I might want to deprive my child of such an amazing opportunity.

I’m right with the Rt Rev John Prichard on this when he said that ‘the problem is with the word ‘worship’ [which] is by definition a voluntary activity, and I think it may be better to reframe the discussion, and to call this time that we are discussing spiritual reflection’. I have a real problem with requiring children to worship within any religion until they wish to make that choice for themselves.  Reframing collective worship as a time of spiritual reflection and allowing schools to define this in accordance with their ethos is, to my way of thinking, a reasonable step, as long as faith schools are allowed to interpret this from their distinctive perspective.

If this happened, I would fully support the removal of parental opt-out. If you sign up to a faith school, you know what you’re getting – choosing faith education for academic reasons then opting out of the religious bits really is cheating. But this is where the report is very clever and carries more than a whiff of the Accord Coalition/Tristram Hunt arguments that were aired last year. Having tacitly accepted that parent power alone would secure the continuation of faith schools, they changed tack. Now they are harnessing that power to ensure that with a 50% open admissions policy, enough parents will object to the faith ethos to dilute it beyond effectiveness.

I’m also right with this report in defining British values as counter-propaganda, although less supportive of the view that RE is the place to park the only critical discussion that will lead to a liberal democracy, particularly when it’s a very illiberal liberalism that is being proposed. The report is peppered with reasons for this liberal kickback:

‘churches are taking more radical ‘counter-cultural’ stances against a perceived secular mainstream …  The influence of more conservative and ‘fundamentalist’ elements of religion relative to less activist liberal or ‘moderate’ majorities is also likely to increase … Currently, the most serious concerns are those to do with Islamic and far right forms of extremism, but we have noted the growing power of more conservative elements in all religions’.

It’s less to do with liberal ideology and more to do with feeling threatened by the perception of power bases, outside of government control and among those inconvenient people who take their faith seriously. That’s why the report even suggests the inspection of Christian family prayers and Sunday schools ‘to safeguard against abuse or coercion’. It simultaneously asserts that ‘Religious instruction should be principally the responsibility of religious communities and families’ and that the state should control even these expressions of faith by inspection.

So is it time for a new settlement? Yes, I think it is. There is much to commend in the report regarding the teaching of RE and provision for spiritual development in secular maintained schools. But to suggest that faith schools must abandon a distinctive curriculum and its inspection by people who understand its purpose, is a step way too far. Anyone who wants to remove faith schools should say so, and campaign to close them down. Except, because that can’t possibly happen, we have ethos reassignment by stealth.

In a survey that Christians in Education is conducting, a participant observed that secularist curriculum influences can sometimes be tricky to spot; they’re so embedded in our thinking that we just don’t notice them any more. I think it applies to this report, too. Although it seems to suggest an entirely reasonable way forward, it is actually just a set of old arguments brought together and dressed up in new clothes. The real message is conformity to a liberal secular agenda until, through a sustained programme of inoculation by fuzzy liberalism, the social phenomenon of faith is one day eradicated.

Thank goodness we don’t live in France, where you can’t start school without an inoculation certificate. Or maybe that’s the next step.

EVERY PARENT MATTERS

Greeted by cheers as she visited Mulberry School for Girls this week, Michelle Obama told the girls that: ‘With an education from this amazing school you all have everything, everything you need to rise above all of the noise and fulfil every last one of your dreams’. Education, she said, was the ‘ultimate key’ to success.

The furore surrounding her speech missed a vital point – education may be the key, but the girls will have to pick up the key, turn it in the lock and choose for themselves to walk through the door. To do this, they will need plenty of support, love and encouragement beyond the school gate. As a writer in The Conversation observed this week: ‘It’s absurd to lay all the responsibility for a child’s education at the feet of the school’.

Yet the view persists that if we give children and young people the best education that the world can offer, it will solve all ills. Sir Michael Wilshaw even claimed this week, in the wake of 3 Bradford mothers taking their children to Syria, that schools must teach British values to stop pupils joining ISIS, as if there is some single causal link between off loading a set of ill-defined dogmas in a classroom and the life-defining decisions that the 3 parents have made.  As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child and school is only one building in the village. Every child also has a home.

Education begins at home, from the moment that a child takes the first breath. Talking, playing, singing, reading, laughing, crying, eating together and even encouraging babies to understand that sleeping at night really is advisable for everyone concerned are all part of learning. The more of life we share with our children, the more we are helping them to learn and grow. As we do so, our actions are communicating our values and our children are absorbing them. Far from the start of school being the beginning of education, it’s the point at which the effectiveness of the parental role as first and best educator comes into its own.

