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.
South of the River
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 http://tinyurl.com/36m9b8p . 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 http://tinyurl.com/37ym4zt 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.