No state school in the UK today – primary or secondary – can be relied upon to promote Christian beliefs or values. Most of these schools will reflect what is called ‘pluralism’ – the view that we are living in a multifaith society and that our children’s education must reflect this fact.
That we are living in such a society can hardly be contested. Leicester will soon become the first English city with an ethnic majority.
In most classrooms now, especially in cities, there are children whose parents are Sikhs, Hindus, Moslems, humanists and atheists, as well as people from different ‘Christian’ denominations and sects.
Indeed, unless the aims of a school are avowedly Christian, and children attend the school on that understanding, it is difficult to teach non-Christian children things that are contrary to their upbringing.
Classrooms and school assemblies hold captive and impressionable audiences. Teachers, as professionals, have to be careful that they do not drive a coach and horses through the religious sensitivities of children or their parents.
There is certainly, in my view, a need for Christian schools. But most of our schools are not such, and pluralism is, at least in theory, one way of coping with the situation.
Pluralism itself need not be threatening to children from Christian homes. After all, their beliefs ought to be respected and honoured.
If Jews, Moslems or Sikhs have a special festival or holy day, and request a day off for it, they should be given it. If Exclusive Brethren wish to withdraw their children from RE or lessons involving computers, then pluralism must respect that.
No child should be forced to wear or eat anything against the practice of his/her religion. No child should be forced to do anything on a particular day (including the Lord’s Day) that violates his/her principles or conscience. If pluralism is even-handed it must respect these things.
But the actual situation is often not even-handed. It can often happen that children from ethnic minorities are given more freedom of conscience and tolerance than children from Christian homes with biblical standards.
However, the greatest weakness of pluralism is that it relies on the myth of ‘neutrality’. The ethos and philosophy of the secular school (along with those who teach there) are meant to be neutral. But such neutrality is almost impossible to achieve.
In practice, teachers’ commitments, beliefs, lifestyle, language and attitudes all come through clearly to children. Teachers themselves are not neutral, neither is the way they teach their subjects.
Even though there is still a good deal of professionalism in the classroom, and many teachers are aware of the challenges, most state schools project secular humanism rather than neutrality.
How can we tell? Secular humanism gives rise to the following four features.
First, an almost universal commitment to evolution, little attention being given to any alternative explanation of origins. Of course evolution itself involves a ‘faith commitment’, and a moral package comes with it.
People’s attitudes to euthanasia, sexual morality, animal rights, and so on, are deeply conditioned by their beliefs about human origins.
Morality without religion
Second, secular humanism promotes the belief that, while religion is to be respected, we are fast growing out of it. It is a psychological prop, a stage in evolution.
Third, the belief that if religion is helpful at all, it is mainly for its moral insights. All religions have the same goal and reveal the same basic morality.
Fourth, the opinion that morality is nonetheless perfectly able to stand on its own feet, without the help of religion. This leads to a utilitarian and relativistic view of morality.
These tendencies are strengthened by the growing influence of post-modern thought on education. Postmodernism suggests that there is no absolute truth at all – no true story of the world, no over-arching account of things, whether scientific, historical, or religious.
The postmodernist believes that truth is what you make it – if it is true for you then it is true.
The postmodernist is, again in theory, a very tolerant person. But he will not tolerate any claim that there is one right way, or any absolute standard of truth, right and wrong.
It follows that the children of Bible-believing Christians are having a hard time in our state schools. They find themselves in a hostile environment. They feel the pressure in the following areas in particular.
In geography, geology, the sciences and humanities, an evolutionary framework is assumed. England is worse than the United States in this respect.
The universities and the scientific establishment are so dominated by evolutionary thinking that the theory is stated as proven and uncontested. Alternative explanations are often laughed out of court.
In RE, the approach is invariably ‘comparative’. Most RE teachers are in fact committed to the view that all religions lead to God, like different pathways up the same mountain. This view is strongly reflected in most school religious assemblies.
In addition, pupils doing GCSE and A level RE will certainly encounter critical approaches to the Bible.
In literature and drama lessons there is an increasing exposure to unsavoury material and language. A child from a Christian home can be put in an embarrassing situation if asked to read aloud a passage including swear words and blasphemy.
Not all children of believers are introverts, and some do get involved in school drama! A young Christian lad in our church was recently chosen for the lead role in a school play, only to find that some of the material in the play was morally offensive.
The news that he had been chosen had spread round the school, and it took considerable moral courage for him to pull out. Few readers of this paper will have faced a more public test of their commitment to Christ in their adult Christian lives.
History also is often taught in a manner that is critical of Christianity – often anti-missionary and anti-Protestant.
Most children do PSE (personal and social education). This includes an element of sex and moral education. It is a minefield.
