Schools, faith and tolerance

Park-view-Academy-TROJANThe case of the supposed ‘Trojan Horse’ infiltration of some Birmingham schools by ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ has, of course, generated more heat than light. And it was only a matter of time before the spotlight was turned on Christian ‘fundamentalist’ schools. On Newsnight last night (starting at 26:20 into the programme), Jeremy Paxman introduced the issue by asking: ‘Where does belief end and bigotry begin?’

The report looked at the use of the Accelerated Christian Education syllabus, which I think could be fairly described as American fundamentalist material that includes all sorts of odd elements which have been well criticised. The report offered two interesting perspectives, one from a former pupil (with the slightly unlikely name of Jonny Scaramanga) who was quite critical of the curriculum, and later from two current students at Maranatha Christian School who were quite impressive in their articulation of the need for and presence of critical reflective thinking at the school.

But the whole report opened up a large number of issues which have not really been thought through by many parties to this discussion. The head teacher of the school, Paul Medlock, posed a rather pointed question in the direction of Government policy on education: if choice is the issue, then surely we can choose what we believe? I think this highlights the lack of coherence of the current approach in encouraging ‘free schools’—unless, of course, such a policy is driven by a quite different ideological or political agenda.

Some of the best points were made by Michael Reiss, Professor of Science Education at the University of London, and an ordained Anglican. (The above-mentioned Jonny Scaramanga is actually one of Reiss’ doctoral research students—which gives some insight into how journalists find their sources!) He noted that, even if you choose to disbelieve (for example) the theory of evolution, then you at least need to know that it is almost universally supported by the scientific community—and the ACE curriculum needs to acknowledge this.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 14.09.20Paxman then interviewed John Lewis, director of Christian Education Europe, who promote the ACE curriculum and its end-point award, the International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE), and Alice Roberts, well-known television presenter, and Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham. It was no surprise that Paxman made mince-meat of Lewis, who was baffled when Paxman suggested that there might be a difference between physical (scientific) questions, and metaphysical ones (why are we here?), and could give no really coherent explanation of the arguments against evolution, or say how old he thought the earth was. You would have thought that a public spokesman on this issue might have mastered such basics.

But more surprising (to the critical eye) was Alice Roberts relatively poor performance too. Paxman bowled her a marvellous opening googley, which put her off her guard:

‘Just because we all believe the same thing doesn’t mean that it is true, does it?’

She compared the theory of evolution with measuring the roundness of the earth, without acknowledging that the former has an historical, unrepeatable element to it, whereas the latter is more like other, repeatable, testable scientific experiments—and it is this difference which underlies the historically contested nature of the theory of evolution. She then challenged the ACE curriculum on the basis of ‘standards’ in education—though the previous report had noted that Maranatha Christian School has been assessed as ‘good’ by OFSTED, in both teaching and curriculum. Moreover, the ICCE award has been validated by UK NARIC (which assesses non-standard awards) as equivalent to GCSE and A-levels—which explains why pupils from the school regularly go on to attend top universities. (Some might think this shows what is wrong with the education system—but these are the standards Roberts was referring to.)

This debate highlights the lack of clear thinking in both ends of the discussion. The first is the question of ‘faith’. Government policy and public debate talk about ‘faith’ schools and ‘faith’ groups as if all ‘faiths’ were equal, and equally compatible with ‘British’ values (whatever they might be). But a moment’s thought shows the problem with this. One of the issues in Birmingham was the alleged gender segregation of pupils. Would it be acceptable for a Hindu faith school to teach the ‘truth’ of the caste system? Or for a Scientology school (recently classified as a ‘religious faith’) to teach about the visit of Thetans from outer space to Earth? Clearly not. Christian faith (and, arguably, Judaism) have a unique relationship with British ‘values’, culture and philosophical outlook because of the historical legacy of Christianity in the cultural and intellectual life of this country in particular and Western thought in general.

Clear thinking here will only come when we stop talking about ‘faiths’ in general and start talking about the different faiths under consideration. What, for example, constitutes an extremist view? Is the idea that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ extremist? If not, why not?

But the second, equally important, question is ‘What do we mean by “science”?’ What are its methods, its claims, and its limitations? There is quite a strong intellectual tradition in British scientific and philosophical thinking which has argued that scientific thinking is essentially inimical to religious faith—a tradition represented by the empiricism (or ‘logical atomism’) of Bertrand Russell and the logical positivism of A J Ayer. (Both were the subject of animated discussion when I was an undergraduate—though things might have moved on since then.) Although Richard Dawkins’ recent statements on not teaching children fairy stories seem like a parody to many, there is a sense that he is continuing this sceptical tradition—which can look very much like scientific ‘fundamentalism.’ And the one thing that did not come out in the Newsnight discussion is that Alice Roberts, like Bertrand Russell, is an atheist with strong connections with the British Humanist Association, who have hardly been a dispassionate contributor to this discussion.

In the end, the question of faith schools and education does come down to questions about how we know things. We therefore need to be asking about which faith, which science, and which kind of knowledge belong together in the educational context.