This has been clearly proven in research going back over decades, yet successive governments, instead of addressing the issue of supporting parents, have offered more, and earlier, educational opportunity. In the case of this government, that comes layered with plenty of testing to demonstrate policy success. As recently as February, the House of Lords Select Committee report on Affordable Childcare pointed out that childcare is not a magic bullet, and that it cannot make up for the hours in the week that children spend at home. The report recommended that plans needed ‘to be accompanied by support for parents’ to ensure ‘a strong home learning environment’. The response of the government was to double childcare availability.

For Christian parents the vital role of parent as educator is a given – Psalm 127:3 says that ‘Children are a heritage from the Lord’ – a special gift that God gives us; people made in His image who need to be loved and nurtured. Although we utilise formal schooling in our contemporary culture, the principle that God gave to the people of Israel still holds good, that ‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up’ (Deuteronomy 6:6). Teaching our children is an integral part of our daily lives and it takes place in the family – the foundational unit of society where we model for our children how we want them to live.

However good the formal education opportunities, it’s nearly always the support, encouragement and interest of parents that ensures that young people choose to pick up the key to success, unlock the door and walk through, with confidence to meet the challenges of life. If the aspirations and hopes of parents and school aren’t in synch, it’s the home environment that usually prevails. There’s a simple reason for this – it’s our parents and our community that define and nurture our identity; it’s where we feel we belong, and so it’s where we want to remain.

Every parent matters, more vitally than governments care to admit. So as well as ensuring that we offer every child an excellent academic education , we also need to give support to parents who can’t, or won’t, offer what their children need most – the support, interest and encouragement of those who love them.

 

IF YOUR FORGET EVERYTHING ELSE, REMEMBER THIS

B1071 Remember_this WEBYou’re sleep deprived as you rise to the challenges of the day: the noise, the mess, the endless activity.  Your arbitration skills are honed to perfection; you could negotiate for the UN.  Your counselling ability is stretched to capacity as you pick up the pieces of broken friendships and broken hearts, or as you bandage sprained imaginations. And lurking just outside your conscious thought is that nagging question: Am I getting this right? If this is you, then you must be a parent.

In which case, you need to read Katharine Hill’s book If you forget everything else, remember this: parenting in the primary years. Instead of this book, I had a How To book. One of my children conformed to the book so closely she could have been given away as a free sample with every copy. From the get go, my other child seemed intent on doing the polar opposite of everything in the book. I’m happy to report that they’ve both arrived in adult life intact, as caring, thoughtful and poised people, happy in their own skin. But if only I had been given this book, instead of the How To book…

The author enjoyed parenthood so much that she embarked on it four times, in the process learning a lot about the vagaries of sharing daily life with small humans. She regales readers with accounts of the day she accidentally left one of her children in London; her son’s creative use of muesli to avoid school, and the inevitable attraction of Coco Pops to the pristine clothes of children dressed for a wedding.

There are laugh-out-loud moments – her husband’s idea of calming down a boys’ sleepover in the small hours with a water pistol. There are poignant moments too – she writes movingly about the day when one of their sons, after years of snuggling into bed with them every morning, suddenly and without notice, stopped. But there is also profound wisdom in each pithy chapter.

Actually, think of it as 42 thoughts – each one short enough to read while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, but each one thought-provoking enough to make you linger over your cup of tea.  Reflect on the power of words, the value of wonder and imagination and the special role of grandparents. Ponder on how to parent with elastic, how to give your child roots, and how to model values. Think about your parenting style, how you set up boundaries and how you make sure they are kept.  Muse over what it means to laugh together, to eat together, to play together and to cry together.  Deliberate on when to leave your child to face the consequences of their forgetfulness, when to take a walk in his moccasins and how to choose your battles.

But this isn’t just a collection of wise thoughts. It is written by a parent who has been there, done it and worn out the T shirts. Embedded in the overarching themes of love and relationship is an understanding that we’re all in this together, regardless of the differences between our children, our families and our parenting. We all feel guilty. We all feel anxious. And we all ask: Am I getting this right? While this book won’t answer that particular question, it will help you navigate the challenges, face the dilemmas and know that you aren’t the only one asking the question in that exciting, nerve-wracking journey that is parenting.

About the author: Katharine Hill is UK Director for Care for the Family and a popular speaker, writer and broadcaster. She has served as a family lawyer and as a member of the board of the International Commission for Couple and Family Relations. The book is published by Muddy Pearl and retails at £7.50. Click here to read a sample.