At the NAHT conference last week, heads debated a motion to overturn the parental right of opt-out from RE. The motion was almost unanimously approved, but not surprisingly, it provoked a mini-storm of protest from both sides of the argument, so I know I’m entering the lions’ den by adding my thoughts. I write as a primary school teacher and a Christian parent.
As the latter, I have experience of parental opt-out. It was an obvious, but not easy, decision to make. We live near a Buddhist monastery, visits to which were a regular part of the RE curriculum. One year, a teacher decided to arrange for my daughter’s class to join in a Buddhist meditation service. My daughter refused to take part, so I explained this and tried to opt her out of that section of the trip. Observation was fine: participation was not.
Unfortunately, it was assumed that because we are a Christian family, I was objecting on religious grounds. Actually, I was objecting because my daughter didn’t want to take part in ritual of any sort, and it was a false assumption that because I am a Christian, my child must be, too. A deputy head finally reluctantly agreed to her request on the grounds that no child should be forced to do something which made them uncomfortable, although the school remained convinced that I was staging some sort of Christian protest.
So much for opt-out. I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to use it, and by the time the situation had been resolved, it had become a major source of conflict. Sometimes parents do need the option, and I think it should remain where students are required to participate in religious activity in an RE lesson that presupposes belief, as ritual does. That should not be any part of the RE curriculum, and the opt-out needs to be there because sometimes teachers make mistakes, or even bad decisions.
What I have a problem with is opting out just because you think religion is wrong. I think lots of things are wrong in society – I also think that understanding them puts me in a stronger position to argue against them or try and put them right.
The NAHT argument relates to the need to teach religious literacy and foster a language that allows today’s young people to navigate a multi-cultural and diverse society openly and with empathy. There shouldn’t be any objection to this: sitting in an igloo doesn’t make you Inuit and the same applies to RE – watching a baptism doesn’t make you a Christian. Visiting a synagogue doesn’t make you a Jew. Nobody, as far as I’m aware, has ever converted to a religion because of an RE lesson.
As a primary school teacher, I think good quality compulsory RE teaching is vital for another reason. It’s about exploring answers to the really big questions in life, like Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live? and religious belief plays a part in finding answers for billions of people around the world. Every child, whatever the faith of the parents, should have the opportunity to investigate possible answers to the big questions of life and come to their own conclusions. I say that as a Christian parent, believing that my children should be able to conduct their own search for truth, and in doing so, find their own personal belief.
The National Secular Society has rolled out the tired old argument about confessional teaching and indoctrination. I challenge anyone to make a child or young person believe something that they choose not to believe. If you think you can, then I would suggest you’ve never worked with children. The NSS objection, of course, is to the existence of faith schools and their right to teach from a distinctive faith perspective.
I’ve got mixed feelings on this one, too. I went to a church school and it’s not an experience I would ever want to repeat. I wasn’t taught anything about faith let alone indoctrinated, unless you count reciting my catechism every day for 7 years. It clearly had no effect, because to this day, I can’t remember a word of it. I learnt plenty about organised religion, but nothing about faith in God.
It was in my church that I found a relationship with a living God. And it’s because of that faith that I think it’s so vital that children and young people are allowed to examine what people believe, and what they do in their churches and temples, and how it informs the way they live their lives. Schools are uniquely positioned to do this: parents are not.
Belief is a personal decision, but understanding what people believe and why they choose to believe it is one of the most precious gifts we can give our children and our future society. Opting out removes children from the arena of debate that leads to greater understanding between us all.
A couple of weeks ago I was pootling around on Twitter, as you do, clicking on links, reading the first line or two of various blogs and then moving on. One blog caught my eye – Secondary schools – trust, thank and love your Primaries. I clicked. I started reading. I read to the end. I cheered. Here’s why.
I have never, in my whole career, heard that level of acknowledgement from a Secondary Head. Transition every year is effective, only to be followed in September with dark mutterings about our level 5 not looking anything like their level 5. But then, Primary education is only about teaching children to colour by numbers, isn’t it? And Primary leaders are just the people who write the numbers. There’s always that unspoken thought that we’re just childminding until the real work of education begins – and always that delicious moment when Secondary NQTs spend their compulsory day with us and crawl away at 3.30, pale and exhausted, asking how on earth we do it day in, day out. One day is quite enough to put them off for life.
The blog touched on various issues that I found compelling. Firstly (with heartfelt thanks to John Dexter) was the observation that we are ‘fairly expert at everything’. I’ve heard non-specialist, I’ve heard generalist, I’ve even heard jack-of-all-trades, but I’ve never heard acknowledgement that we ‘seem to know everything’. We don’t of course – often we learn from, or with, our children or we’re only a step or two ahead of them, but great Primary teachers aren’t afraid to admit gaps and root out the knowledge needed to fill them. I once heard a colleague describe how she would (to her family’s intense embarrassment) dumpster dive to retrieve useful bits and bobs for craft work or display. The analogy wasn’t wasted on us that we do the same with knowledge.
Another acknowledgement I read into the blog’s subtext was that Primary teachers speak fluent child. People mistakenly assume that children are just mini-adults waiting to grow up. They aren’t. They’re a species all their own; childhood is a unique space in its own right, not a waiting room for later life. Great Primary teachers know this and they are experts in equipping children to deal with the ‘ups and downs of life … meeting issues of ill parents, or bereavement perhaps for the first time’. As the blog also comments, we know a great deal about our children’s families including, sometimes, those details that parents might be horrified to know that we know (yes, Mrs X, if your son’s friends are taking an inordinate interest in your kitchen it’s because he really did tell all the Year 6 boys in a Sex Ed Q+A session that you keep your contraceptive pills attached to the pin board so that you don’t forget to take one every day).
Then John moves on to consider the question of how ethos is communicated. He found part of the answer in visits to his feeder Primaries – it starts in Primary school. He is also Head of a faith school, so ethos is clearly defined. The schools in the Trust share chaplains, families worship in parish communities and Priests are involved in the life of the schools. Part of the answer also lies in the fact that he is now part of a Multi-Academy Trust which facilitates genuine partnership. There are a whole range of points where Trust, church, community, Priests, chaplains, teachers and managers intersect. And this is education at its best. As I often say, it takes a village to raise a child and there are a lot of buildings in the village, all of which have a part to play in raising the next generation of adults who understand community, the common good and the need for human flourishing.
I read John’s blogs regularly and I thoroughly recommend them. They’re full of passion, enthusiasm and hope. He isn’t afraid to think aloud and ask questions to which he is exploring answers. And above all, he is about relational living – with students, colleagues and the wider communities that touch his own.
When asked by an expert in the law what the greatest commandment was, Jesus answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22: 37-39). Christ’s two greatest commands are concerned with relationships – with God and with others and that is the heartbeat of missional teaching.
So, Mr Dexter, thank you for your blog. I hope that it will encourage all Christians working in the amazing world of education to trust, thank and love each other as we build those relationships.
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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.
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