Children who believe they have seen angels are often too scared to mention it to their teachers for fear of being ridiculed, new research has revealed.
But teachers have a legal obligation to listen to pupils talk about spiritual experiences that other adults may dismiss as fantasy, according to Dr Kate Adams, senior lecturer at Bishop Grosseteste University College in Lincoln.
Speaking at the annual British Educational Research Association conference in Manchester last week, Dr Adams pointed out that both the 1988 and 2002 Education Acts require teachers to attend to children's spiritual development, regardless of how daunting it may appear.
"We can show them how important this dimension of their life is," she said. "And we can begin to combat the disinterest that can make children feel misunderstood."
Dr Adams interviewed 94 pupils who said they had had dreams with a religious element. A third had not mentioned these dreams to anyone else, usually because they were afraid of receiving a negative response.
She cites Sophie, a seven-year-old girl, who spoke of seeing an angel beside her bed every night. But when she mentioned this ministering presence to her mother, it was dismissed as a figment of her imagination.
"I don't tell my mum and dad anything like that any more," said Sophie. "They think I'm making it up, but I know it's true."
Dr Adams believes such cases are "a saddening indictment" of adults' inability to listen to children. "Communication on matters of personal importance can break down without adults realising it," she said.
However, new teachers often feel ill-prepared to deal with such issues. Dr Adams' colleague, Dr Richard Woolley, surveyed 166 trainee primary teachers at eight universities on their ability to meet spiritual needs.
Although the majority agreed that spiritual development was important, more than a quarter anticipated it would be a difficult topic to address in the classroom. And 44 per cent said that it had not been mentioned at all during their training.
- Teachers are legally obliged to attend to pupils' spiritual development.
- A third of pupils who have religiously inspired dreams do not tell anyone about them.
- 89 per cent of trainee teachers think children's spiritual development is important.
- 27 per cent of trainee teachers anticipate that it will be a difficult topic to address in the classroom.
- But 44 per cent have not properly discussed children's spiritual development during their training.
- 22 per cent think they will rarely or never have to tackle the issue in the classroom.