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18 thoughts on “Schools, faith and tolerance”

  1. Thanks Ian, interesting post that hits a number of nails on the head, I think. This public debate (and many others) still proceeds on the assumption that secular liberal humanism somehow provides a neutral ‘referee’ which is capable, and has the right, to make the decisions, judgements and choices about what is publicly acceptable and required. It doesn’t, of course, it merely has the power to impose that claim at this point in Western culture and history. In so doing it transgresses its own principle that people should be free to think and act as they wish so long as they don’t impose their views on or harm others. A major argument for faith schools in my view is precisely that they are about the only places where anyone is prepared (or indeed able) to stand outside the secular humanist hegemony and critique it and its assumptions in the same way as it does those of religion.

    We are living in a society that is beginning to experience the truth of (I think it was) William Golding’s observation that If God is dead then morality is power.

  2. I think one crucial aspect of the B’ham situation which must not be overlooked, and which in my mind makes it illegitimate to conflate Birmingham with the question of faith schools, is the fact that in B’ham we are talking about supposedly secular, public (state), schools — not faith schools.

    There is an underhandedness involved in B’ham that is entirely missing in faith schools which are typically very open and transparent about their agenda — in fact, that is one of their selling points.

    By all means let’s have a debate about the curriculum and values taught at faith schools, but not in the same breath as the subversion of secular schools by religious militants.

    • Thanks Wolf–but is it ‘underhanded’ to adapt to Islamic culture when your intake is just about 100% Muslim?

      And note that the Christian schools in the programme were not local authority ‘faith’ schools, but independent schools operating under a different regime.

      • Ian, I think any school which is not explicitly designated as a faith school needs to ensure that it remains welcoming to those of all faiths and none. If such a school is “inofficially” turned into a faith school, whether by Muslims or Christians, I would consider that wrong.

        If any school which according to its charter or by law is supposed to teach the standard curriculum, were to drop parts of it in order to cater to group sensitivities, I would consider that wrong.

        If such schools were given great assessments by the school authority while this was going on, then the deviation from the standard curriculum was either concealed from the authority, in which case I stand by my charge of underhandedness, or the inspectors were incompetent.

    • The problem is that any school that is taxpayer funded should not have a religious character at all. All children should be able to attend their local school with local children without parents being concerned that they are being taught the faith of another. Parents should not have to take children out of area or have to put up with this. Parents with faith or without can raise children as they wish but by separating pupils by the faith of their parents is never going to be conducive to learning about the faith and culture of others. I cannot see how this is not obvious to all, the faithful or otherwise, and find it bewildering that the taxpayer subsidises religious groups and allows this level of access to our young people in 2014. Andrew Davies. Headteacher of a school that educates children of parents of several faiths and of no faith, together, happily and with shared humanistic, but not specifically humanist, values.

      • Andrew, I think the reason it is not obvious to all is that it is inconsistent! To be ‘humanist’ is to have a position in relation to faith, and is not the neutrality that you appear to be suggesting.

        If people did not want faith schools, or thought that they should not be subsidised in the tax system, why are they over-subscribed?

        • If it is done correctly, it is absolutely neutral. It is not teachers or schools job to promote or otherwise any religious or irreligious view. Unless it is RE or a celebration of a child’s personal experience, e.g. A recent confirmation that they want to tell the class about, there is no reason to teach from any faith or non faith perspective. It certainly is wrong to teach or assume to children that one faith is correct, as is the case in many schools assemblies. I know i’m rehearsing this to the faithful but there are many christians on my staff who share my view.

          As regards your suggestion that faith schools are over subscribed, I would suggest that it is not a given that this is the case. I know that the oversubscribed schools in our county are the ones that have the highest educational standards and experiences for the pupils. The ones that don’t, faith or community, have lower numbers. Birth rate has a lot to do with it too which brings me back to my point about the only school in villages being a faith school takes away any choice for parents. It is slightly different in cities like Liverpool where there can be faith and non faith schools on either side of the road but then we’re just separating children based on the metaphysical beliefs of their parents aren’t we.

  3. Thanks for a thoughtful piece on this.

    “Moreover, the ICCE award has been validated by UK NARIC (which assesses non-standard awards) as equivalent to GCSE and A-levels—which explains why pupils from the school regularly go on to attend top universities.”

    This is possibly misleading. We don’t know how many students from ACE schools go on to university, because no one (including Christian Education Europe) has bothered to collect data on it. All we have is anecdotes from those who are successful. And “some of our students have gone to university” is not a very high bar for any school.

    One thing that was cut from the Newsnight report (because of time restrictions) was that Anjana Ahuja contacted all the universities listed on the ICCE website as having accepted ICCE graduates. Some said they had no record whatsoever of ever having accepted a student with an ICCE qualification. Some said that the students had also come with other (recognised) qualifications, and it was those, not the ICCE, which had made them eligible for university entrance.

    “The head teacher of the school, Paul Medlock, posed a rather pointed question in the direction of Government policy on education: if choice is the issue, then surely we can choose what we believe?”

    Yes, but this choice, I would argue, must be with the students, not the teachers. In ACE schools, it isn’t.

