Feature Archives – Christians in Education


Like most people, the first point at which I realised that the polls had got it badly wrong was when I woke up last Friday morning. To say it was a surprise is an understatement, but it was as nothing compared to some of the social media activity that got my attention during the day. It reached its apogee with the excoriating observation that faith without works is dead, so Christians who voted Conservative have a dead faith.  Apparently a vote for Labour was a vote for God’s work. When someone started offering a ministry of healing and reconciliation for toxic Christians who voted anything other than Labour, I turned off my computer and went to weed my garden.*

So I was interested to read this week that Archbishop Cranmer also found the views of some Christians problematic, including that of Giles Fraser writing in the Guardian. Fraser is, apparently, ashamed to belong to a country which has become so insular, self-absorbed and selfish that we no longer care for the vulnerable.  But to think that voting Labour is the only Christian option is to completely miss the point of Christians’ involvement in society. Christians across the political spectrum should all be wrestling with the question of how we bring the gospel of Christ to a secular, materialist world that resents the presence of religion in the public square, but the answers we find aren’t limited to one political party.

The problem with embracing politics as the answer is where this leaves the gospel. Jesus was working class and poor. He lived under one of the most violent and oppressive military regimes that the world has ever known. His society, like many others, was full of holes that people fell through. Yet he didn’t set up social reform programmes. He didn’t formulate social mobility policies based on the premise that education is the route out of poverty.  He didn’t oppose the fabulous wealth of Caesar’s government, its extensive reach or its immense power. In fact, the nearest he came to making a political statement was in telling people to pay their taxes, even though they were crippling. He was about a different business – his Father’s work of building the kingdom of God.

Christ was political only in that he went where people were and got involved with their lives. He built relationships. He met people’s needs. He acted with compassion. He spoke truth to power. But he didn’t do so just to give physical healing or to provoke social reform. He made it clear, when he was talking to the woman at the well just outside the town of Samaria, that her spiritual need far outweighed her physical need. And that is our role as Christians in our communities. It’s not just to be compassionate in meeting physical need, it’s to show people their spiritual need and to talk about the kingdom of God. We must offer something distinctive, something different, otherwise we offer nothing more than a social welfare programme. And somebody needs to speak truth to power, both from inside and outside of all political parties.

As a Christian, I failed to get excited about politicians courting the Christian vote prior to the election, because I think they were only interested for two reasons. Firstly, all parties had plans such as the expansion child care, knowing full well that there is no money and that it will depend on voluntary groups to deliver the promise – if the past is anything to go by, that will be mostly Christian groups. As well as propping up state policies, politicians are also keen for Christian social involvement because it props up the Judeo-Christian culture without them having to defend it themselves. My problem is with the limitations that the government then wants to impose: don’t teach creation and you must teach about LGBTI rights even if same-sex marriage conflicts with your moral conviction. They want it every which way – get involved, but wear a muzzle. For Christians, social capital must be second to spiritual capital and no government can cash in on just one.

So how do we offer something different? I think by realising that political parties and institutions, like democracy itself, are human constructs – ones that we must work within, but ones which are nevertheless human and flawed. Of themselves, they will never bring anything more than transient change. Only the person of Jesus offers transformation and it is the person of Jesus that we should be witnessing to through our lives and our social engagement, always being ‘prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (I Peter 3:15).

And it is that living hope (1 Peter 1:3) which should be our focus. The kingdom of God is already in our midst (Luke 17:20-21). It’s not only the poor and the oppressed who need to see the love of God in action – it’s also the rich, the middle class, the bankers, the self-confident, the self-sufficient, the healthy, the people who hold power and yes, the people who vote Conservative. God is at work in all of his people and his kingdom has room for them all.

Unlike Giles Fraser, I’m not ashamed to live in England, because I don’t think we are a selfish, insular nation. I see the love of God at work through people of faith and people of none; people who care about their society and its communities. I see people who went out onto the streets to clean up after the 2011 riots; people who helped complete strangers during the floods; people who give to food banks  and charities week after week, and people who give to one international disaster appeal after another without any sign of compassion fatigue.  People who care are distributed across society – caring isn’t the exclusive province of any particular group.

