A question of faith

6th July 2007 at 01:00
How far should agnostic or atheist teachers adhere to their school's religious ethos? Stephen Manning investigates

Leading a class in prayer can be tricky if you are an atheist. Tim*, 24, has found it one of the many challenges of being a non-believer working at a Roman Catholic school in west London.

He does not think his colleagues know that he is an atheist it did not come up at the interview and he is only in his first year of working as a science teacher.

"As a new member of staff, I have kept my feelings on religion to myself and I don't discuss it with anyone in the school," he says. "Teaching in a faith school has only strengthened my atheism."

There are quite a few teachers like Tim in Roman Catholic schools in Britain, where they face daily decisions about how far they should go to support the school's religious ethos.

Some faiths, such as Islam, have so few schools in the UK that finding teachers who subscribe to that religion is relatively straightforward. But it is different for the 2,500 Roman Catholic schools, which are large in number and set to expand.

Last month, John Reid, the then Home Secretary, suggested that the influx of Polish workers to Britain will require the creation of even more Roman Catholic schools.

Despite the schools' strong faith ethos, a lack of Catholic teachers has meant they have had to turn a blind eye to employing staff of different faiths or none. Even finding Catholics willing to be headteachers has proved hard, with 59 per cent of Catholic schools looking for a headteacher needing to readvertise the post, according to research carried out by Education Data Systems last year.

Tim chose his school because of the reputation of its science department. He had done both his PGCE placements in faith schools (one Church of England, one ecumenical) and had actually been a pupil in a Catholic school.

However, he still found it took some time to adjust to his new surroundings particularly the lengthy prayers before lessons or staff briefings and the expectation of some sort of religious content within the classroom.

He does not attend the school's weekly mass in the neighbouring church, though he will be present for less regular whole-school events such as the masses for Christmas or Easter. "Where I've had to take a prayer at the start of a lesson, I've bypassed it as a religious act and made it more like a 'thought for the day'," he says. "Nothing I do is explicitly non-religious."

This kind of subtle avoidance rather than direct confrontation seems to be the norm, though Tim thinks that, in time, he may not be able to continue in such a school.

"Some days, I do feel a bit hypocritical about it and I feel I should leave," he says. "But that would be to ignore how much I love the school, the pupils and the staffroom banter. So for now I plan to stay, but when it's time to move on I will look for a non-denominational school because I'm not comfortable with hiding or pretending."

So how much does the religious character actually permeate the life of the school and its day-to-day teaching? Not that much, it seems, and certainly not in its science department, where everyone but Tim is religious.

"I was anticipating it but it didn't happen. At one point, in a lesson on creation and evolution, a pupil asked, 'so creationism is just a theory?' I worried I was getting into difficulty, so I said it was, but added that evolution is another theory.

"I was a bit unsettled by this, so I asked my head of department, who is a Christian, to advise if I had handled it appropriately. To my surprise, he was firmer on it than I had been. 'Creationism is nonsense', he told me."

Teachers are supposed to provide "opportunity for religious reflection" in lessons, perhaps as a brief discussion at the end. The school is oversubscribed, hence all the pupils are from Catholic backgrounds, but Tim thinks the majority are not that interested. "In reality, they don't know what being a Catholic means and 11-year-olds don't have a critical appreciation of religion.

"Very occasionally, a pupil has asked if I believe in God. It is difficult, and up to now I have sidestepped it and said, 'Is that relevant to the lesson?' so I won't have to answer."

But what if the pupils of a faith school aren't religious either?

Ed* is a 25-year-old trainee teacher, raised a Catholic but now a staunch humanist, who had a PGCE placement a few months ago in a north London Catholic secondary comprehensive with a predominantly black and West African intake. Few of the pupils were from Catholic backgrounds and he discovered the religious aspects were a way of establishing routine, useful in a school with some behavioural problems. For example, a prayer brought order to the start of a lesson.

"The children liked routine and altering it was hazardous. We were told we didn't have to conduct prayers, but other non-religious mem-bers of staff did and, as a PGCE teacher, I didn't want to rock the boat," he says. "So I would lead the class in the Lord's Prayer or the school's own prayer. Prayers at the start of staff briefings, though, I found a little too much, so in the end I'd just turn up after prayers were finished. Nobody seemed to mind."

He taught history, yet curiously, even subject content such as Elizabeth I's suppression of the Catholics was not linked to the school's faith. "It struck me that none of the pupils were particularly interested in religion and none were acquainted with theology.

"I think in schools like the one I was in, the religiosity of it is accepted as long as it doesn't encroach on the teaching. I never witnessed any invocation of God by the head or anyone else, perhaps because it was all so ritualised anyway."

It seems like a schism Catholic school headteachers and RE teachers are expected to be upholders and promoters of the faith, yet lower down the ranks there is no such requirement. In Scotland, for example, the practice to date has been to reserve certain posts senior management, the RE department and pastoral care positions for Catholics only.

This is about to be overturned following a landmark employment tribunal win in Glasgow last year by an atheist teacher, David McNab. As a non-Catholic, he had not been eligible for promotion to a pastoral care position in his school.

Now 56, he works in a special school but for 15 years he taught maths at St Paul's High, a Catholic school in Glasgow. He was placed there by the city council and had been trying to leave the school from his second year onwards.

"The headteacher would not let me have a transfer because I was a good teacher. It was quite a tough school to work in so they needed me," he says.

"I never hid my atheism. It had no bearing on the teaching. I refused to take prayers, but they didn't even have prayers in the school until my case began. I liked the school and loved the pupils, but I hated the daily grind of being made to feel like a second-class citizen.

"I was also trying to get promotion from the third year onwards, yet younger teachers with inferior qualifications but who were Catholics were coming in and getting promoted quite quickly."

Unable to move up or out, he brought the case against Glasgow City Council. Its argument that "reserved" posts was not religious discrimination was rejected. He won the case yet, ironically, the outcome may be even worse for non-Catholics. As a result of the ruling, all appointments from August not just senior to Catholic schools in Glasgow will have to have the church's approval, and this may be taken up elsewhere in Scotland. How this will affect the future balance of staff that Scottish Catholic schools rely upon and, indeed, where it leaves the present non-Catholic workforce remains to be seen

* Names have been changed

Catholic schools by the numbers

There are a total of 2,038 in England: primary 1,692; secondary 331; 4 middle deemed-primary and 10 middle-deemed-secondary

Wales: 94 primary and secondary

Scotland: 401 total, 336 primary, 65 secondary.

The Catholic population of England

and Wales was estimated at 4.2 million in 2005.

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