The 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.
Paxman 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.