Religious schools help to broaden the mind

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Come the end of the day in our house, getting four kids to bed without drenching duvets in hot chocolate or getting toothpaste all over Dr Seuss is in itself a minor miracle. But amid the anarchy we always look forward to those last few minutes of bedtime chat. Kids transformed from rampaging monsters into snugly, cuddly things wrapped up in Barbie and Thomas.

And it's at just such moments that you must expect the unexpected from kids. Often you're asked to be an authority on earthquakes and other random features of our planet ("Dad, how do volcanoes happen?"); to be a pleasure-provider ("Dad, you know that advert?"); or a fortune-teller ("Dad, when will it be snowy enough for us to sledge down the main road into the path of on-coming buses?") That's the norm. But occasionally you get bowled a real curve-ball. The latest, from our five-year-old, was "Dad, who made God?" It's one of those questions that never fails to get your own mind going with the wonder of it all. And nothing better underlines how right we were to send our kids to a faith-based school. It isn't answers we were looking for. We just wanted them to ask the right questions.

So, top marks to my five-year-old boy, but hardly any marks for Richard Dawkins (TES, February 23) for his response to the latest Government initiative to promote faith-based schools. I don't know whether my son will grow up to be a rabbi or a scientist (or both), but I hope and pray that whoever he becomes he remembers that debates about really important things rarely are helped by taking the narrowest of perspectives.

(I might also add that eminent scientists should know better than to be highly selective with their evidence. It is grossly misleading.) Should kids inherit their beliefs from their parents? I certainly hope so, at least for a while. All creatures inherit core behaviours and beliefs (instincts) from their parents. And do religious beliefs lead to war? Well, of course, they have done, and may still do. So, too, do many other beliefs, causes, rights and responsibilities. Occasionally even with good reason, because some things are worth fighting for.

To deny faith and the teaching of faith on the grounds that it has somtimes led to war is like banning scientific research on the grounds that it leads to nuclear weapons.

And for Professor Dawkins to put religion on a par with economics or politics when asking whether we should have sectarian schools is, to use his favourite phrase, absurd. Worthy pursuits though they may be, economics and politics are hardly the stuff of life.

For my family, our faith defines us. It is who we are. At home and at work, in play and at school, it is there for us and we for it. That's our choice and our right as parents. But we do not judge the practices of others in relation to ourselves.

There is a spectrum of belief and practice in our wider family and in our community that our kids understand and respect. So do their classmates.

They also learn about other faiths and absences of faiths.

In years to come, many of these kids might experience an absence of faith too, but at least they will have had a choice. A curriculum balancing the secular with the religious, the profane with the holy, is the best defence against prejudice. That's because it deals in possibility thinking. It asks real questions.

It might also be true that faith-based schools seem to have a magic ingredient that helps their pupils achieve better results. Such schools seem to have disproportionately greater success as measured by league tables. Why?

Is there something in the attitude and approach that gives such schools a forward momentum or sense of purpose? Or is it that the kids who go there have had more practice with question techniques?

But whatever results schools achieve, in the end it ought to be a matter of parental choice. We send our kids to the schools we think will best suit them. And if your faith is important to you and your family, then a faith school is likely to suit your kids better than a secular one.

Choice matters for parents because they have the huge responsibility of bringing up their kids. And when it comes to dealing with those curve-balls at bedtime, you want to feel confident that you're doing your best to tackle them.

Richard Carr is a school governor and educational publisher, but writes here in a personal capacity

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