The Christian Institute has recently exposed some of the materials used, some bordering on the pornographic. There is an assumption that sex before marriage is the norm, and that homosexuality is a valid option. The emphasis is on mechanics rather than morality.
Sport, PE, music and drama now frequently involve Sunday activities, and this is particularly hard for Christian pupils who have talent in these areas.
The further they progress, the more likely they are to find their options limited if they wish to honour the Lord’s Day.
Peer group pressure, playground talk and language, social activities and unhelpful role models among teachers – all these put enormous pressures on our children in the state system.
What is the answer? There are three options.
The first option is complete withdrawal. This is a common response in America, less so in the UK. It is perfectly legal to withdraw your children from the state system and teach them at home.
Home schooling is subject to inspection, but most Christian parents have no problem in reaching satisfactory standards.
There is a powerful biblical argument: ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it’ (Proverbs 22:6); ‘bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:4).
Pure education is surely about revealing truth. Why should we wilfully expose our children to error? Why should we yield them up to an education system which we know from the outset is going to damage them intellectually, morally, emotionally and probably spiritually?
Three main arguments can be advanced against home education. They are (a) The lack of social interaction; (b) The ‘hothouse’ effect, producing tender plants unable to face the real world when they have to; and (c) The parents’ lack of expertise.
Whilst these are areas of understandable concern, they can also be overstated. Parent support-groups can alleviate some of these difficulties and some good networking is already being done.
Influence from within
The second option is that Christians can seek to influence the present system from within – in the following ways:
Firstly, Christian parents must actively compensate for the false teaching their children are receiving. There needs to be a lot of feedback and support from home.
The church also has a role. It needs to be aware of the issues its children are facing and (a) actively counteract false teaching in the schools; (b) positively reinforce sound teaching.
There are many Christian teachers and head teachers in the state system. They need our support and prayer.
Secondly, Christians and Christian parents can join boards of governors. These are now highly influential in the running and staffing of a school.
Thirdly, churches can place suitable Christian literature in schools. Recently Day One Publications provided us with a great opportunity to do this with the AD booklet and workbooks reviewing two thousand years of Christian history and witness.
Witness in schools
Fourthly, churches can get involved in taking school assemblies. We can ‘come off the fence’ in a way that teachers cannot. If this is done sensitively it is often welcomed by overworked teachers and heads.
Fifthly, and negatively, Christian parents can make representations to schools about unfair bias in education or withdraw their children from certain aspects of their education. Perhaps this could be done more than it is, but the sensitivities of the children themselves needs to be considered.
Some secondary schools have Christian Unions in which our young people can learn to be a witness and an influence for good. Again, the support of home and church is vital to counteract unhelpful influences – even there.
Some people feel that we should still be campaigning for our state schools to be actually promoting Christian teaching, on the grounds we are a Christian nation. They argue that we should press for more Christian assemblies and more RE in these schools.
I feel that this is now a lost cause. To campaign for more religious assemblies is to ask for even more religious confusion. If ever there was a golden age when our state schools did promote Christian and biblical teaching, it has long since gone.
We should recognise that mission is the church’s task, and the task of Christians within our schools. As churches we need to wake up to our responsibilities towards our young people – and the thousands growing up with no Bible teaching or spiritual framework. Evangelistic children’s work can and must play a vital role today.
The third option is to seek alternatives to state schools. Some parents feel that any independent school must be better than a state school, but this can be an illusion. (Of my own 26 years in teaching, 23 were spent in independent schools.)
Though these schools allow more freedom in curriculum development, and many do project a Christian ethos, independent schools are no more likely to promote biblical Christian teaching and values than state schools. The reasons for choosing them are often secular.
Of course, there are some distinctively Christian schools. But ‘church schools’ often reflect an ecumenical approach and much depends on the current head teacher. Nevertheless, they can sometimes be a better and more sympathetic choice for evangelical Christians.
Schools wholly committed to a Bible-based education are usually small and designed mostly for the children of Christian parents.
They often begin with infants and take only small numbers of children on into secondary education. Some follow a more individual programme of accelerated Christian learning.
A really exciting new development is the recent initiative to diversify comprehensive education and encourage the development of City academies – which can be special-interest or single-faith schools.
Emmanuel College, Gateshead, is an example of a modern school with a comprehensive intake, where the whole curriculum is Bible-based and the aim is to educate for Christian commitment and lifestyle.
It has a predominantly Christian staff, its own governing body, and (after an initial outlay) is funded by central government. The door now seems to be open for the development of more such schools, mostly in cities where there are failing state schools.
The people of God need to grasp the opportunity to pray and plan for many more Christian schools.