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Should school values be secular?

In the first of a series of summer debates, a philosopher who thinks the principles we teach children should never be based on religious belief slugs it out with a church-school head. Below, TES readers give their views

A little girl is drawing a picture. Her father asks "What are you drawing?" She replies: "I'm drawing God". He replies, uncertainly: "You can't really do that, dear. No one knows what God looks like." Vigorously crayoning, the girl says: "They will once I've finished."

Children are comfortable with God. We could reduce our schools to a secular perspective. But why narrow their minds?

I work at a Church of England primary, where I conduct regular, chatty times of worship. Prior to that I spent 11 years in an 80 per cent Muslim primary, where I introduced practices such as lunchtime prayers to fit the Muslim cycle of observance.

From both perspectives I've seen school enrich the spirituality of children. So I fail to recognise the caricature of religious prison camps painted by our critics in tracts such as the British Humanist Association's Religious Schools: the case against, to which Julian contributed.

This humanist tract contains assumptions such as "the teacher who provides religious instruction is likely to be engaged in the activity not of genuine education but of indoctrination". That leads me to ask whether our critics ever observe current, real practice.

The association argues that, when schools get spiritual, they "tend to inhibit the growth of their pupils' autonomy by giving them a one-sided view of the world". Which begs the questions: isn't sidelining all non-secular values just as depriving? Doesn't that also restrict autonomy?

Childhood is a time of great spiritual awareness, a time of awe and excitement at the world, an awareness of our creation, our sending out into life with a purpose and the sense of a God who is with us as we take those steps. It's a time of asking what is right and wrong and why.

I am not a great proponent of religion. I don't think you can prove it or even argue for it. It's a matter of faith - just like humanism, really. All I'm asking is that we build in education the opportunity to cultivate spiritual values. To me, that's part of a good child-centred education.

Turning to teenagers, recent research by the Children's Society has recorded a link between spiritual health and general well-being, finding that young people's engagement with spirituality fosters a sense of purpose, a constructive relationship with their community and a concern for issues such as global poverty.

Of course, it is not only teenagers with faith who display such traits. I'm just saying I wouldn't want spiritual values that can have such an effect shoved out of education.

The case against church schools is that we are divisive, that we engender a sense of "us" and "them" in our children. Yes, there is a muscular model of Christianity that specialises in drawing hard and fast lines between "us" and "them". There's also a cucumber-sandwich version of Christianity that sucks the distinctive insights out of the faith. Neither reflects the way that my particular church views its educational role.

The Church of England seeks to serve communities through a calling to education. This calling springs from Jesus Christ's enthusiasm for life in all its fullness and diversity, making it perfectly possible for us to embrace both distinctiveness and inclusivity. Of course, we're ever seeking to communicate in a way that matches the vitality and brilliance of our founder - he's such a hard act to follow.

The simple fact is, I do not think that life is purely secular. I think there is more to it. I do not think I have got the "more" cracked: my faith is about seeking and finding. But I do want children to have the opportunity to explore that spiritual dimension. I want that little girl to draw her picture.

Huw Thomas is headteacher of a Church of England primary in Sheffield

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