Thursday, 19 March 2015

Religion in Schools: The Debate

On Thursday, 19th March, a panel discussion on the subject of "the treatment of religion in schools" took place in the Bristow Clavell Lecture Theatre, featuring 8 panellists (Jadon Buckeridge, Ms Burden, Will Dry, Johanna Horsman, Alex McKirgan, Mr Priory, Alex Sligo-Young and Ms Smith), chaired by Mr Lemieux and Flo Stow


Reverend Burtt introduced the evening, explaining how the discussion began with an article in Portsmouth Point magazine by Jadon Buckeridge critical of religion, which (along with an article on war and religion by Sian Latham) the Chaplain commended to all audience members as well worth reading (you can read the articles by Jadon and Sian here). Reverend Burtt described how Will Dry met with the Headmaster to agree to a public debate both in response to some of the ideas expressed in Jadon's article and in the interest of an open, wide-ranging discussion of the treatment of religion in schools. Flo Stow then introduced each of the panellists and invited four of them to offer opening statements.

Mr Priory began by saying he was pleased to be involved in discussing such a challenging topic and explained why the school approaches religion in the way that it does. He said that he had recently received one email telling him that, although the individual enjoyed the solemnity of the Christmas carol service, they wished it could have more humour, and another expressing concern that there was not enough representation of the voice of Christians in everyday school life. Mr Priory felt that this was indicative that the school was seeking to get the balance right between secularity and religion. He pointed out how such items in the news such as gay marriage, female bishops, the recent conflict between Stephen Fry and the Catholic Church, confirmed the continuing relevance of religion. He cited the roots of PGS itself, in particular the radical decision by Canon Grant in the 1870s to end the requirement that teachers be Anglicans and the appointment of non-Conformist, Catholic and Jewish staff, as representative of a long tradition of tolerance within the school. However, our relationship with the Cathedral  remained important to us as a school and, on a more personal level, Mr Priory worried about a broader shift towards the self in society as a whole; he argued that involvement in religious life can help people develop resilience, coping in particular with the central human experience of imperfection. He felt, also, that, whatever final decision each member of the school eventually makes regarding their religious (or non-religious) belief, they will have experienced what is available and can therefore make their own informed decision.

Ms Burden felt that agnosticism was the easiest position to defend philosophically, but personally could not believe in God and considered herself an atheist. She argued that the title of the evening ("religion in schools") was open to interpretation and felt that religion has some place in schools, but that the world is changing. Whereas the adults in the lecture theatre had all probably grown up with broad Christian worship in their schools, there has been a dramatic change over the past decade or so as the nature of our country has changed radically. On the other hand, she valued the cultural value of knowledge of Christianity - with regard to our literature, language, laws and social structures - but perceived that the religion itself was becoming increasingly esoteric and that society was shifting under our feet. 

Will Dry supported religion in schools and felt personally that it was more than just a relic of the past. He addressed the argument that state schools should not be funded by taxpayers to inculcate, arguing that the state is a function of society and that, as 59% of the nation defines itself as Christian (whether or not regular church-goers), the state (and state schools) should reflect this. This is not indoctrination, he argued, but the offering of a chance for individual pupils to make their own response. At PGS, for example, during religious services or prayers in assembly, pupils have the option to not participate but simply spectate respectfully. He pointed out that the sheer number of articles on religion in Portsmouth Point blog and magazine, from a religious to sceptical perspective, demonstrated both the high level of interest among pupils and the freedom the school offered for expression of personal opinion.


Alex McKirgan clarified that the purpose of the discussion was not to debate whether religion was good or bad but whether it had a place at PGS and in schools in general. He said the school should recognise that society has changed, that pupils of all religions and none should be treated equally. Church was a way of organising people before democracy and its role in influencing the moral code we live by should be acknowledged, but it was no longer a building block of our society. PRS was important (and extremely well taught at PGS). However, those with atheistic or agnostic perspectives should not have their beliefs labelled as inferior by the school and pupils should have the autonomy to choose their own values. Assemblies were important to foster a sense of community and PGS is an excellent, forward-looking, modern school. However, Christianity is simply part of broader moral and ethical values.  

