The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written a letter to parishes, challenging the thinking of Christians about the upcoming election.
Education features throughout their letter, acknowledging its significance in nurturing a strong, stable society and raising some relevant questions about our education service. They state: ‘If our shared British values are to carry the weight of where we now stand and the challenges ahead of us, they must have at their core, cohesion, courage and stability. Cohesion is what holds us together’. Education can be a powerful force for nurturing cohesion, but it shouldn’t be used as a tool of force. Instead of seeking to impose further centralised control over curriculum content, the government should be acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of our education service, the role that the Church has played in its formation over centuries, and the right of parents to choose the education which most closely matches their parenting values. Cohesion is not uniformity – cohesion is living at peace with difference and showing respect for fellow humanity. These should be the British values which we share in a pluralist society.
The letter calls for ‘education for all’. For this to be effective, it requires us to acknowledge that we are all uniquely created in the image of God, with different gifts, skills and aspirations. To achieve meaningful education for all which nurtures individuals and promotes human flourishing, we must stop the current ‘one size fits all’ approach to education. We should create an environment in which schools of all types, including Christian schools, can thrive without fear.
We are called to act with courage, which ‘also demands a radical approach to education, so that the historic failures of technical training and the over-emphasis on purely academic subjects are rebalanced’. It is time to reverse an education culture of constant high stakes measurement, which values nothing but results and predictions of future economic prosperity. We need to develop an education service which focuses on the holistic development of people. Careers education, for example, should be about reflecting on individual identity, values, interests, aspirations and ambitions, rather than measuring the effectiveness of careers education purely on consideration of maximising income.
The Archbishops further write: ‘To our concern for housing, health and education as foundations for a good society, we add marriage, the family and the household as foundational communities, which should be nurtured and supported as such, not just for the benefit of their members, but as a blessing for the whole of society’. Yet the new Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) requirements, made statutory in the Children and Social Work Bill that received royal assent this week, require schools to teach all relationships as being equal.
There is a growing body of evidence that children raised in stable families with two parents who are committed to each other in marriage are much more likely to achieve their potential academically, socially and personally. Yet despite highlighting the importance of marriage and family in the past, the government does not privilege them in any of the new policy proposals. Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, recently called for faith schools to reach ‘common ground’ with the LGBT community on sex education. Why? Faith schools should be allowed to genuinely teach according to the tenets of their faith. Further, the right of parental opt out should be extended across the whole of the RSE and Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) policies. To do otherwise is to open the door to state indoctrination on matters of morality and ethics.
Regarding the issue of assumptions of secularism, which now inform all education policy formation, the Archbishops state: ‘Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief. The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works, nor will they enable us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives’. This is nowhere more evident than in the teaching of science. Government advice states that ‘Any explanation or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution cannot be permitted in science classes’. This limits open consideration of a range of theories about our origins, including creation.
Finally, the letter raises the issue of religious freedom, positing that, ‘The new Parliament, if it is to take religious freedom seriously, must treat as an essential task the improvement of religious literacy’. The RE Commission, a non-statutory body, is currently gathering evidence with a remit to make recommendations designed to improve the quality and rigour of religious education and its capacity to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain. Any changes to the framework or policy must acknowledge the religious diversity of Britain, the distinctiveness of each faith, the right of parents to make decisions about their child’s involvement in religious education and the right of schools to determine curriculum in a local context. We must avoid the imposition of a centralised curriculum, which is the route to totalitarian control. It is also time to put an end to the practice of safe spaces and no-platforming in further education institutions which limit the rights of Christians to express their views openly in the public square.
The recently published ‘Casey Review: a review into opportunity and integration’, raises some concerning issues, if you are a person of religious conviction. It’s even more concerning if you’re involved in teaching. Here’s why.
The report lays the blame for segregation and inequality at the door of what Casey describes as ‘less progressive religious communities’ who are ‘taking religion backwards and away from 21st century British values and laws’. You may think that doesn’t apply to you, but read on. Because when she was questioned about her report in an appearance before the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, this is how Louise Casey described those communities:
‘I do not really have any view on which religion it is that it is promoting those sorts of views, but they are not okay, in the same way that it is not okay for Catholic schools to be homophobic and anti-gay marriage. That is not okay either—it is not how we bring children up in this country. It is often veiled as religious conservatism, and I have a problem with the expression “religious conservatism”, because often it can be anti-equalities.’
