Secular education ‘politically impossible’

A Tyneside headmaster’s attempts to reduce the role of religion in his school have turned up some interesting insights into the process of educational lawmaking:

‘We wanted a fundamental change in the relationship with the school and the established religion of the country,’ said Kelley, talking about the proposals he put forward towards the end of Tony Blair’s premiership. ‘They accepted it would be popular but said it was politically impossible.’

Why impossible?

One senior figure at the then Department for Education and Skills, told Kelley that bishops in the House of Lords and ministers would block the plans.

Easy solution to that.

Religion, they added, was ‘technically embedded’ in many aspects of education.

Not sure what that means. Which areas? I don’t personally remember religion (read: Christianity) turning up much in my education, other than assemblies and incredibly-biased RE and PSE (‘personal social education’) lessons.

‘I feel that children have a right to not having a particular point of view,’ said Kelley. ‘They should not be promoted to a political party, nor should they to a religion. The daily act of worship is, I think, inappropriate at school.’ […] The schools, says Kelley, ‘directly or indirectly influence children into a belief that a particular faith is preferable either to other faiths or to a lack of faith’. He adds: ‘That is not, in my view, fair to a child and it is not offering them the opportunity to choose freely. The problem we are left with is a 19th-century architecture of education in a 21st-century environment.

Quite. I don’t understand why the comparison with hypothetical political schools isn’t a killer argument.

The CoE aren’t happy with the suggestion of reducing religion’s role in education. However, their argument doesn’t prove the point they think it does:

A spokesman for the Church of England said: ‘If he is arguing for a way for individual schools to opt out of those bits of the act he does not like that is not something we would support. Either overtly or by default, this country is still a Christian one.’

This has always been, and remains, a mind-bogglingly stupid argument. The possibility that religious education produces better behaviour, although probably not true and morally eviscerated by Stephen Law in The War for Children’s Minds, is at least mildly grown-up, but “things shouldn’t change because they just shouldn’t” is begging the question and doesn’t count as arguing at all.

This attitude, combined with the continued expansion of faith schools, is disappointing, but I’m optimistic in the long-term because the historical, moral and political arguments against them are so strong. An atheist and a Christian should come to exactly the same conclusion when it comes to teaching children: teach them how to think, and let them make up their own minds1. An education system weighed in any particular direction is clearly, unambiguously, wrong.

I have suspicions about the motives of informed people who suggest anything but a secular framework. It’s a plausible hypothesis that teaching kids to think critically leads to more atheist/agnostic/freethinkers than if you surround them with religious teachers and symbols. Hence the Pope and his laughable rejections of logic and reason as just other forms of indoctrination – clearly desperate and clutching at straws, but this sounds less mental than “do what I say or you’ll go to hell”.

There are, of course, plenty of very nice people, both religious and not, who will disagree. I may think they’re wrong, but convincing them often isn’t the real problem – it’s a common issue in arguments involving religion that you come across very pleasant people who get genuinely upset when their beliefs are criticised. But, to be unashamedly melodramatic, education is too important to the future of humanity for people’s feelings to get in the way of progress. I’m optimistic, but I don’t think it’ll be easy.

Link originally via B&W.

  1. sounds like an intelligent design argument. Isn’t. []