I Blame Your Mother

The Guardian worries about the rise of independent evangelical Christian schools (link nicked from greengolux, who is a LJ-friend of the second degree: greengolux‘s own entry on this contains some interesting discussion).

This sort of thing is the Guardian equivalent of the Daily Mail’s “those darkies are taking our jobs while simultaneously being benefit scroungers” story. For example, they ran a story in 1999 telling us how Christian Unions are over-running our universities with trendy stealth Christians, who don’t even have the decency to wear short trousers and cycling helmets so you can avoid them at parties (when I say “you”, I don’t mean me, obviously, as I always make a bee-line for them and show them the error of their ways). Writing back when I was a Christian, I found the Guardian‘s earnestness and condescension faintly ridiculous.

With this in mind, it seems likely we can discount the stuff about how fundamentalist Christian schools are as bad for society than their Muslim equivalents and will eventually turn the UK into America. The Muslim schools are a part of a sub-culture which is currently getting a lot of press because it can draw people in from a significant minority, and hence is able to hold itself aloof from the surrounding culture. The Christian schools are on a smaller scale, and the UK’s culture is much less explicitly Christian than the US’s. It would take more than a few specialist schools to change this.

What is offensive to me is the idea that the National Christian Schools’ Certificate is be acceptable for entrance to nursing training, as “Christian” here means teaching creationism. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be sufficient for any sort of university entrance (note christian-education.org site’s careful wording about how UCAS‘s material “includes details” of the NCSC).

Apart from being biological flat-earthers, though, some of the schools are doing well by their pupils: OFSTED points out that at Emmanuel School, Exeter, the pupils at are well behaved and happy and the parents are involved in their children’s education. That’s not to say they’re perfect, as a report of another Christian school failing academically shows, but even there, the inspectors did not criticise the pastoral care given by the school. It’s unlikely that the pupils at this school will have the Hellmouth experience that some large state schools will give their pupils.

These schools are doing some right things, but for the wrong reasons. It is good that parents are involved in the children’s education, and that the children are happy, and can work at their own pace. Some of the disagreement expressed in the Guardian article with rote learning is probably directed at the desirable learning of the basics which, if some people are to be believed, has become unfashionable.

But, behind it all, lies an insular Christianity which draws a sharp line between the church and the world, and, as a consequence, wishes to insulate children from opinions with which their Christian parents disagree. Kids ought to learn critical thinking (although I’m not sure how far they do so in the state system), and not just their parents views, because, as one of the Guardian‘s interviewees says, “Nobody owns kids… you hold them on trust”.

It may be that these schools are providing a strong culture of the sort which will actually benefit their children: if so, that culture may well propagate, and maybe I’ll be wrong about how much Christians can accomplish with a handful of private schools. I can’t help feel that the rest of us would deserve it: the happy and safe environment in those schools is something we ought to be able to provide, based on everyone’s desire to get the best for their kids.

What I actually think will happen, though, is that these schools will produce a few of the short-trousers sort of Christian, and a fair few people who will realise they’ve been screwed over and reject evangelical Christianity after they leave home. I do worry about the kids who are sent to these schools, but to be brutal about it, they are few in number, and the state system can do a lot worse. We will not be over-run by Christians if they don’t know basic science and have never had to enter into a debate about their views.

14 Comments on "I Blame Your Mother"


  1. I’m slightly confused why you feel an acceptance of evolution should be a necessary pre-requisite for a nursing qualification? Anyway, that aside, here are some thoughts (or more some random musing, which might become a coherent opinion give time):

    I would agree that many kids in the state system don’t appear to learn critical-thinking. So I would deduce that critical-thinking is not acquired by living in the world. I would then think that critical-thinking is something which must be taught. I don’t think just exposing people to lots of different views encourages them to consider these view critically. So I don’t think you are right to link insularity with a lack of critical-thinking.

    I would have thought critical-thinking is something which Christians should want to teach people, so that they can be critical of things which are wrong in the church and in the world. (I think Christianity would benefit from more people thinking critically.)

    So I guess the question is: should one expose their children to the world before they have learnt to think about the world critically? It doesn’t strike me as responsible to expose children to lots of different views without giving them any tools with which to differentiate between these views. In such a situation I wouldn’t be surprised to find some adopting various undesireable views.

    Personally I think the best thing for the Christian parents to do would be to get actively involved with their secular state/private school so that the world can benefit (salt and light, etc.).

