This week has seen vitriolic exchanges almost unique in the life of the British people. As feelings ran high, words like liar, fascist, racist and Nazi were thrown around with uncharacteristic hatred. And now it’s all over, what, I wonder, have our children and young people taken from the angry rhetoric?
The answer may well be fear. Not in the sense of Project Fear – attempts on both sides of the referendum debate to frighten us with statistics that couldn’t be based on anything other than conjecture. But young people live in a fearful world, to which the behaviour of many adults around them has probably contributed in the last couple of weeks. The global reach of terrorism caused devastation in Orlando. Our TV screens carry news of beheadings, war and pictures of countless rivers of people made homeless and stateless by war. A much loved and respected MP was murdered in the heart of her constituency in the middle of the day. Many young people across all faiths are scared to discuss belief through fear of being misunderstood or of becoming the latest target of bullying.
Add to that fear of cyberbullying, fear of exam failure, fear of not getting into the best university or securing that lucrative career, and you have an explosive mix. For some, a fragile, recovering economy holds no promise of sustainable training or employment. And for many more, family breakdown means moving home, losing friends and living with fractured relationships between the people who once committed to love them, and each other, above everything. Is it any wonder that a tsunami of mental and emotional illness is sweeping away the hope of our young people?
Into this seemingly bottomless well of fear, God offers hope. The prophet Jeremiah was given a message for his people at one of the darkest times of their nation’s history. The brightest and best of their people had been rounded up and taken off to live in exile in Babylon. A puppet King had been put in place to rule over them, and before leaving their country, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had plundered their wealth and ransacked their Temple, symbol of God’s relationship with his people. Things couldn’t really get any worse. But God told Jeremiah to say, ‘For I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV).
Through Jeremiah, God offered his people an invitation to worship Him and trust Him as their God. He had plans for them which offered hope not harm, and a future, not fear. And that message is still the same today. Hope is the central message of Christian education and of Christian teachers. Our children and young people don’t need to fear the work of terrorists, or the future state of the economy, or even the outcome of the referendum, because the love of God offers us hope.
Take the words of the Apostle Paul to the Romans into your teaching this week: ‘Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 15:13 NIV). And may that hope, love and peace flow out into your classrooms so that others can see that you live in hope, not fear.
Last week, I wrote about various media reports on faith education, from Jewish yeshivas to ACE schools. After spending quite a lot of time thinking about ACE schools this week, I’ve decided to answer the charges of Andrew Copson et al against them.
There appear to be two main objections, skilfully combined to create an anti-Christian rhetoric – I have separated the strands of the argument to give a clear picture of the evidence. The first relates to the ACE pedagogy. Whatever your view on the way the classroom operates, evidence of an excellent education is beyond dispute. ACE schools are subject to Ofsted inspections, and they have generally been found to be either good (generally with capacity to improve to outstanding) or already outstanding.
The curriculum is broad and balanced; individual study each morning is usually followed by group work, physical or practical studies in the afternoons and provision for pupils is deemed to be very good. Self-motivation and self-confidence in learning were of particular note across a range of inspections, and these are virtues which ACE aims to nurture through its ethos.
Lost in the near-hysteria of its own media hype, the BHA has conveniently overlooked this empirical evidence, but it was spotted by the BBC in an interview with Ben Medlock, co-founder of the SwiftKey smartphone keyboard app, himself ACE educated. His view: his ACE education gave him motivation that ‘became critical’ while studying at Cambridge University. He went on to say:
‘While my own faith has evolved significantly from the conservatism of my childhood, I do feel that the values of the school provided students with a positive . . . framework in which to view the world and interact with those around them. The curriculum encouraged students to take responsibility for their own work, not only setting their own goals but also, where appropriate, marking their work against a key. For me, this stimulation towards self determination was a positive aspect of my school experience. In short, my experience of this school was one of rich opportunities, deep friendships and the usual mix of childhood joy and pain.’
This is exactly the kind of learning that the DfE espouses.
Inspectors found ACE schools compliant with all safeguarding and health and safety legislation. And when it came to pupil behaviour and welfare, the narrative was common in the schools inspected, too. Students behave positively towards each other, taking turns ‘graciously’ when playing. Bullying is virtually non-existent and pupils are socially motivated, caring and supportive of each other.
All the attributes of character education so beloved by this government were in evidence. But here’s the thing – character education is both caught and taught and if adults in a community don’t walk the talk, children will follow their example, not their words. So everything inspectors noticed about the social and behavioural attitudes of students will be evidenced by staff and parents too.
