The primary argument against faith schools is that of the autonomy of the child. Here’s how the BHA puts it:
The main educational argument against faith-based schools is a simple matter of principle: the proper role of publicly-funded schools should be to prepare children for adult life as citizens of a complex, pluralist society. Schools should take care to be impartial, fair and balanced when controversial subjects are discussed, and it is as wrong for publicly funded schools to promote particular religious faiths, making claims for their truth that are heavily disputed, as it would be for them to promote particular political viewpoints. Schools should respect the autonomy and rights of their pupils, preparing them in due course to make their own mature decisions about their beliefs and values. We recognise that parents generally wish their children to adopt their own values and beliefs and, sharing that attitude ourselves, we respect their wishes. However, we also respect the autonomy of the individual, even when young, and we deplore the way that some parents seek to close rather than open options for their children, and to keep them in ignorance of, rather than to inform them about and help them appraise, alternatives.
There are, in the UK, a wide variety of faiths and non-faiths. While adherents to any particular viewpoint, myself included, may well be convinced of the inherent veracity of their own ideas, the fact remains that there are strong disagreements. We can all agree, however, that nobody should be indoctrinated: in a free and open society, religious or non-religious belief should be adopted autonomously and voluntarily. Children are in no position to make that decision before they have full information on the wide range of faiths and non-faiths available. Children are not mentally equipped to reject indoctrination of any form, and to take advantage of this is clearly immoral, by any standards. I would argue that the right of the child to be educated in a fair and open manner as to the complexities of the world trumps by far the so-called ‘rights’ of parents to indoctrinate their children, but even if you disagree, it is clearly not the role of the state to assist parents in this endeavour.
I’m sure that there are strong evangelists who would claim it doesn’t matter how the person comes to see ‘the truth’, simply that they do. This is clearly a violation of individual rights, and I suspect most religious people are far too reasonable to think this way. As well as being a fundamental human right, individual choice based on full information is surely the only reasonable way to approach the situation in which we find ourselves – that of a multi-faith, and no-faith, country and world, with strong disagreements on all sides.
To be clear, this is very different from the ‘teach all sides’ argument often applied to the teaching of creationism/evolution. Creationism is demonstrably wrong. The Humanist Philosopher’s Group draws a distinction between the idea of evidence as it relates to science, the arts and religion. Science is the process of the scientific method, and the strong evidence-based claims that requires. The arts are entirely subjective – you cannot teach the rights or wrongs of, say, literary interpretation. Although religious believers and non-believers claim arguments and evidence above that of the subjective, the fact remains that there is no consensus, the evidence does not match that required by the scientific method, and a multitude of faiths have incompatible beliefs. Rational people disagree, with no side able to provide acceptable proof one way or another. Children must be shown that the questions of faiths and non-faiths – whether there is an afterlife, god etc. – are open and heavily disputed. They can in this way make an informed decision.
The obvious objection is that faith schools are not necessarily incompatible with this view. They could strive to be objective and to teach about all religious faiths and non-faiths, and in this way can educate children to become autonomous. This is unlikely, and is the subject of the next post.
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