Posted on Thu 1 September 2016
Christians have always been involved in education.
This began in the schools in monasteries, then in cathedral choir schools, in the parish-based schools for the poor and in literacy campaigns to enable people to read the Bible. Universal education has arisen out of this involvement. The state is a welcome but relative newcomer to this aspiration. It should not, however, replace, or seek to replace, the church in this area.
A Christian view
Christian views of education may have different emphases from time to time and place to place, but they will usually be oriented to the development of the whole person: intellectual, spiritual, moral and physical. They will seek to develop a love of knowledge and the discovery of truth for its own sake, because all truth is God’s truth and helps us to make sense of that ‘other book’, the book of creation, by which he makes himself known. Although Christians will, of course, seek to equip pupils for life in the real world, education, for them, can never be simply the means to an end, whether in obtaining employment or in proceeding to further specialisation.
Now that the myth of secular neutrality has been exposed as precisely that, Christians should affirm that education should take place within an acknowledged world view and tradition which makes learning possible and which enables us to grapple with new issues. One of the features of some recent education has been fragmentation, so that subjects are taught without reference to wider knowledge, resulting in a lack of integration.
Religious education in particular should give pupils adequate acquaintance with the Christian tradition and also of at least some other traditions, but this should avoid the merely phenomenological ‘smorgasbord’ approach to teaching. Pupils should be able to integrate what they learn within a wider world view. There should also be, especially at secondary level, some attempt in RE and elsewhere to integrate what pupils are learning in other disciplines with what is being taught in RE and in assemblies.
Naturally, much of the above presupposes schools with a Christian foundation. In recent years many church schools within the maintained sector have been able to strengthen the Christian character of their school through becoming ‘aided’. The more recent possibilities of ‘academisation’ or of free schools also offer the prospects of developing according to the foundational principles of the school, without bureaucratic control from local authorities, which have had their own presuppositions and agenda. There remain questions, however, as to how such character will be maintained in the future if links with denominational structures, for instance, are weakened. If an academy or an academy trust fails, how will the assets be dealt with? Will they go to another trust of a similar ethos and how will this be determined?
Problems which confront us
Teachers are under the multiple pressures of delivering the curriculum, of examinations, of inspections and of keeping up with new knowledge and best practice. However, those Christians who teach in schools without any kind of Christian ethos, face particular pressures. Although such teachers will, inevitably, be limited in how they integrate their subject with wider questions of knowledge and world view, it should be clear that religion and belief are protected characteristics and they cannot be compelled to teach as if they believed things to be true which are contrary to their faith.
The Christian Institute’s Same-sex marriage: Your legal rights to object helpfully sets out how these characteristics are protected. Hopefully, The Christian Institute, Christian Concern and other bodies would be willing to defend those teachers who are denied their freedom of belief and the right to manifest their belief in public and in private, alone or with others.
Pressures on parents
Parents must be at the heart of their children’s education. In fact, they are the ones who have primary responsibility for their children’s education, nurture and development.
The state’s involvement must be strictly ancillary to the primary responsibility of parents. This must mean that parental involvement should be welcome at every level, whether on governing bodies, in appropriate ways in the classroom or in extra-curricular activities. In particular, they should exercise their right to withdraw their children from sex and relationship education which is contrary to their beliefs. Edmund Matyjaszek’s paper, Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) and the Law sets out the rights and duties of parents in relation to their children’s education.
The growing number of church schools in the aided sector, academies with an explicitly Christian foundation and ethos, independent schools with a Christian character and the emergence of new Christian schools which are independent all give us grounds for not giving up hope in our schools. This is not, however, a time for complacency. There are real pressures on Christian teachers in every sector. Pupils are being exposed to unsuitable material about the meaning and purpose of relationships. There is open hostility to a Christian world view. We can admire those who opt for home-schooling to maintain the integrity of an educational vision for their children, but this is a demanding vocation which is not possible for all Christian parents to fulfil. We must continue to struggle for viable options for those who cannot take this path.
Helping heads and teachers
Churches have many opportunities in serving the educational needs of our children. Offers of help with assemblies and visits to churches are often welcome, even in schools without a religious character. With church schools, and other schools with a Christian foundation, there may also be opportunities for serving on a governing body, assisting with teaching on marriage or in RE, etc. Such opportunities need to be taken.
The conference in September, ‘Irrigating Deserts: thinking Christianly about education’, aims to help all stakeholders (heads, teachers, governors, et al) to form a Christian view about education in the light of the social and political challenges facing Christians in the UK today. It is, indeed, the best of times and the worst of times for Christians in education. It is a time for informed and critical engagement, not of withdrawal. We are hoping for good numbers at the conference to prepare ourselves for the years ahead.
The ‘Irrigating Deserts’ conference will take place between 9.45 and 2.30 on 24 September at St Michael’s Church, Chester Square, SW1W 9HH. Cost £10. For more information or to register visit www.ccfe.uk or call 020 3327 1139.
This article was first published the the September Issue of the Evangelicals now and can be viewed here.