According to Nelson Mandela, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world’. While I wouldn’t completely go along with Mr Mandela, I agree that education is powerful in shaping the way we think, behave and believe.
It is because education is so influential that many Christians are anxious today about sending their children to state schools. They are worried what they will be taught flies in the face of biblical Christianity and frightened of the ungodly influences that will surround their children as society moves ever further away from God.
The Bible makes it clear the main responsibility for educating children lies within the family and by parents. They are the ones God holds responsible. On 26 occasions the book of Proverbs calls fathers to instruct their children and on 13 it calls mothers to do the same task.
However, family life seems to have broken down in Britain today and schools and other agencies are required to play the role the family once did. We can argue all day that this shouldn’t be the case, but this is the reality we are faced with.
Many Christians are downcast about this and see no option other than retreating to the barricades. But a Christian can never have a bunker mentality. While the days are not easy, we haven’t got time to lock ourselves away in our churches feeling sorry for ourselves, discussing the state of the nation and wishing we lived in better days. We are called to stand up and stand out for the Lord at ‘such a time as this’.
Current education policy, and the need for more and better schools, means that this is actually a really exciting time. It is a time when Christians can set up independent, government-funded schools. At The Fulham Boys School (FBS) we have grasped this nettle.
FBS is built upon Christian values as described in the Bible and demonstrated perfectly by the Lord Jesus Christ. We try to follow these values in everything we do. They have an impact on every area of school life, be that assemblies, form times, lessons, break and lunchtimes, sports afternoons or any other time.
This has an impact on learning, behaviour, pastoral care and pupil and staff welfare. Teachers regularly draw attention to Christian values in lessons and refer to them when, say, following-up an incident of poor behaviour or mentoring a boy.
It is these values that underpin our commitment to social enterprise. Among other ventures, our boys go to nursing homes, visit old people and do their shopping, look after the environment, go into primary schools to help younger pupils read, sleep out once a year to empathise with the homeless, cook for the homeless, bake cakes for Macmillan Cancer. Eighteen months ago, they visited the Calais Jungle.
All of this ties in with the government’s emphasis on promoting ‘British values’ — values such as compassion, respect, friendship, stewardship, service and honesty. Our boys (as our school prayer says) ‘make a positive contribution to society’.
Similarly, the Christian ethos of the school is part of the school’s response to radicalisation and supports the national Prevent strategy. Boys who develop the Christian values we focus on will not be drawn into violent extremism.
But these values alone don’t make a school Christian. What really makes FBS a school built on the Christian faith is that we proclaim the message of the Bible and present the boys with the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is done explicitly in our assemblies.
As well as a talk by the chaplain, the Bible is read, hymns are sung (with gusto!) and we pray. All visitors are struck by our assemblies and the Department for Education said of FBS, ‘Assemblies are truly outstanding’.
Many boys may well reject the Lord Jesus Christ and show no interest in him, but it is important that every boy is at least introduced to Him during his time at FBS. If our boys end up in a lost eternity, they will have to push past a crucified Saviour to get there.
Education is important, but what does it profit these boys if they gain the highest grades at GCSEs and A levels, gain entry to Russell Group and Oxbridge universities, but lose their eternal souls? In fact, what would it profit these boys if they even gained the whole world but lost their never-dying soul?
As well as in assemblies, boys are made aware of what Christianity and the Bible has to say, through the school’s curriculum, in every subject, including religious education, science, and personal, social, health, citizenship and enterprise education (PSHCE).
Teachers are therefore encouraged to build time into their programmes of studies to allow this to happen. This is not expected to happen in every lesson, but should be happening at least termly and where an obvious opportunity arises. This is supported by posters that are placed in classrooms and corridors around the school that show what the Bible has to say about particular subjects.
There is a Christian Union for each year group, every day. These involve some chat and a game, then discussion about a Bible passage or a big question. Once a week, there is ‘super CU’ when all year groups join together. At different points in the year, there are school trips to particular Christian events that may interest the boys. Our boys are also encouraged to go on Christian camps in the summer.
Teachers, parents and boys
We have a school chaplain who leads the Christian ethos at FBS and his work isn’t just focused on the boys. He works with staff and parents too. Every Friday morning during staff briefing he speaks to the whole staff team.
As well as discussing issues to do with pupil and staff welfare, he explains something about Christianity or shares good practice on linking with Christian values or beliefs around the school.
Currently, he is going through the Solas of the Reformation. He also leads a prayer meeting for staff once a week, for those wanting to attend; and every month after school there is a school prayer meeting that staff, parents and governors are invited to.
The chaplain gives a brief thought from the Bible, and the needs of the school community are then prayed for. At Christmas and other times during the school year, he has opportunity to preach to boys, parents and staff.
Eight members of staff at the school who are not Christians are reading Christian books. On the school gate three boys — a Muslim, a boy from a Christian home, and an atheist — were recently overheard discussing penal substitution!
Thinking and questioning
But how do we get away with being so unashamedly biblical? It comes down to how we teach, as well as what we teach. We never hide or dumb down the fact we are a school built upon the Christian faith.
We expose our boys to what Christians believe, but encourage them to evaluate it, weigh it up. We don’t force them to believe it. We have created an environment that encourages thinking and questioning.
There is absolutely no place in schools for brainwashing or extremist views to be forced upon young people. Schools should be transparent, with nothing to hide or be ashamed of. At FBS, Ofsted and the Department for Education are always welcome and can speak to whoever they like, look at whatever they need, and do it all whenever they want to.
