Identity, Sexuality and the Gospel

This is the title of an important day conference in central Oxford being planned for Saturday, 24 November by the Christian Coalition for Education chaired by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali.

It is likely to be of interest to Christian governors and teachers who have concerns about the ways in which some developments in culture and politics show signs of eroding many aspects of what Christians in education value in our educational inheritance.

The formation of the National Society as a Christian Educational Charity within the Church of England in 1811, with its inspired vision offering a basic education to every boy and girl in the country, laid a firm foundation for what subsequently became the nation’s system of education following the Elementary Education Act of 1870.

It was only then that Parliament stepped up to its responsibilities to offer universal education to everyone, inevitably building on the foundations already laid by the Church. This is why we still have a large inherited network of Church Aided and Controlled schools, mainly at infant and junior level.

The Catholics have since added a large number of RC schools and are particularly strong at secondary level. There are also Jewish and other religious foundation schools with important contributions to make.

In the light of this history, it is not surprising that many Christians were happy to teach in, be governors of and send their children with confidence to schools maintained by the Local Education Authority. Indeed, there was often little difference between the ethos of maintained and church schools.

Many maintained school head teachers were happy to welcome local clergy into their schools and would have been offended at any suggestion that their school took inherited Christian values less seriously than Church Aided or Controlled schools.

As in wider public life, the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount did much to provide a framework for acceptable behaviour and attitudes.

Since then, much has changed. Many would point to the current much wider cultural and religious diversity of England. Clearly, there is some truth in that, but it is far from being the only factor.

It is interesting that many of those belonging to non-Christian religious traditions prefer to send their children to church schools than secular schools. They appreciate school cultures that respect religion and the right of parents to bring their children up in their own religious tradition.


Areas of Concern

It is important to say that most of the concerns being expressed within the Christian community about the direction of travel in our schools not only reflect wider concerns about changes in our culture and political landscape, but are also echoed by Jews, Muslims and others.

It is also important to say that much which continues to be good in our schools, including the hard work of teachers, continues to be appreciated and valued. Nothing in this article should be read as a wholesale attack on schools, or educational policy generally.

However, there is legitimate concern about a number of recent developments. Much concern derives from aspects of the Equality Act, the Prevent agenda and what is declared by Government to be fundamental British Values. These were all well intentioned and do indeed embody much that is worthwhile, but there is devil in the detail.

In November 2014, the Department for Education issued ‘non-statutory advice’ – to which schools are required to pay regard – on promoting fundamental British Values as part of Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development in maintained schools. Most of what the guidance contains is non-controversial and would be welcomed by most Christians.

At first reading, the second bullet point stating that schools should ‘enable students to distinguish right from wrong and to respect the civil and criminal law of England’ is eminently sensible. That is until one pauses to ask how the decision on what is right and wrong is made.

In the past, the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount were generally accepted in schools and public life as an acceptable guide to right and wrong. Today there is no longer agreement on what is right and wrong. The strictures of the Ten Commandments have been replaced by legislation that enforces a particular understanding of respect for diversity and tolerance.

These developments are closely linked to what the distinguished philosopher Sir Roger Scruton has described rather negatively as ‘rights inflation’, giving protected legal status to a growing list of categories of people.

Some of the rights legislation is of course not only uncontentious, but manifestly worthwhile, as anyone involved in the transport of a seriously disabled relative will know. However, some aspects of the legislation designed to protect individuals in the homosexual and transgender communities is contentious and raises difficulties related to free speech.

This is true more widely, but teachers are particularly vulnerable to discipline and court action with respect to the section on harassment. This is openly acknowledged, but not resolved, in a Department for Education paper published in May 2014, namely ‘The Equality Act 2010 and schools’. Whilst most Christians would be totally opposed to any form of harassment, there are worryingly subjective provisions in the legislation.

To objective criteria for evaluating what a teacher may have said or done is added the highly subjective ‘perception’ of B who claims to be offended by A.

Consequently, teachers are advised to be very careful about how they phrase what they say about gender, sexuality, marriage, abortion, etc. And although ‘religion’ is one of the protected characteristics listed in the Equality Act, even in church schools, teachers will need to tread warily when talking about traditional Christian views of marriage and family life.

It is not satisfactory if protection for religion is limited to the freedom to worship within the footprint of a church building. Christians and others should not be inhibited by law in expressing disagreement and debating openly about sensitive subjects in a public arena.


Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate

As a long-standing school governor of several schools, I have never had any reason to complain about the behaviour or objectivity of school inspectors. However, there do seem to be some credible stories of young children being asked inappropriate questions about gender by inspectors in Christian and Jewish schools, and of schools receiving a low grading in inspection reports due to what an inspector has regarded as an inadequate knowledge about gender issues.

Questions have been raised about the monitoring of the consistency of inspection practice in this area and this probably needs to be pursued further.


Religious Education

RE took a big hit when Michael Gove, then Education Secretary, decided not to allow Religious Education to be recognised as an allowable humanities subject in the new English Baccalaureate. This led to its downgrading and often disappearance as a GCSE subject in many schools. Unfortunately, RE has become an ideological battleground. What is RE and what should it be? Should it be very different in faith schools and ‘secular’ schools?

Traditionally, RE has been, as is legally still the case, largely Christian. In some places like Birmingham and Surrey, the local SACREs [Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education] continue to function and the local diocese has given a high priority to resourcing RE and providing input to local syllabuses. In other places, the situation is very different.

In 2015, former Labour Education Secretary Charles Clarke and Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University produced a quite radical report with recommendations for new policies on RE. It did not get the traction for which they had hoped and they have just produced another one.

It proposes that RE should be renamed Religion, Beliefs and Values. A Catholic response has been to say that the proposals would change RE from being a theological subject to a sociological one.

The Religious Education Council which, despite its name is not a statutory body though it is potentially influential, is shortly due to produce a report with recommendations.

Secular humanists, though small in number, are quite vocal and are represented on the REC. They tend to call for ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’ without recognising that their perspective is no more neutral nor objective than that of the religious faiths.

It remains to be seen what the Government will do in response to the various pressures. Meanwhile, we live in a world in which understanding religion has become increasingly important to peace and stability within and between the nations. But there is a dearth of religious literacy among educated people at a time when we need policy makers with an understanding of religions ‘from the inside’.


Parents or the State?

Catholic Social Teaching is clear that it is the natural parents who have first responsibility for the education of their children. This is openly recognised on the websites of most Catholic schools. The schools see themselves as working with the primary educators, the parents. Although this is not generally set out so formally as church teaching by other Churches, many Christian parents more widely would take a similar view.

Parents have a key role and are the most effective agents in society in passing on received virtues and values from one generation to the next. It is regimes with totalitarian tendencies that have always sought to undermine families and reduce parental influence in the shaping of young minds.

The secular humanists and the various pressure groups advocating legislation to control free speech recognise this very well. The content and control of RE syllabuses is therefore likely to remain highly politicised in the days ahead.

If you think these issues are important, the conference in Oxford on 24 November should be of interest.