Casey talks about the need to challenge or act on behaviours that fall into ‘grey’ areas ‘where one person’s religious conservatism is another’s homophobia’. She calls for an honest debate about these grey areas, although she simultaneously implies that anyone who disagrees with her is wrong, so clearly her mind is already made up about the purpose of any public discourse.
And this isn’t an incident isolated to someone speaking from personal prejudice – it’s a religiously illiterate view that prevails even at ministerial levels of government. This was an exchange that the Archbishop of Canterbury had with a senior politician recently:
Politician: ‘look at our British values, what have you got against the rule of law as a British value? I mean are you seriously going to tell me that I don’t call someone an extremist if they say that their faith is more important than the rule of law?’
ABC: ‘Well, you’ve got a real problem here because for me personally my faith is more important than the rule of law so you’ve got an extremist sitting in here with you…We do not believe as Christians that the rule of law outweighs everything else, we believe that the kingdom of God outweighs everything else.’
If that is what you believe, you are, by definition, an extremist. You are a religious conservative, so according to the Casey review you are anti-equalities. That means that you are breaking the law by adhering to a worldview at variance with secular liberalism. Again, you may not think it is relevant to you, but if you are a Christian teacher, it may soon become very relevant to you personally. You may be required to swear an oath that puts British values and the rule of law above everything else. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid likes Casey’s idea of a public oath and he plans to say more about it when he responds to her report later this spring.
The crux of the issue isn’t about actively promoting wilfully vague British values. It is whether, or not, you believe that the kingdom of God outweighs the rule of law. If you do, how does that inform your response to the liberal social orthodoxy to which everyone is increasingly required to conform?
Home education is growing in popularity in England and Wales – current estimates suggest that around 40,000 children are home schooled, although only half of that number are known to local authorities. It’s an option favoured by many Christian parents and historically, their right to make this choice has been respected. As long as provision is suitable (and local council inspectors can make an ‘informal enquiry’ to ensure suitability) parents are trusted to educate their children as they wish. But this might all be about to change, following recommendations in the recently published Casey Report.
Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that: ‘In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.’ The right to home educate is further reinforced in the 1996 Education Act which states that: ‘The responsibility for a child’s education rests with their parents/carers’ although provision must be ‘suitable’ and ‘efficient’. The term ‘suitable’ was defined by Mr Justice Woolf in case law in 1985 as being an education that ‘primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole’.
An attempt was made to bring home educators under the firm control of the state in 2009 – it failed then, but the climate is very different now, and secular campaigners have very cleverly woven anti-faith sentiment into the fabric of concern about safeguarding and social cohesion. A new review of local government provision has been ordered and Alan Wood has chosen to consider the role of local authorities in monitoring home education as one of the strands of his investigation. The mantra now is that the state should know where every child is and what they are being taught to ensure that it complies with British values. So the proposal is that all children not in school must be registered and that local authority inspectors should have right of access to the home to interview children without their parents present.
That might seem like a good safeguarding idea on the face of it, but it’s the product of wilfully confused thinking. Illegal, unregistered schools and home education are not the same thing, however much the state might choose to assume that they are. It gives to local authority inspectors powers of entry to your home which are currently only available where criminal activity is suspected – police officers with search warrants or customs and excise officers.
And for Christian parents, that is alarming, given Louise Casey’s definition of religious belief. She says that for those for whom ‘religion is very important in their daily lives … there appear to be some who are keen to take religion backwards and away from 21st Century British values and laws on issues such as gender equality and sexual orientation’. Any Christian who does not embrace the liberal, progressive views of society is, in her view, creating segregation.
Casey recommends not only that home educators should be registered, but that the government ‘should also consider the standards against which home education is judged to be clear that divisive practices are not acceptable in any setting’. In other words, Christian parents who, in their own homes and churches, teach their children that our universe is created by God; that we are designed as male and female, and that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, are harming their children and sowing the seeds of social division.
In her appearance before the Communities and Local Government Select Committee last week, Casey spelt out what she meant by this saying: ‘it is not okay for Catholic schools to be homophobic and anti-gay marriage … it is not how we bring children up in this country. It is often veiled as religious conservatism, and I have a problem with the expression “religious conservatism”, because often it can be anti-equalities.’
Should alarm bells be ringing for Christian home educators? On this evidence I think they should. Liberal, progressive values are sweeping our society like a tidal wave, taking all dissent in its wake. Home educators, Christian schools and churches should take notice – join the liberal, progressive form of religious practice lobbied for by anti-faith groups and so readily espoused by the state, or lose your right to raise and teach your children in accordance with biblical truth.