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    1. I think that it shouldn’t be possible to get a nationally recognised qualification in biology at A-level (or equivalent) without an understanding of evolution. I’m not sure what these Christian schools do teach in biology: it maybe that they do teach about evolution but then bring out some Creationist arguments to show how it is wrong. However, the Guardian article suggests that the children would not be taught evolution at all, as a parent is quoted as saying he doesn’t want to have to unpick evolutionary teaching from a state school.

      I don’t think that a lack of insularity is sufficient for critical thinking, but it probably is necessary. While I’d support a certain amount of rote learning, comments I’ve found on the web about the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) teaching style suggest that discussion forms no part of their style at all, and that the ACE methods are mostly about learning right answers to questions.

      I’m not sure I’d want those particular Christians involved in the running of state schools. I know that Christianity does not always have to lead to retreat into Christian enclaves: whether or not it does seems to depend on whether Christians prefer the “salt and light” of Matthew’s gospel to the “church/world” dichotomy of John’s, and the message of Haggai 2:10-14.

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      1. I went to a Catholic secondary school that had some interesting policies on what was allowed to be taught there. My biology teacher when I was 13 refused to teach evolution on the grounds that he didn’t believe in it. Fortunately, having a biology teacher as a father has its advantages.

        Then when we were getting ready for GCSEs, a different biology teacher was told she was not allowed to teach us about AIDS, which we had to know about for the exam. She held unofficial classes at lunchtimes to teach the material. The RE GCSE (which was compulsory) consisted of learning the whole of Mark’s gospel and the Catholic mass by rote (particularly irrelevant for us non-Catholics) and there was no discussion. I also had an RE teacher who told us that she wasn’t allowed to tell her pupils about contaception, but she was going to do it anyway in everyone’s interests. I can’t see any excuse for not allowing teachers to teach part of the syllabus – they didn’t seem to realise that it is possible to tell pupils about something without encouraging everyone to go out and do it.

        The pastoral side of the school was fantastic. However, I think some religious schools need to look at their priorities; if they’re there primarily to help pupils pass exams and instill a conscience into them along the way that’s one thing, but if they aim to indoctrinate at all costs, including the cost of pupils’ academic marks, that’s another. Teenagers are going to find out about everything the school refuses to teach anyway, so I would have thought an institution that aims to look after them and turn them into reasonable adults would want to ensure that they’re responsible and sensible about these things and encourage them to learn to make their own decisions – the teachers must know that for most pupils neither the school nor their parents will have much direct influence over them when they leave.

        I found it very funny that one of the exams I did best at was my A-level French oral where I argued very strongly that people should live together before marriage. Fortunately, the French teacher examining turned out not to be a fundamentalist Christian!

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        1. I don’t understand that. Particularly not being allowed to teach about AIDS. Do you know what their rationale was? If the school was trying to promote abstinence I would have thought teaching about AIDS would help them, so I really can’t figure out why they wouldn’t want to. I would agree that depriving children of information once they reached an age they can find out for themselves is silly. And it sounds like most of your teachers thought so also.

          For comparison, in the state system the sex eduction syllabus is not just providing information, but does (or at least at my school did) have a clear agenda to establish a norm. One particularly memorable video featured a boy in-front of a shop window (in which a mannequin was being undressed) informing us that these days masturbation was a normal topic of playground conversation. It then had a few scences of boys discussing during their lunch breah what they had been up to last night and encouraged us to do the same……Luckily me and my friends decided to continue out usual lunchtime conversation of “one heart, no bid, two no-trumps, no bid, 3 hearts, …”

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          1. I don’t understand that. Particularly not being allowed to teach about AIDS. Do you know what their rationale was? If the school was trying to promote abstinence I would have thought teaching about AIDS would help them, so I really can’t figure out why they wouldn’t want to. I would agree that depriving children of information once they reached an age they can find out for themselves is silly. And it sounds like most of your teachers thought so also.

            Yes, I agree. I can’t remember exactly what explanation we were given, but I think it might have been because the school refused to teach about contraception (officially) and teaching about AIDS entails teaching about ways not to get it.

            The reason I found the school’s policy so surprising was that it wasn’t any kind of independent school that had decided to opt out of teaching certain subjects properly, but a state comprehensive that was obliged to teach the National Curriculum. I don’t know whether OFSTED found out about any of these policies in biology teaching, but they did pull the school up on not teaching about other religions in RE. The teachers definitely all seem to think the policies are impractical and silly, and certainly when I was there they found ways to teach the material unofficially.

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          2. While I can’t actually see what’s wrong with telling kids they should be able to talk about sex (or masturbation), it seems a little unrealistic to me: teenagers are usually embarrassed about it, from what I remember of my own teenagerhood and the LiveWires kids.