    • Jonny, thanks for commenting. Hope you didn’t mind my slightly tongue-in-cheek reference to you!

      That’s really interesting to hear that the statistics are not available or are disguised. Having said that, NARIC validation is not insignificant. In my previous job I was involved in admitting people with qualifications from overseas, and if they failed to attract NARIC recognition that made a big difference to what they could do in the UK. Along with the OFSTED reports on ACE schools, that does fairly comprehensively answer Alice Roberts’ main criticism, that of standards. So I think she needs to offer another critique. I am not suggesting that it is not there—just that she did not table it.

      Surely the choice *is* with the students, in that they have ended up there? I am not sure you would usually separate pupils choice from parents’ decision. If someone in your position ended up going there and resenting that, the issue is then in the child/parent relationship, not the child/school relationship?

      • NARIC’s approval is equally shrouded in mystery. In 2009, in response to criticism, it stated “a copy of NARIC’s report is available on request”. I and the British Humanist Association both requested a copy, and were refused on the grounds that they were rewriting it. They assured us that we would be able to see the completed document when it was ready. When this rewrite was finally completed (in 2012), I requested a copy again, and was refused, this time on the grounds that it was a commercial, in-confidence document. So any scrutiny or critique of NARIC’s decision is impossible, but it certainly runs contrary to the findings of previous research on ACE.

        Belief is a matter of conscience, and if teachers are lying or misrepresenting evidence about any subject, then it is impossible for students to make well-informed beliefs. If children are being indoctrinated, as I contend they are, they are to that extent denied freedom of belief.

    • Btw, what area is your doctoral research in? I thought Michael Reiss was the most impressive contributor—would have been good to have him in the studio as a mediating presence between the other two.

  4. Seconded, Wolf, and it is an interesting question in my mind (as a C of E school governor) as to whether C of E schools are ‘faith’ schools, and if so in what ways. They share some legal exemptions with faith schools but they are not usually faith-based even in the sense that Catholic schools are.

    Interesting moment on the BBC News last night when they showed a brief excerpt of the evidence from the local authority representative to the Select Committee. She made an excellent point about confusing extremism and religious conservatism (or rather not confusing them). One of the risks of the situation I outlined in my previous comment is that religious conservatism is viewed as extreme because it is seen as so far removed from the liberal consensus and what is intellectually acceptable in the modern age. That does not make it extremist in the sense the media and the government use that word.

    • Thanks Greg—I think the difference between extremism and conservatism is key. There is another one too, though, and less politically acceptable.

      The founder of Islam was a military leader, whereas the founder of Christianity was (by any measure) a pacifist. This sets the status of violence in the different religious traditions on quite a different footing from one another—and it is religious violence which is actually the main issue of concern.

      FYI I don’t think there is any legal or constitutional difference between C of E and RC local authority schools…but open to correction…

      • The gospels are packed with Jesus of Nazareth threatening his enemies with God’s apocalyptic judgment. In effect, he’s portrayed as calling down the ultimate airstrike on his enemies. If it’s pacifism at all, it’s only in the most technical sense. Christendom’s long tradition of “just war” didn’t evolve in isolation from its origins.

      • Thanks Ian. The point I was making is that C of E schools have from their inception been aimed at serving the community, albeit that when many were founded the community and the church community were much more synonymous than they are now. Catholic schools were, and are, much more about preserving the faith, though not so restrictively as more recent faith schools are perceived as being. The legal framework is very similar (although of course the real fault line in the framework runs between local authority schools on the one hand and free schools and academies on the other – the latter being controlled by their funding agreements direct with the DfE).

        An idea that interests me and which I am hoping to explore in my MA dissertation is how a Christendom-born institution like a CofE school could be post-Christendom mission in a multi-faith, multi-cultural world. I think part of that is simply excellence in educational standards, but that should be the starting point for any school. The tricky part, as the discussion in this string shows, is that in belief (and non-belief) we are dealing with truth choices, not just lifestyle choices, and there is no neutral or objective stance available, though some have more power to impose their point of view than others.

  5. Surely evolutionary theory is contested for theological, not evidential, reasons? The ruling in Pennsylvania’s Dover case, by a Republican judge, noted that Intelligent Design has failed to produce a single piece of peer-reviewed research.

    The scientific method, imperfect as it is, compensates for human bias. Perhaps the greatest testament to its effectiveness is the willingness of creationists to take antibiotics, which employ evolutionary theory in combatting resistant bacteria.

    Can theology boast similar results?

    • I grew up being taught evolution; when I became an Evangelical Christian I was for a while persuaded of the evil of evolution; I am coming around to the view that it evolution itself is not the problem but the attitude of some (mostly amateur) scientists that it effectively finishes off religion and faith and relegates them to the realm of fantasy.

      Consequently I am glad that at the International Christian School of Vienna, where I serve in a volunteer capacity and which two of my sons attended evolution is taught as the theory that underpins much of today’s science, but objections and alternatives are also presented and discussed.

      I do not believe that we as Christians do our children any favours by shielding them from the ideas that our world runs on, even when we disagree with them. We need to teach these ideas, discuss where, how, and why we disagree, and teach our children to think critically and independently.


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