We are confident that under such a spotlight Jesus Christ taught openly (Mark 14:48-49), and, far from brainwashing people and forcing them to believe certain things, he asked over 150 questions in the New Testament, always encouraging people to question and think.
He had nothing to hide and urged his followers not to teach secretly, but openly. The apostle Paul said that he was ‘not ashamed’ of the Christian message (Romans 1:16). If what we are teaching children cannot be inspected, then we shouldn’t be teaching it.
But it is the role of education and the core purpose of schools to make students think and question. It should therefore be expected that a school exposes young people to the claims of the Bible and Jesus Christ, so long as it is done in a fair and balanced way that encourages them to scrutinise those teachings.
Surely this is preferable to having society’s views and biases forced on young people; to be told that what we have decided on today is right and every other generation has got it wrong; that certain arguments and views are not even allowed to be put on the table?
At FBS, we believe young people should be encouraged to have strong beliefs, to be unafraid to go against the crowd, to dare say that society might be getting things wrong and hold counter-cultural views, so long as they are not hateful and violent, are themselves willing to be disagreed with and questioned, and can back up their views with reasoned arguments, kindness and respect.
Education shouldn’t dictate what a young person thinks. The man voted the greatest Briton ever, Winston Churchill, said: ‘True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous and conflicting information’.
The current bias against creation flies in the face of this. No student or teacher should feel inferior for holding the view that, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’.
During their visit to FBS in May 2017, Ofsted commented: ‘Debate and discussion are encouraged through an active Christian Union, which the pupils told inspectors they value very much’.
Commitment to excellence
As well as encouraging our pupils to think and question, as a Christian school we have a duty and responsibility to be excellent.
The reason why many schools with a religious designation have failed is because, quite frankly, they weren’t good enough. They set up a school simply as a vehicle to promote their faith. At FBS we have pledged to be one of the best schools — state or private — in the country in the next ten years.
Competitive sport is central to school life. Our core sports are rugby, football, cricket and rowing. The school has an academic curriculum that will prepare our boys for Russell Group and Oxbridge universities and is brought alive by innovative teaching, making use of the latest sources of materials and learning technologies.
Ofsted commented, when they visited in May 2017, that we ‘deliver a strong academic curriculum … academic progress is strong, boys are on track to achieve well at GCSE’. We have the highest standards of behaviour, uniform, attendance and punctuality.
We believe boys respond best to firm discipline and clear boundaries, and that the most important type of discipline is self-discipline; that, even when teachers and other adults are not present, our boys know how to behave appropriately.
According to Ofsted: ‘Behaviour in lessons is exemplary … The behaviour of pupils is outstanding … Boys live and breathe good manners and courtesy’. Our boys are also happy and safe. The tri-borough safeguarding officer said after her visit, ‘If there was ever a school whose ethos was embedded with students being happy, safe and well, The Fulham Boys School was a shining light in this element … If any colleagues from other schools ever wanted to see what a happy and safe school looked like, The Fulham Boys School would be first on my list of schools to send them to look at’.
To be outstanding, we have to have outstanding teachers. So we only appoint teachers who are outstanding or have the potential to be outstanding. Not all our teachers are Christians (about one-third are). As a Christian headmaster, my responsibility is to appoint the best teachers. Even so, all staff are committed to supporting the ethos.
Everyone is welcome
A Christian school isn’t just for Christians. Not all the boys or parents at FBS are Christians. We welcome boys and families from all faiths and no faith. We also welcome boys from all backgrounds. We are truly comprehensive.
Seven per cent of our boys are Asian, 10 per cent Black Caribbean, 13 per cent Black African. We have boys from Muslim backgrounds. About 15 per cent of our boys come from private school backgrounds, while others are socially and economically deprived — all rubbing shoulders together and meeting the same high standards.
Everyone is welcome, loved and respected, but all know and understand the principles the school is built upon and what they are coming to. Ofsted noted: ‘Christian values of the school are clear while at the same time everyone is welcome and included’.
I hope, as you read, you are thinking, ‘How can we get more schools like this?’ Well, this is the exciting bit!
The government have approached us to set up more schools. We see this as an amazing opportunity and hope, to have schools like this across London and the rest of the country, over the next few years. The schools will be part of a trust called ‘The Charles Spurgeon Schools’.
The trust will do much of what is required to establish and look after these schools, but in order to make it happen, other things and people are needed. Hence this ‘clarion call’ for the following things:
Members from local churches to form a group (could be from a collection of churches, as well as including non-Christians) to be founders and governors of the new local school. The team needs to be professional and credible, with the following skills: architectural, legal, financial, marketing, public relations, primary school liaison/community, education. I’m sure there are such people in our churches.
A wide group of volunteers to assist with amassing evidence for the demand (as distinct from need) for such a school. This network (often parents) will be the school’s ambassadors on the ground, getting the community excited about it and gathering evidence of support.
Talented teachers, raised up by God, to enter the profession.
If you are interested, please get in touch. In March 2018, we are planning a half-day conference in London for parents, teachers, church leaders, church members, any interested parties, to go through all of this in more detail. Look out for more information on this event.
Education in Britain, at the moment, is in the melting pot, as in fact is society as a whole; and we have been put in this situation for such a time as this. This is a great opportunity and surely one we should take.
Imagine lots of schools, with thousands of young people and their families, up and down our land, founded on the Christian faith, hearing the claims of the Lord Jesus, exposed to the teaching of the Bible, open to all, committed to excellence and capable of standing up to the most intense scrutiny.
Under God, who knows what may be achieved? They may even be used to turn this nation upside down!
The author ([email protected]) is headmaster of The Fulham Boys School, London