The classroom should be a broad church

13th July 2001 at 01:00
hen I moved up from my Roman Catholic primary school to a state secondary, I remember how strange it first seemed to be surrounded by heathens. Having been educated only with fellow Catholics all my life, I now found myself in a minority, swamped by Anglicans, Methodists and even the odd Jehovah's Witness. How unusual, it seemed, that the world contained so many of the unholy, apparently oblivious to their own separation from the one true church.

Of course, no one at my primary school had ever told me that Anglicans were beyond the pale. But the implication could not be avoided. If you're educated to believe that the Roman Catholic church is the one true church of God, then it doesn't take advanced logic to work out that every other religion is somehow inferior. Nor was there any sincere attempt to educate us about other religions, so an air of dark mystery hung around people of other faiths.

Without a strong Catholic home life, it didn't take me long to get over this prejudice against non-Catholics, although it did take quite a while to escape from my broader assumptions about the truth of Christianity. For others whose beliefs are reinforced by family and community and who go on to religious secondary schools, however, it cannot be quite so easy to overcome these prejudices.

An education rooted firmly in one religion inevitably creates such divisions between "us" and "them". While the word "indoctrination" may seem too strong, in many religious schools it is undeniably the case that the intention is to instruct children in one particular faith with the aim that they become believers themselves. The recent Dearing report on church schools, for instance, said that they are "places where the faith is proclaimed and lived, and which therefore offer opportunities to pupils and their families to explore the truths of Christian faith". Although the report expressly disavows indoctrination, clearly such a school, like my own primary, would inevitably foster a sense of one faith's superiority over another.

Why should that bother us? In working on a report with colleagues in the Humanist Philosophers' Group, I came to see three reasons. First, choices about religion should be made voluntarily and freely. Any educational environment that strictly favours one faith puts pressure on children to accept that faith.

Second, children are not the property of their parents or their communities. We should not accept that what parents want for their children should always be provided, if that provision means the children are not treated as having independent lives.

Third, we live in a multicultural society where, as the Parekh report The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain says, it is important not just to tolerate the beliefs of others, but to accept and recognise them. An education which does not give due weight to other beliefs is not one where such recognition is being fostered.

These issues surrounding what and how children are taught about religion are more important than the question of who runs or owns our schools. If the Church of England, for instance, wants to open 100 more Anglican secondary schools over the next five years, as the Dearing report recommends, that in itself is not a problem. But if the religious education offered in such schools is exclusive or veers towards instruction in the Anglican faith, then that is not something we should accept.

The solution to this is not necessarily to ban religious schools but to make sure the religious education they offer is fair and broad. At the moment, state schools must, by law, cover a variety of religious beliefs as part of the religious studies curriculum. Religious schools, however, are exempted from this compulsion.

The debate over the existence of church schools is an important one. But realistically speaking, they are here to stay. While they remain, the law needs to be changed urgently so that the existence and proliferation of such schools does not lead to more children growing up with the same feelings I had when I left my primary school. We should not be encouraging children to feel superior about the religion they just happen to have been born into.

Religious Schools: the case against by the Humanist Philosophers' Group is published by the British Humanist Association at pound;2 (Tel: 020 7430 0908). Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosopher's Magazine.

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