Mrs Williams, from the audience, then asked the first question: would the world be better off with or without religion? Ms Burden said she wanted to say yes, that the modern obsession with the self is dangerous. However, she argued that religious belief is inextricably linked to culture, race, power etc (as evidenced by the recent persecution of the Yazidhi tribe) and that, although religion legitimises rather than causes problems, it still perpetuates existing sources of conflict and is therefore damaging. Will agreed that it was true that horrific acts were committed in the name of religion, but also much good was achieved. 50% of charity in Africa came from Christian organisations and the work of the Islamic Disaster Relief Fund (as learnt about in PRS at PGS) was invaluable. He also noted that Stalin, Pol Pot and others demonstrated that the non-religious alternative was worse; from the audience, Dr Richmond agreed, asking whether the world really was better off with secularism in charge. Alex McKirgan expressed concerns that the absolute certainties given by religion were dangerous and cited the chairman of the Senate Science Committee in the USA, who dismisses global warming because it is not in the Bible. from the audience, Mrs Dray responded that religion was not based not on certainty but was about what we can't prove - which is why the leap of faith is at the heart of Christianity.

Audience member Merlin Cross asked whether faith schools led to social division. Mr Priory noted that religion had played a major part in establishing schools throughout Britain's history and continued to do so today - with many schools of particularly high quality, popular with parents particularly at the Primary level because of the moral framework they provide. The danger came when we move from faith-based schools to faith schools that are cut off from the broader society, which we have seen recently in the case of the "Trojan horse" schools in Birmingham, where teaching was controlled by governors and others to suit a particular religious agenda. Jadon responded that the danger was accentuated by the fact that, since 2010, free schools and academies were not required to follow the national curriculum, so that Catholic schools, for example, could teach that homosexuality was wrong - this should not be funded by the taxpayer. The focus should not be on dividing up communities but integrating communities, encouraging tolerance for each other. In addition, most young people were secular and it was not up to schools or parents to create an environment seeking to shape children's beliefs from the age of 5; children should have the time and freedom to decide their own views for themselves. Mr Priory asked how young people could make such decisions in an informed way unless they had some sort of religious experience as part of their educational background. Jadon responded that there was a difference between objective education about religion that can help open up different religions to pupils and enforced collective worship. From the audience, Phoebe Warren asked whether pupils should be allowed to wear burkhas, crosses and other items signifying religious belief ior whether the French system (complete ban) was best. Alex Sligo-Young said that everyone should be able to wear items, such as burkhas, that expressed their beliefs, that the views of the majority (whether Christian or secular) should not be imposed on a minority. Rohan Hegde, from the audience, asked Alex whether he was therefore against faith-based schools.  From the audience, Beth Schofield asked whether it was acceptable for members of staff to express their religious views openly to pupils in class. Ms Smith said that is was probably all right to share a point of view, but that she was uncomfortable about it in the same way that she was uncertain about staff members imposing their political views on others. Johanna Horsman replied that she thought it was acceptable as long as no one was trying to indoctrinate or force their views on others. 

Jadon said that there were only two options for non-Christians during services and assemblies: exempting self from worship (leading to a sense of isolation) or missing the whole service, which means missing out on a sense of community. One should not be forced to opt out of a collective celebration of achievements by being subjected to biblical readings and hymns contrary to one's own views - this was not satisfactory in an educational environment. Ms Smith noted that the Butler Act advocated that religion was the only subject that could not be withdrawn from a school curriculum and told a story about a girl being withdrawn from her PRS class at a previous school because an atheistic parent objected to Ms Smith's Lego Diorama exploring the New Testament; he had claimed that it was unacceptable to promote religion through a children's toy. 

Ross Watkins, from the audience, asked whether it was still justifiable to have a Christian-focused service in a school as religiously diverse as PGS. Ms Burden replied that the school should embrace different religions more wholeheartedly, for example the literary merit of Hinduism. Mr Priory said that he was comfortable with an ecumenical element, involving other faiths in school services and assemblies. He noted that "Thought for the Day" was still going, on Radio 4, even in our increasingly secular society, and that it was not exclusively Christian. He argued that collective religious experience can help individuals prepare for major events in life - for the christenings, marriages and funerals that mark milestones in life, whether or not they subscribe to the beliefs behind these examples of collective commemoration. Participation in such collective worship gave individuals more chance to decide in an informed way whether or not they wish to adopt this in the future. Jadon responded that he felt it would be better if prayer was not part of the celebration of secular achievements at school assemblies; it reflected a double standard because most people there were not members of the Church of England. Sophie Parekh said that her own Hindu heritage was not represented within the school and argued that she should be allowed to opt out of services if she wished. Mr Priory noted that 83% of parents in the recent parental survey had agreed/strongly agreed with the school's position on religion; Jadon's view was valid, but most feel otherwise. Ross agreed that the relationship the school had with the cathedral was an important one and pointed out that we have a brilliant chaplain, Reverend Burtt, who works hard to bring current affairs into moral teaching and allows others to express views. Ross felt that other cultures and religions should be allowed to take part in cathedral services, but wondered where one would then draw the line, for example should Jedis be allowed due to the increasing popularity of this as a belief? As a result, Ross felt it more practicable to have no religion at all. He also questioned how many parents had attended school services; Mr Priory replied that most parents attended the Year 7 Beginners Service. 