As Christians, however, we shouldn’t be working for an improved society but for a transformed one. We should be working to show the love of God to those around us at whatever is the point of their need. It’s the transformation of people as they join the kingdom of God that will utterly transform society. Christ is already Lord of the universe and everyone in it (Ephesians 4:6). Our role is to introduce people to the God to whom they already belong. For some that will be through political involvement, but to believe that any single political ideology will solve social problems is to deny the Lordship of Christ over his world and our role in building his kingdom through spiritual engagement.

*Just for the record, this wasn’t a personal reaction based on my political views, merely disappointment at the Twitter traffic which, on Friday morning, was coming from a single direction. The point of this blog is that political parties of any colour shouldn’t be the answer, just different vehicles through which we work for a common purpose.

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The election is over and the process of forming a functioning government begins. Education stood mostly in the wings of the pre-election theatre as the economy dominated centre stage. That should hold no surprise – the sole purpose of education for the last ten years has been to serve the burgeoning needs of The Economy, as though it is some sort of Minotaur demanding the constant sacrifice of our children’s wholeness and wellbeing.

The economy has become our master rather than our servant. Consumerist thinking is embedded in the curriculum. Endless testing narrows definitions of success, with the promise of more new tests for four year olds this year, and even more rigorous tests for 11 year olds next year – tests that 30% are expected to fail. Just as the ever-increasing burden of taxation broke the English peasants in 1381, so the ever-increasing burden of the exam factory culture is breaking our children and young people as we face the tsunami of their mental and emotional illness.

So what of education in the future? I believe that it can be a beacon of hope, a source of nurturing the wholeness and wellbeing of which our children and young people have been robbed. But my hope is informed by my faith and the radical changes needed will take courage to embrace. As a Christian, I don’t see pupils as economic units, with minds to be crammed with exam facts which are promptly forgotten, with advice to be given about the subjects to study in order to maximise future economic success. My understanding of personhood is very different.  I see unique people, each created in the image of God, loved unconditionally by God and therefore to be respected, nurtured, raised and educated in an environment in which they can flourish. I want the same as every other parent, carer or teacher. I want the best for every child, my own as well as everyone else’s. But my definition of ‘best’ is for potential to be nurtured so that we can flourish, so that we can become the people God created us to be, not the economically successful consumers that governments need us to be.

Education should be multi-faceted: it should be personal, social, cultural, intellectual, physical, moral and spiritual. But the materialism of our culture has militated against this, to the virtual exclusion of all but the intellectual. Music and the arts have become mere tools to enhance academic performance, while physical education has been annexed to the battle against obesity, rather than areas of learning which enrich, enthuse and inspire for their own sake.  Fun, pleasure in learning and curiosity still thrive where teachers are determined to make space for their flourishing, but the most centralised education department for years has seemed intent on its destruction. It not only needs to be restored, it needs to be acknowledged as the engine that drives all learning.

Individualism and the cult of self (the logical outcome of narrowed definitions of success and pursuit of wealth) have forced us into a position where we have to teach PSHE. We need lessons to teach children what we once knew – how to care for and respect ourselves, how to live in community, how to contribute to the common good, and how to build strong, lasting relationships. We may even have to teach all young children how to protect themselves from exploitation, rather than dealing rigorously with the exploiters in order to preserve our children’s right to childhood.

And it’s no good leaving this to schools, as successive governments are wont to do. Research shows that when there is a mismatch between words and actions, children copy actions.  We teach about respect, dignity, compassion, understanding, honesty, humility and caring for others above ourselves. We nurture and model it in community within our schools, but actions in wider society speak louder than words in school.

The answer lies in the values which we, as a society, choose to adopt. Even this agenda, which promised early hope, has now been diverted to serve the standards machine, with resilience and grit apparently needed in order to maximise test results.  But what if we chose to anchor our communities in shared values for the common good? Values such as justice, fairness, gratitude, honesty, patience, tolerance and collaboration? These are values that unite people of all faiths and people of none, if they genuinely care about building a diverse, strong and mature society.

