Growing numbers of parents are complaining about the activities of evangelical Christian groups who have been allowed into schools whose clear intent is to convert pupils to their religion, according to a study out today.
The report, by the National Secular Society, calls on the Government to introduce a stricter code of conduct for groups to abide by in religious education lessons to avoid them “proselytising” young children.
The report claims the squeezing of RE in the curriculum and the absence of trained RE teachers - a point highlighted in a report earlier this week by education standards watchdog - has created an “open door” for evangelical groups to push creationism and their own brand of sex education in lessons.
Headteachers’ leaders last night “a line is crossed” when religious theories such as creationism were taught as if they were scientific theories. However, groups named in the report were quick to deny any suggestion they were “proselytising” young children.
The report added: “The low priority given to RE and Collective Worship in many schools, combined with the short supply of qualified RE teachers and general pressure to provide sufficient teaching hours provides an ideal environment for evangelical groups to exploit,” (The decision to exclude RE from Education Secretary Michael Gove’s new English Baccalaureate at GCSE level had led to the downgrading of the subject, campaigners have claimed.)
“As one Christian organisation that provides assemblies states on its website; ‘Meeting the standards set down by the Government on collective Christian Worship and Religious Education can become an extra burden in a busy teacher’s day - the Assembly Angels are here to help’.”
It recounts the activities of one evangelical visitor to a school called ‘Matt the Christian’ who was discussing the merits of celibacy before marriage.”
A parent complaining told researchers: “I and my partner have been together for 20 years and are not married. We have two children aged 14 and 11 years.
“Matt also said that there wouldn’t be any paedophiles if there was more celibacy.”
Evidence collated for the report, Evangelism in State Schools, indicated it was not just faith schools that were opening their doors to evangelical groups.
Little warning was given of visits thus threatening a parent’s human rights to insist that their child’s education was “in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions” - as there was little time for the parent to implement their right to withdraw a child from a lesson.
The report lists 18 evangelical Christian groups with access to schools - and warns of concern over “the appropriateness of the message being delivered by a number of external visitors to schools”.
“The Secretary of State for Education has made it very clear that the teaching of creationist views as a potentially valid alternative to scientific theory should have no place in a 21st century publicly funded school,” it adds.
“Biblical or other faiths’ creation stories can, however, be covered as part of religious education - provided it is not being taught as science or fact - although this distinction will not be recognised by impressionable pupils.
“External visitors to schools will be regarded as figures of authority, particularly by younger pupils. When fundamentalist Christians express their sincerely and passionately held belief in the creation story, few children are likely to differentiate between what is being presented as a ‘belief’ and what is being taught as ‘valid scientific theory.”
Terry Sanderson, president of the NSS, said: “Our schools are becoming playgrounds for religious interests who are exploiting their opportunities to the full... With fewer and fewer people regarding themselves as religious, it is clear that faith groups see schools as their best hope of reviving their fortune.
“Children have to be there by law, they are a captive audience.”
In a letter to Mr Gove, Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, urges him to issue national guidance to schools setting out best practice for working with external visitors and contributors - particularly religion and belief groups.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: Much of our modern education system was built by the churches and they’ve earned their seat at the table - but religious education must be clearly delineated as such.
“A line is crossed when religious positions such as creationism are taught as scientific theories for example. Neither are schools places for proselytisation without the explicit and informed consent of parents.”
Phil Togwell, director of Prayer Spaces in Schools - one of 18 groups named in the report, said: “This is all about education.
“Prayer Spaces give pupils an opportunity to reflect on their spiritual lives, to consider big questions and to explore prayer under the oversight of qualified teachers. Headteachers have been overwhelmingly positive with their feedback.”
A spokesman for Youth for Christ added: “As a well-established youth work charity, working in Britain for over 65 years, we have always sought to serve and support schools on their invitation. Our staff and volunteers are trained, man by to a professional level, to act as responsible youth workers within an educational context serving in teaching, chaplaincy, reading and classroom support, sport, dance and drama.
“We would welcome the development of best practice guidelines for external visitors and believe they would enhance our professional support.”