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            1. Casual observation of the world around me suggests that such topics are not normally part of polite conversation. Normally when I ask someone what they got up to over the weekend I don’t expect to hear, and people don’t tell me, about their sex life. I don’t think it is because they are embarrassed about it. It is just that it’s not part of polite conversation in our culture. Please do correct me if you think I have severely misunderstood the society I live in.

              So what I think is wrong with the video is that it was trying to establish a counter-cultural norm by falsely presenting that norm as already being present. Imagine what would have happened if our class had accepted this new norm. I think it would have done us massive damage later in life when we interact the parts of society which did not have such norms. Luckily we were sensible enough to realise the norm they were trying to establish was not widespread, or at least we didn’t know anyone it applied to.

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              1. I think that in the right time and place, people do talk about sex, but this is usually reserved for small groups of close friends. It’s unlikely to appropriate for the “what did you do at the weekend” conversation at the lunch table at work, say.

                I’m not convinced that encouraging people to be more open about sex is a bad thing. Although I don’t particularly want to hear what people got up to at the weekend, I think it would go some way to healthier relationships and suchlike.

                I doubt that the video would have done anyone that much harm, as I think children are too sensible to believe everything they’re told by teachers.

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      2. I would agree the discussion is an important element of learning (increasingly so at higher levels). Although from what I’ve read I think good discussion skills are not primarily picked up at school, the children with the best discussion skills tend to be those who have parents who regularly talk to their children and discuss things with them. As ACE does appear to require a lot more parental involvement I do think it might be possible to lead to children having good discussion skills, even if those skills aren’t formally taught. Of course if the parents just order their children about and don’t discuss things with them the children won’t pick up discussion skills.

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      3. D’oh! Hit Post Comment too soon. Meant to finish by saying I think it is possible to hold both “salt and light” and “church/world”. Best metaphor I’ve heard is that of a boat in water. You want to have the boat in the water, but not the water in the boat.

        Also as I’ve often commented there are lots of Christians (myself included, and according to the EA, the 2:1 majority of evangelicals) who don’t believe in a 7-day creation, so presumably would be happy for evolution to be taught in schools.

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        1. I think we agree. Most Christians are not like the people who are supporting these schools. Schools where parents can ensure that their children are not taught about evolution, contraception or feminism are the outcome of a particular reading of the Bible which uses things like John and the idea of cleannness/holiness and neglects the more inclusive bits of it. I have heard the exclusivist sort of teaching from more moderate places (such as StAG), but it’s usually been temperered somewhat by other considerations: at the very least, evangelical churches want their members to be involved with non-Christians so they can witness to them.

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  2. My computer just ate my long and considered response to this; it was largely about teaching quality. The long and short of it was that, whatever might be said about state schools (and a lot of people seem to have alot of things to say), state school teachers are required to teach to National Curriculum standard, teach a core course content, and have the ability to do so without answering to other priorities within the school, be these the result of a religious teaching agenda or management issues (league table placing, grant funding) in an independent or GM school. I am aware there are good independent schools. I am sure there are good faith schools. I have also heard of really rotten, rote-based, uncritical parroting being the basis of education in both types of non-secular state school, and I say “Yuck”. Such teaching does not encourage the development of reasoning and dialectic skills, and as such fails students. For some reason that I cannot fathom, such teaching seems to be permissable in some independent, and some faith, schools, where it would not be in a state comprehensive.

    This is not intended to open any cans of worms over the content and value of the National Curriculum as it is taught and examined, but just to observe that state school teachers teach it, and that some schools outside the state system seem to consider it optional, and I fail to see how this can be considered a Good Thing.

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    1. I agree that the fact non-state schools setting their own curriculum is potentially bad for their pupils, although it seems likely that the non-fundy private schools will be working hard to get their pupils nationally recognised qualifications, and so will at least be teaching a syllabus compatible with that. Whether that allows them to do more than parot the answers depends on which exam boards they use, I suppose.

      The question in regard to the faith schools is how far the state should be allowed to intervene in parenting. Some atheists are calling the practices of the schools described in the Guardian article child abuse. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I’m not happy that these schools exist in this country. However, I don’t really see what I can do about it, or what the government could practically do about it. The lower-middle class Christians involved lead lives very much like those of their neighbours, with the exception of the tithing and not drinking/having sex. They probably want to be “persecuted”, to validate the idea that they are different and special (which is what “holy” means, after all): I can’t help thinking that government opposition would be playing into their hands.

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      1. For the government to do something about religious schools they would have to first of all pull out of European Convention on Human Rights and repudidate the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (pointing this out to Guardian readers is always fun) as both of these give parents the right to educate their children in conformity with their own religions and philosophical convictions.

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