It will take courage to slay the monster of the economy and the myth that it must dominate our education service. But if we want education to be the beacon of hope that society needs, if we want to give our children and young people back their dignity and self-respect, if we want them to be whole, well and effective people, it’s a step that we must take.

Thirty six years ago (almost to the day) Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister. She famously quoted the words incorrectly attributed to St Francis:

‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy,’

What sort of society would we nurture if, rather than that being used as a political mantra, it was the aim of each and every one of us in our daily lives?

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Faith schools have taken quite a battering in the last few years. The charges against them are varied: there’s the indoctrination argument, the social segregation argument, the unfair admissions argument  and the neutral public space argument, thinly disguised as a legal wrangle about admissions protocols.  Ofsted has waded in with its wildly enthusiastic rooting out of homophobia in faith schools then, following the public outcry that resulted, making a subtle shift in approach by taking the standards of English teaching as a route into enforcing conformity.

Despite all of this, faith schools, it seems, will remain part of the fabric of our education provision. The meddling with admissions procedures will continue and no doubt the National Secular Society will continue to oppose any expression of faith in the public square, but faith schools remain enduringly popular with parents.  This week, however, a couple of new issues arose, which might change public perceptions.

Firstly, the Church of England seems to have started attacking itself from the inside. Martin Hislop, vicar of St Luke’s in Kingston on Thames, is reported to be dropping church attendance as a criteria for admission to St Luke’s Primary School on the grounds that he feels ‘uncomfortable’ about accusations of parental gaming and that the need to record church attendance did not contribute to a ‘positive and affirming atmosphere’ in the parish. Doubtless parents do game the system in a range of subtle ways and not just for church school admissions – moving house into the catchment area of a good school is reasonably common and the use of a family member’s address for those outside of the catchment area isn’t unknown.

What the Vicar’s decision will do is trigger a price war on houses in the school catchment area which will probably secure the very demographic that critics of faith schools abhor.  It will almost certainly discriminate against less affluent families and narrow the intake, so parents will still game the system, just by another method, I guess it will, at least, release them from unwilling church attendance.

This move is part of a growing trend in the Church of England – a group of clergy even published a letter earlier this month urging open admissions. In principle the idea may well be defendable, but it also raises the issue of those Christian parents who choose a church school for its faith ethos, not for the quality of its education. Why should families who genuinely worship in their local parish church, who commit time, money and energy to its work and who do so because they love God and not to game the system, be barred from their children attending that church’s school?

This issue was further complicated this week by the news that due to the shortage of school places, 20 families have been given places at a Sikh faith ethos school that they didn’t request. It’s an issue which I touched on in an earlier blog, and one which has been brought into sharp focus by the reactions of one particular parent.  He said: ‘We strongly believe in education being secular and not based on any one faith – and we expressly stated in our original application that we wanted a non-religiously affiliated education for our daughter.’ They had deliberately not applied for their nearest school because it was Church of England.

So what happens when parents find themselves in this position? Human rights treaties give parents and guardians the right to educate their children in accordance with their religious faith and their morals and that is true for atheist and secular parents just as it is true for parents of faith. What education managers and politicians seem not to understand is the distinctiveness of faith ethos schools. Just as one example given by a parent delegated to a Sikh ethos school: will the school include meat on the school dinners menu, when Sikh ethos is strictly vegetarian? Will children be allowed meat or fish in their lunchboxes if this is against school principles? And although RE teaches about a range of faiths, each day starts with Sikh prayers. Parents have the right to opt their children out of these, but what will the social effect be? And how can they become integrated into a community when they are opted out of parts of each day?

So what is the future for faith schools? If faith education is to mean anything, it must mean distinctiveness within each faith. To do otherwise is to reduce faith education to nothing more than a caring school where moral standards are nurtured and a holistic approach defines the school ethos. There are many schools like this with no faith ethos, so what would be the difference?

Church of England, Catholic and Jewish schools have a longer tradition of education than the state, but Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools are the new kids on the block and their entry raises questions about how we define faith education and who can, and can’t, access it. It also leaves unanswered the question of compulsion and whether parents can be forced to absorb spare capacity in schools which contradict the beliefs with which they choose to raise their children. Maybe this will be the next debate surrounding  the continued functioning of faith schools …