Faith & Reason: Education is not about skills and jobs, it is part of a quest for truth

The national curriculum is no more 'objective' than any other form of education. The State should not delude itself: all schools are, in a sense, faith schools

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As new concepts become established in our normal vocabulary we often need to question the assumptions they carry. This last week the Ofsted Chief Inspector has been probing independent faith schools on their teaching of citizenship, and their potential intolerance. The words "faith schools" are now used repeatedly to signify schools where an overt perspective is held; where Christianity, the Jewish faith, Islam or Sikhism is taught as part of the process of education.

As new concepts become established in our normal vocabulary we often need to question the assumptions they carry. This last week the Ofsted Chief Inspector has been probing independent faith schools on their teaching of citizenship, and their potential intolerance. The words "faith schools" are now used repeatedly to signify schools where an overt perspective is held; where Christianity, the Jewish faith, Islam or Sikhism is taught as part of the process of education.

But there is a problem with the assumptions which are embedded in the concept of "non-faith" schools. For "faith" is an outlook on life by which a person chooses to live. And we could say that every person so chooses, actively or by default. We can have faith in money, science, progress, technology, fame or God, and these commitments may or may not be exclusive. (One can have faith conjointly in science and technology, for example, but God and money might be more difficult.) In this sense of the term every school has a range of faiths which it teaches implicitly or explicitly. They may well be embodied in a school's mission statement, and involve ideas like excellence, service, self-fulfilment, responsible citizenship, or rounded education. It does not seem contentious to say that in all schools staff and students are probing issues of faith much of the time.

Yet, throughout much of the modern era, some educational traditions have tried to deny this. They have often asserted that what children were to be taught was not a matter of faith, but of universal publicly agreed knowledge. They were to be taught the facts, and taught objectively, in a value-free way. History is a good example. The history of "1066 and all that" was effectively a catalogue of the political regimes, monarchs and movements that dominated British and world history. Yet the actual process of study gradually uncovered other histories: ones that were social, economic, cultural, ideological, women's, the underdog's or religious. The value-free approach presumed that the history of the British Empire was important and the 19th-century missionary movement could be more or less ignored. But this can be seen now as a value- laden assumption, and one which can be challenged in the light of long-term effects. History, properly understood, has always been a matter of faith: of faith in nation, empire, Rome, God, Allah, free trade, individualism, the Revolution. It is the very tussles between these commitments that students study and reflect on, doing better history as a result.

Recognition of the faith-dependency of education has often been masked by the predominance of the role of the State itself. The attempt by Bismarck to control Catholic education in the late 19th century has been repeated elsewhere, with much greater success. The State often sees itself as the arbiter of what education should be, and the judgements of a few politicians can replace the plural understanding of thousands of teachers. Margaret Thatcher initiated a process of educational control in Britain with the strong imposition of a national curriculum which would supposedly guarantee standardisation, and universal testing in which "subjects" became "skills". Yet, for all its assertions of impartiality and claims of neutrality, the national curriculum was no more "objective" than any other form of education. It still embodied values and assumptions about children that it accepted on faith, as well as values about the comparative worth of different subjects and disciplines. The faith that shaped the process might not have been Christian or Muslim, but it was faith none the less.

The real problems for schools today would seem to be not the faith-dependency of education, but the dulling of faith in pupils through exposure to a powerful media culture with its hype of image, entertainment, fame, sex, and the unqualified rewards of advertised products. It seems glaringly evident that what competes with the open search for knowledge is not the perspective of committed belief, but the closed mind of boredom.

Perhaps, therefore, the way forward in education is the more explicit recognition of faith alongside evidence as inevitably linked to education in all schools, and as present in all disciplines. Then education once again becomes about life and not about skills for a job. Of course, education is then harder when it cannot be just a question of jumping over technical hoops. It becomes again linked to a quest for truth and involves questions for which there are no ready answers. Perhaps we are better off when all schools are acknowledged as faith schools, rather than as being performers for the Department of Education in whatever its current view of education happens to be.

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