December 11, 2017

All Schools are Faith Schools

All Schools are Faith Schools

This was written for The Times, Education Section in January 2005

As new concepts become established in our normal vocabulary we often need to question the assumptions they carry. This last week independent faith schools have been  probed on their teaching of citizenship by the Ofsted Chief Inspector, and the words, “faith schools” have been used repeatedly. Of course we know what they are. They are schools where Christianity, the Jewish faith, Islam or Sikhism is taught as part of the process of education. That much is clear.

The problem lies more with the other category created by the concept of ‘faith schools’, namely, ‘non-faith’ schools. and the pupils within them. “Faith” is an outlook on life by which a person chooses to live. And we could say that every person so chooses, actively or by default. We can have faith in money, science, progress, technology, fame or God. These commitments may not be exclusive, or they may be. (One can have faith conjointly in science and technology, but God and money might be more difficult.) In this sense of the term every school has a range of faiths which it teaches implicitly or explicitly. They may well be embodied in a school’s mission statement, and involve ideas like excellence, service, self-fulfilment, rounded education and so on. It does not seem contentious to say that in all schools staff and students are probing issues of faith much of the time.

Yet throughout much of the modern era, some educational traditions have tried to deny this. They have often asserted that what children were to be taught was not a matter of faith, but of universal publicly agreed knowledge. They were to be taught the facts, or science, or objectively or in a value-free way. History is a good example. The subject was 1066 and all that, effectively a catalogue of the political regimes which dominated British and world history. Yet the actual process of study gradually uncovered a history that was  social, economic, cultural, women’s, the underdog’s or religious. The value-free approach presumed that the history of the British Empire was important and the 19th century missionary movement could be more or less ignored. Now the latter may seem more important than the former in terms of its long-term effects. History, properly understood, has always been a matter of faith, of faith in nation, empire, Rome, God, Allah, free trade, the revolution or advertising, and it is the tussles between these commitments that students study and reflect on, doing better history as a result.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to education is the dulling of faith in pupils as a result of their media exposure. Now, from a very early age children are drenched in a media culture which offers a good time, entertainment, fame and the unqualified rewards of advertised goods. Of course, it is illusory. Jeremy Clarkson, like some ancient romantic, offers the thrill of the open road; actually we all sit in slow moving traffic. Yet, for a decade or more this media culture dominates the lives and faith of many children while they are being educated. Teachers know that students hearts and lives are partly with computer games, going out, how they look, sex, dating and a new gadget, rather than engaging with the issues teachers believe are important. It is the student who just wants to be entertained and is bored with the meaning of life who is the greatest threat to the process of education.

The other great challenge to education has been the belief that the State should be the arbiter of what education is. The attempt by Bismarck to control Catholic education in the late 19th century has often been repeated with much greater success, because the State believed that it knew what education should be. Indeed, Thatcher initiated such a process in Britain with the strong imposition of a national curriculum and testing in which “subjects” became “skills”. Suddenly, we believed we knew what education was, or rather a few politicians and gurus did, replacing the plural understanding of thousands of teachers. Now we have moved in part back from that doctrinaire position, but it, too has acted against the understanding of the necessary role of faith in all education.

Perhaps, therefore, the way forward in education is the more explicit recognition of faith alongside evidence as inevitably linked to education in all schools, and as present in all disciplines. Then education once again becomes about life and not about skills for a job. Of course, education becomes harder and not just a question of jumping over technical hoops. It becomes again linked to a quest for truth and involves questions for which there are no ready answers. Yet, perhaps we are better off when all schools are acknowledged as faith schools, rather than as being performers for the Department of Education and its particular view of what education is.

The Times Education 

Jan 2005