Alun Ebenezer, headmaster of Fulham Boys’ School, writes:
The deadly attacks that took place in France less than two weeks ago shocked the world. Among other things, they raise the question of how we can have a society that is safe, but at the same time allows people to hold strong views and the freedom to express them.
As the headmaster of a Church of England school, focussed on teaching young minds to think for themselves, I believe that this is a critical moment to examine the role of faith-based education in encouraging radical thinking.
Nelson Mandela once said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. In the wake of the Trojan Horse scandal, the government is understandably worried about impressionable young people being radicalised. But that doesn’t mean all schools with strong convictions, values and beliefs should be forced to dumb down – or be viewed as a threat. If a minority of extremists cannot be trusted with their strong beliefs, it doesn’t mean others should be denied the right to have, express and encourage strong views.
Faith schools such as ours certainly seek to cultivate the principles that faith is built upon. These principles are re-enforced in lessons, tutor time and assemblies, modelled by staff and boys, and – in our case – they underpin the school’s commitment to social enterprise. But one could argue these principles of justice, fairness, kindness and respect are promoted by every self-respecting community school. What sets a good faith school apart?
In my view, it’s about how we encourage students to think and to question.
Not all the boys or parents at our CofE school are Christians; not all the staff and governors share the same beliefs. All backgrounds and all faiths are welcomed, loved and respected. And all pupils learn alongside each other the Christian view about topics covered in PSHE, science, geography, RE. Indeed, in every subject, Christian views are presented alongside other world views and theories.
This environment encourages thinking, questioning and scrutiny, and is transparent with nothing to hide. Ofsted and the DfE are always welcome and can speak to whomever they would like, look at whatever they need, whenever they want. They will find boys of all faiths and none encouraged to challenge, consider, evaluate, think and question.
Winston Churchill said: “All of the great empires of the future will be empires of the mind.” It’s these minds we must ensure our students use, to think about what they will hear at school, to challenge what our current society thinks. To be risk-takers, discoverers, courageous, unafraid of making mistakes or going against the crowd, and showing the ability to back up their views with reasoned arguments, kindness and respect.
By way of illustration, I am a Christian. Some of the parents, boys, staff and governors share my convictions, but the majority do not. I met this week with several Muslim parents whose sons attend my school. While we totally disagree on some things, we did agree on the best way to work together and on the importance of a culture that enables pupils to hold strong, opposing beliefs, that gives them the space to discuss and persuade one another, and ultimately to understand that someone may be right and someone may be wrong. That culture is developed by encouraging one another to think – and not through fear or force.