Religion in schools – long overdue for a radical rethink

Editorial by Terry Sanderson

It seems the issue of “faith schools” is not going away – however much the Government would like it to. The NSS is doing its best to keep this vital subject on the boil and in the public eye. The most recent example of this was when we drew the attention of the Observer to an outrageous document published by the Catholic bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O’Donoghue, which he sent to all Catholic schools in his diocese. The bishop, it seems, wants to introduce a Taliban-style regime of Catholic orthodoxy in his diocese’s schools. You can read what the Observer made of the story here and the bishop’s gob-smacking demands here

We have been told continually by the churches and the Government that “faith schools” are not about indoctrination and are not primarily about proselytising. The Lancaster document, with its revealing title, Fit for Mission, tells a different tale.

Fit for Mission? Is that what our schools have become – “missioning” grounds for failing religion? It is time that the Government told the churches that it will no longer collude in the promotion of religion at public expense in this way. It is time for Ed Balls to do what other education ministers have not had the guts to do – tell the Archbishops and the bishops that their time is up in schools.

But how are we to overcome the very successful barrage of propaganda that the churches and mosques put out about how important a sense of morality is in schools – a sense of morality which, of course, only they can provide? How are we to challenge the deeply ingrained idea that religion is vital for children? Why does it seem so radical — even revolutionary — to suggest that, actually, children can have a perfectly adequate education without the input of priests, imams and vicars? They manage quite well in America and France without such interference in the education system.

The time has come for us to leave behind the idea that it is OK for religion to be pushed and promoted in schools so long as “humanism” or “atheism” gets a mention along the way. But it is not OK. It is far from OK.

We should stop asking for crumbs from the table and demand instead a neutral space in which children can learn without competing ideologies trying to use schools to recruit new members. But while the humanist movement continues to go along with the idea that it is important to educate children about religion in our state schools, the clerics will always be on hand to ensure it is done their way. And whatever small concessions they might make to “critical input from non-religious standpoints” it will always be they who have their hands on the steering wheel.

If we are to have religious education in schools at all (and, personally, I see no need for it), then it should be taught as an academic subject in short courses created by independent academics, not by agenda-pushing evangelists. As well as dismantling the “faith school” system, we need to get the churches, temples and mosques out of our schools completely and allow children to have a well-rounded, propaganda-free education that lets them reach their own conclusions. At the moment, it starts in primary school with a contentious premise (religion is good and, indeed, essential for a person to function in the world) and then, throughout the whole of their school life, religious education will be on hand to reinforce that idea for children. Anyone who has read the religious education framework will know that it is a charter for indoctrination – it is unbalanced, partisan and makes only the most grudging allowances for religions other than Christianity, and humanism gets only a fleeting mention.

Religious establishments and institutions in this country are at full liberty to preach their messages and to seek converts. But the converts must be free agents who have made the decision to embrace the faith without pressure and coercion. That is not the case in Britain’s schools. Children are not given the option of saying: “I don’t believe this and I don’t want to have anything to do with it” as they might be about political opinions and other contentious matters.

No. Unless they get parental permission (or sixth form self-withdrawal), they are forced — by law — to take part in worship. Not just to attend it, but to take part in it. In any other circumstance, this would be seen as a gross abuse of human rights. Why is it not seen that way in the context of schools?

Once again, we are told that it is part of the child’s “heritage” and they must be made aware of it. But is it? With only 7% of people in this country worshipping on the average Sunday, religion is no longer the heritage of most people, it is something they have chosen not to embrace.

A Home Office survey showed that when asked to name the characteristics that were most important to them, the population of Britain ranked religion as ninth. If we value it so little, why do we allow its enthusiasts to bully us into defending it and force-feeding it to children?

Would we really be a nation of amoral reprobates if religion was not part of the state, and not part of the education system? Of course we wouldn’t. And it is time for us to break free of the conditioning that has told us that we must cleave to God in order to have an ordered society.

The NSS’s opposition to “faith schools” will increase in the coming months. An unarguable case has been made against them and the time has come to demand action.

Schools must once again become repositories of knowledge, purveyors of facts, encouragers of skills, promoters of aspiration – not platforms for philosophies that seek to control our lives.

See also: Forcing faith on children is abuse
4 January 2008