Religion and education - no longer a sensible mix
Thursday 27 November 1997
Why did he not turn round and say, "No. You get your hands off our schools."? For it is one of the strangest anachronisms of modern secular Britain that we have a huge category of schools, almost entirely funded by Government, yet claimed and in important respects run by the church.
Of course, David Blunkett could never have got away with it. The church schools provide a moral framework and an ethos that would otherwise disappear entirely from our Godforsaken society, don't they? More than that, they are good schools.
That is the argument which would be used against a proposed de-churching of our schools. But it is a non-argument. It shows that what we want is not religious schools, but simply good schools. And where is the integrity in indoctrinating your children with a "moral framework" that we as adults have all rejected?
The fundamental inconsistency is that education is a liberal enterprise, and religion is a conservative one. They simply don't go together. It seems easier to grasp this when the demand is made for state-funded Islamic schools. But that, as the Runnymede Trust has pointed out is really only because of our ill-informed prejudices against an unknown religion. It is only the obsolescence of Christianity that makes it look harmless in comparison? Education is liberal because it teaches us about exploration, autonomy, and the relative nature of truth. The religions which want to run schools are conservative because they stand for revelation, heteronomy, and the absolute and unchanging nature of truth.
"Christian education" was a favourite phrase of the Diocesan Board of Education on which I briefly sat. No one could ever define it - though there was a senior official who believed Christianity went so deep into the curriculum that Christian mathematics was different in kind from ordinary mathematics.
Of course, most people who subscribe to the idea of Christian education hold a less polarised view of it. All they mean is that the churches have done a good job to date, and a degree of religious commitment seems to make for conscientious and caring teachers. And yes to both those points. The church did a good job, in making us see that education should not be confined to the moneyed classes. At a time when there was little alternative provision, the church led the way.
That was a long time ago. We live in a different world today. There are demands for other groups with strong convictions to have parity with the Church of England in the educational system. These demands expose the widening gulf between education and indoctrination. Of course, the propagation of religious beliefs should be seen as an ordinary human right. But what of our children's secular human rights?
The Secretary of State for Education now has on his desk a joint proposal from a Church of England diocese and a local education authority for the church to take over a comprehensive school which, it is feared, might otherwise fail. If the proposal is approved, the LEA will be weakened by the loss of a county school, and by the perception that it couldn't do its own job there.
The church, too, appears in a bad light. It has taken advantage of the LEA's difficulties in order to build its own empire. It will impose religious criteria for entry, and like the other church schools in that borough, this school will go slowly upmarket. Social selection will begin to operate. Many parents will be pleased.
But it will have been at the expense of the greater good: at the expense of the LEA, at the expense of those whose educational choices are already limited, and at the expense of liberal education.
Mr Blunkett should resist this move, as he should resist any of the churches' attempts to enlarge their role in secular education. And the churches should admit that it is time to find ways of letting go of their educational heritage. Education and religion don't mix.
The writer, a former Anglican vicar, has been a governor of church and county schools. He is a member of a local authority governors' advisory forum.
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