So what’s not to like? ACE schools teach from an explicitly stated Christian worldview, with the Bible acknowledged as the authoritative word of God, and it is this framework which causes all the angst. The Christianity litmus test for secularists relates to marriage and creation, and on both of these counts, they deem ACE schools to fail their test.
They teach that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman and that we live in, and are stewards of, a world created by a loving God. Well, Archbishop Sentamu defines Christian marriage in the same way and he also makes the point very clearly that to believe that this is God’s design does not make a person homophobic. It was noted by inspectors that ACE students are taught about understandings of marriage that differ from the Biblical definition; they are also taught about God’s love for all humanity and the need to respect people, whatever their choices. The same is true of creation – students learn about evolution as a theory but are taught that the Bible says that God created the world. They are quite free to examine both views and form their own opinions.
Antagonists of Christian schooling would do well to consider all the evidence, not just make judgments based on predetermined prejudice. Christian parents choose Christian education for their children, and they have a right, enshrined in human rights legislation, to do so. Children are free, as was Jonny Scaramanga, their most vociferous critic, to make up their own minds about faith as they grow up. What he doesn’t have the right to do is seek to destroy what he no longer values.
Many ACE schools are due for inspections in the next few months. It will be interesting to see how much impact humanist lobbying has had on the views of Ofsted and how much the inspectorate is going to be influenced by liberal secular thinking. With the quality of education which ACE schools offer, judgment shouldn’t hinge on academic standards or compliance. It will, however, probably be determined solely by the current social orthodoxy and the determination of this government to impose its one-size-fits-all agenda on all schools, even at the expense of denying parents their right to educate their children ‘in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions’.
Watch this space…
When the Prevent strategy was launched in 2011, and further updated in March 2015, it raised a concern that the concept of extremism was so poorly defined that it could lead to over-reaction from school and college managers anxious not to fall foul of the legislation. The strategy’s vagueness also left open the possibility of opportunist use by anyone wanting to limit religious activity, or even close down legitimate faith groups.
Despite the concerns, that is exactly what has happened. A college Christian Union has recently been stopped from meeting on college premises under the Prevent strategy. And while the Prime Minister might call it ‘ridiculous’ in response to a question from Fiona Bruce MP, he can’t legitimately feign surprise when he was repeatedly warned about this very possibility.
Although the specific reasons for this case (along with two other possible cases) are not known, defining Christianity as extremist has been part of a general trend emerging in the press this week. It began with a scathing article in The Independent vilifying Christian fundamentalist schools that use the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum. The article subtly muddled criticism of ACE pedagogy with its theology to create an impression of endemic extremism in every corner of these schools.
In the same vein, the paper carried an article about unregistered Jewish yeshivas in Hackney, claiming secrecy, conspiracy and cover-up about abuse, indoctrination and missing children. It seemed to rely heavily on ‘campaigners and whistleblowers’ for its evidence, but it amounted to an attack on a form of Orthodox Jewish education which has existed peacefully in this country for hundreds of years. It seems that some sections of our society cannot understand why most Orthodox Jewish parents aspire to their sons becoming rabbis rather than doctors or lawyers. And yes, the word ‘extreme’ appears in the article.
Then Andrew Copson wrote a piece, also in The Independent, which demonstrates the liberal secular agenda very clearly. He states there are many forms of extremism and they don’t have to be violent to be damaging, as Christian schools apparently remind us. His argument is that the Christian faith is a form of extremism which should be eradicated.
The subtext is clearly that teaching children about the Christian faith somehow equates to burning women alive in metal cages for refusing to become sex slaves, or beheading in front of their parents children who refuse to deny their faith. It’s all extremism motivated by religious belief.
Copson offers the new BHA website Faith Schoolers Anonymous as evidence of the extremist damage done to thousands of faith schools pupils, although to date there are only 5 blogs on the site, most of which are culled from old media articles.
On the basis that extremism is very broadly defined by the government as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values’ including equality legislation, it’s easy to see how Prevent can be used against anyone who believes in God’s design for marriage and God as the creator of the universe – a belief which Nicky Morgan is herself on record describing people who believe in creation as extremists.
Announcing the launch of the FSA website, Jonny Scaramanga wrote that he hoped the site ‘will be supported by those who see benefits in faith schooling’ as well as people wanting to whistleblow, so here’s a suggestion. Anyone who attended, or still attends, a faith school which has played a positive and productive role in their education should write a blog for the site, building up a picture of the work that faith schools and Christian teachers actually do.
As you teach this week, be encouraged by the thoughts of Paul writing to Titus: ‘Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us’ (Titus 2:7-8 ESV).