Jack Rockett, from the audience, cited his own experience of a faith-based primary school where he felt he had been indoctrinated and that had been taught little about science. Johanna replied that her experience of a faith-based primary had been very different; she had learnt about science and been taught about a range of religions. Phoebe Gill, from the audience, said that she felt disrespectful to those who do believe because she is in something she doesn't believe in when she is at a school service. Ms Burden said that she attended a multi-cultural school as a child, where there were lots of guest speakers, people explaining their own views, not projecting them on to others as happens in a more formal service. Mr Frampton, in the audience, argued that it was unfair that we hear that you have to be a Christian to be moral, the suggestion being that if you don't sing hymns or go to services you are not prepared for the world. Alex Sligo-Young agreed with this and said that it was not the case that the only alternative to religion was ruthless capitalism. Reverend Burtt reminded everyone that the law of the land requires there to be an act of worship every day of the week in every school in the country. Schools are therefore in a bind because they are legally accountable. Mr Priory noted that the school, like all schools, had to implement recent government initiatives about "British values" within the curriculum, defined as tolerance and respect for the rule of law. It had been pointed out that it could be seen as arrogant to see these as "British" values when they are shared by other nations and cultures; however, someone else had argued that, equally, it could be seen as arrogant to say that these are "global" values, when they may reflect exclusively Western viewpoints that should not be ascribed to other cultures. No one was saying that only Christian views can be reflected in school - but there are two thousand years of Christian belief underpinning so many different aspects of our British culture and history. 

Dr Richmond, on behalf of Mrs Okell (who could not make it to the discussion), asked whether there was still a role for religion in schools. Mr Lemieux invited responses from the audience before the panellists made their final statements in response to the question. Mr Fairman pointed out that the rise in interest in spirituality (reflected in the popularity of such series as Twilight) posited the danger of people going in strange directions or no direction in search of meaning or fulfilment. Beth Schofield said that she felt Christianity was relevant culturally more than it was religiously, particularly in regard to British culture. Ms Smith said that she was agnostic, with strong atheistic leanings, but was pro- religion in schools because it had an important role within and beyond the classroom environment. We live in a country where the Head of State is also the Head of the Church and it is important to understand religion as part of history as well as culture. The school is a microcosm of a society in which religion does exist. Pupils need to participate as well as learn. She ended with a parable from a Jewish mystic with the moral that difference does not diminish but widens our understanding. Alex Sligo-Young concluded that religion has merits but also flaws. If PGS embraces new technology and ideas, as it does, why does religion stay consistent amid all of this change? There is a disparity between ancient texts such as the Koran and Bible and the beliefs and values of modern society and this gap can be destructive and a threat to tolerance and respect. The rise in religious hate crime shows the potential for conflict, as evidence by such extreme examples as ISIS and the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Therefore, non-faith events should replace faith ones and  religion should be kept within the classroom. Johanna responded that religion helps people get through tough situations and is to many people a way of life which they should not feel disconnected from in school. It also helped younger children understand moral values much more effectively than more abstract philosophical concepts could do. She cited the growing interest in Jedism (390,000 in the most recent UK census) as reflective that even secular people are seeking some kind of spiritual underpinning to their moral framework. Also, the cultural knowledge that Ms Burden referred to earlier was important - you need life as well as class experience of religion. Jadon said that it was easy to take away the impression that he and other speakers on his "side" of the discussion were anti-religion and stressed that this was not the case. Their argument, he said, was with religion in schools and that he had a problem with Britain being the only Western society where government still imposed religion on schools. He pointed out that this dated from the Second World War, when, for example, the cane was still used - like corporal punishment, collective worship no longer had a place in education, It was a defeatist argument for a school to say that you must join worship if you join the school; the school should benefit the pupils, not those in charge. Religion should be celebrated as part of our history, not held over our heads. 

Mr Lemieux concluded proceedings by observing that the gap between the eight panellists had not been as vast as might have been expected during what had been a very stimulating and wide ranging discussion. 

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