Religious fervour may not be raging but pupils are still searching for meaning from the curriculum, writes Clarissa Farr
"What was after the universe? It was very big to think about everything and everywhere. Only God could do that."
Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, inscribing his exercise books as a new boy at Clongowes Wood college, wonders as schoolchildren still do about his place in the cosmos. An Irish boarding school of the early 1900s was a place of didacticism and grim austerity; but how good are we now at providing opportunities to explore the "how?" and the "why?" and can we, in a secular age, provide a framework within schools for the true growth of the spirit?
Thinking about "everything and everywhere" necessarily struggles to find its place in a modern curriculum that is ever more crowded and prescriptive and assessed in ways that invite brief and formulaic responses. If the convenience of e-assessment is now to drive what is tested, learned, taught and thought, there can be little hope for maintaining the freedom to develop ideas and to ponder the fundamentals of human existence.
Yet, the appetite of young people to address such matters works with wonderful, organic strength against these constraints. It is a common complaint that today's students are politically apathetic: that may be so.
They do care, however, about matters of more enduring significance: the future of our environment, global poverty, the ethics of science and medicine. And they do want to ask questions about the world and mankind's place within it, of the kind that are resistant to being jammed into A-level specifications.
Some subjects lend themselves naturally to debate and wider questioning. In my school, English and history have always been popular, partly for the greater scope they offer for the consideration of human nature and the causes of great events. Now, our most heavily subscribed A-level is religious studies, not, I suspect, because of an increase in religious fervour but because the course invites consideration of such subjects as faith, determinism and the existence of God. Outside the formal curriculum, debating, drama and music also provide a framework for exploration and expression.
Students yearn to frame difficult questions and seek their answers, but fewer nowadays do this from the position of an espoused faith. In her book The History of God, Karen Armstrong says that our current secularism is "an entirely new experience, unprecedented in human history". If the worshipping of gods has hitherto been a part of human experience, if religion throughout history has been our way of seeking meaning and value in life, how are young people to develop spiritually in this new vacuum?
Many faith schools, including my own, cleave to their religious foundation while acknowledging that as modern institutions, they welcome children "of all faiths and none". Perhaps surprisingly, the many parents with no religious background seem to be reassured that the school stands for something, has at its heart a system of enduring beliefs that will, as if by osmosis, imbue their child with the values they will need as they go out into the world.
Students themselves live with these traditions in a state of contradiction and tension: they will invariably say they dislike going to assembly; they will claim that it's boring even when the content is inspirational and the delivery employs every possible diversion to engage them. At the same time, if there is a building or room designated as a place of worship, they will often regard this with an unconscious reverence. It was notable here at Queenswood, which happens to be blessed with a particularly beautiful chapel, that when tragedy struck the community in the loss of a pupil, the chapel was the place where her friends and teachers instinctively wanted to go: to light a candle; to sit quietly; to support one another.
Young people today, assailed by material distractions and promises, seem to experience more than ever a spiritual hunger and a desire to understand their place in the universe. Why else was there such extraordinary interest in the death of the Pope?
Their questions do not necessarily fit into the neat segments of our utilitarian timetable, nor do their hearts instinctively respond to conventional religion or the forms of worship that we offer them. At the same time, we must continue to create spaces in our test-driven curriculum, as well as provide a context in our assemblies and services within which "the flowers and fruits of the spirit" may, given time, ripen and flourish.
Clarissa Farr is principal of Queenswood school, Hertfordshire and president of the Girls' Schools Association