Faith schools / schmaith schools


I was going to write a letter. It was going to be insightful and pointed. It was going to go something like this.

Dear Mr Gove

I have read your statement about how you want to allow parents and interested parties to set up state-funded schools.

I am a teacher at an ‘outstanding’ primary school that I am unable to send my own children to as I live outside the catchment area. My own local schools are either failing, recently failing or faith – which we are neither eligible for nor find desirable. Most of my neighbours with small children have found religion or moved out of the area, whereas we have been pushed towards the private sector.

It is against this background that some like-minded friends and I would like some details on how we could establish a state-funded atheist school. I understand that RE is a compulsory part of the National Curriculum but assume it would be possible to teach it in line with my beliefs (as a faith school would) – namely negatively.

In order to maintain the integrity of the project it would be essential to be able to discriminate on both admissions and employment. Again, the precedent has been set by faith schools.

I look forward to hearing from you with regard to this exciting, forward thinking project.

Yours Sincerely

South of the River

Happy to discuss the evidence

If I’m honest it was going to be written with a little more finesse. But then I thought, “no, behave yourself!” Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to hear the response. But is an atheist school really desirable?

 I have many objections to faith schools – summarised far better than I could do in this article by the British Humanist Association . But I have two chief objections: their legally enshrined right to discriminate in a way that has been deemed to be utterly unacceptable (and therefore made illegal) in the rest of society, and their inherently divisive nature. Any ‘atheist’ school worth the name would have to operate under the same principles and so the reality would be totally counter-productive.

My atheism is based around scepticism – I ask questions and expect evidence-based answers. Within this context atheism is not afraid to stand up and demonstrate its veracity next to a range of belief systems. It doesn’t need to segregate itself out of fear. The aim is not for ‘us’ to win, but for all of us to win – a notion of integrated ‘society’ that isn’t politically or religiously loaded.

So perhaps it is a secular school I’m looking for. Indeed Richard Dawkins answered a question on Mumsnet this week by saying that,

. . . children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded. If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists.

But all schools are surely supposed to do that anyway. We call it thinking skills, or by Key Stage 3 Theory of Knowledge – which is even a stand alone unit in the International Baccalaureate that an increasing number of schools are taking on. The ability to question, hypothesise, test, adapt should not be alien concepts in any school or for any age. We do it for science, maths, history – these are seen as core skills in all these subjects and more. But it is not the angle that is taken for RE. There is really no opportunity in a reception child’s RE lesson for them to say ‘but why do some people believe in god?’ My child has asked me that, then came home from school happily singing songs about the ‘baby cheeses’. I find it sad that a secular school could be considered as something outside of the norm – developing life skills that are away from the mainstream – that’s not the way it is supposed to be.

So having said that, it would be nice if the children of atheists weren’t treated as Satanists in Key Stage 1. And yes, I would love an atheist school in my area given my current choice – but I know I would just be becoming part of the problem.

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6 Responses to Faith schools / schmaith schools

  1. Why not a Humanist school? Atheism is about what you are not, and there’s no reason for anyone to define themselves (or encourage children to be defined) by what they are not. Humanist is what you most likely are if one is an atheist. Also the ability to not only teach but demonstrate that an ethical framework does not require any reference to religion, is a message that even many non believers still need to learn, what better way than by situating Humanism as an ethical framework and having schools within that tradition.

    Of course since Humanists have a higher ethical standard than most (all?) religions, there is no reason to participate in the immoral discriminatory behaviour that religious schools exhibit. Being better than the rest is not something to run away from.

    • Fair point – bit of an oversight but I think the argument would remain the same.

      Humanism surely derives from a skeptical mindset (eg a rejection of the indoctrination of religion in many schools), so one would like to think humanists wouldn’t be clamouring for segregation based on ‘belief’.

      The teaching within a humanist school would encompass all the thinking skills mentioned so, again, the ethical framework provided by a humanist school would result in what I would like, in an ideal world, to call a ‘school’, not a faith/humanist/atheist/secular school.

      And I’m still not sure about not discriminating – I’d be very disappointed if I sent my children to a humanist school and found it was staffed by theists and half their friends went to church or mosque regularly.

  2. Indeed, Humanists would not be clamouring for any sort of segregation, but that’s no reason not to set up a school based on Humanist ethical principals, which themselves arise from a belief that humans can and do arrive at moral stand-points from within themselves. Does one have to segregate to be a school these days? After all there is no Humanist “Community” so there would not be the apartheid effect that we see with certain faiths in the north of England where they have distinct language and day to day cultural practices under the guise of religion.

    Agreed on your second para, it’s just a “school”. If the state can’t run such a thing, and religions can’t leave it alone, why shouldn’t someone do it? To be fair it would not be that different from a lot of C of E schools I would imagine, assuming they are still based on wishy washy liberal Christianity and not the hard sort.

    I’m sure one could be a bit selective about teaching staff who don’t look completely comfortable within the ethos of the school (a pentacle on the staff room floor should take care of any stragglers), but why does it matter if a few of the kids happen to participate in some religion in their weekend time? Isn’t that yet another practical demonstration of where religious and weekday life need not mix. Isn’t that how the world once was, with school being school and those who needed to teach their children their religious beliefs did so on Saturday or Sunday. Much as I dislike that, a liberal conscience suggests that people are free to do so in a time and place that they pay for, not the state.

  3. Whole heartedly agree.
    I was lucky enough to find an “outstanding” non-faith school for my kids, but many are less lucky.
    I do however top-up their critical thinking skills (sadly still thinly covered even in non faith schools), by sending them here for a week in the summer:

  4. Pingback: Twitted by innerbrat

  5. While the idea of setting up ‘free schools’ could well be a divisive influence if they are inspired by religious or entrepreneurial interests, it would be a very novel and progressive idea to do it in the name of atheism. Unfortunately, there is to date, no fully theorised theory of atheism. Dawkin’s ‘God Delusion’ is helpful, but it suffers yet from the delusions of God. It so happens that for the twenty five years I have been working on the enterprise, and it will very soon be ready for publication. There is no doubt however, it is a challenging enterprise. I’d be willing to give any help I can to any interested party wishing to ground a free-school syllabus in a formally, unchallengable theory of atheism. NB, the website given above is in need of revision because it is probably too theoretically elaborate. It will nevertheless give a clear enough sight of what is involved in a fully formalised atheism. Soon it will be revised. Best wishes to all those seekingthe basis of an ethical atheism in which empathy, love and care are the most important objectives.

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