The news is often filled with stories of religious extremists committing terrible acts of barbarity in the name of God. Currently, Islamic extremists dominate the media coverage but let us not forget the Buddhist monks involved in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, sectarian killings in Northern Ireland or the murder of doctors willing to carry out abortions, amongst many other examples. These are atrocities committed against those with views or religions that are different from those of the perpetrators. The victims are targeted because they hold different opinions; and difference, to some people, is a threat. It is hard enough for adults to understand these events so it must be utterly baffling for children.
After the recent Paris attacks, a large part of my subsequent Junior assembly in school was devoted to the importance of tolerance, and to explain, with these older children, what free speech is. There was that sense of community shock which comes after any major disaster and it was important to acknowledge the event with the pupils. It was one of those assemblies when I knew, by their careful attention and insightful questions, that the children were very interested in the subject matter.
The impact of extremism on educational policy
As a consequence of these troubling events across the world, there has been a great deal of debate amongst politicians and educationalists about how we best prepare children for the world that we live in, and how we can prevent extremist views taking hold in our wider society. A sharper focus on ‘British values’ has been demanded of schools as one way of achieving this. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, Lord Nash, has explained that this focus on British values is designed to “tighten up the standards on pupil welfare, to improve safeguarding, and the standards on the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils, to strengthen the barriers to extremism”. There are increased expectations that schools should be at the front line of this battle against extremist views. A typical headline in The TES on 23rd January 2015 was ‘Teachers are uniquely placed to divert young people from the path of terrorism’.
This is not the first time that schools have been called on to provide checks and balances for societal trends such as this. For example, Ofsted has been inspecting the degree to which schools promote ‘community cohesion’ for some time now, after problems between community groups became a headline issue, with riots in 2001. In Sheffield, tensions in areas like Page Hall, remain high. However, despite this understandable focus on the role of schools in promoting cohesion and, now, to prevent extremism, a wider discussion about the much more contentious topic of religion in schools appears to have been largely avoided, despite, in my opinion, is equally relevant.
The role of Religious Education in my school
Bradway, as a Community state school, has to teach Religious Education and legally should have regular acts of collective worship, which are ‘of a broadly Christian character’. We use our Religious Education (RE) lessons, as well as some whole school events and assemblies, to provide children with an overview of world religions, and our acts of collective worship are used to instil tolerance and understanding of different cultures and faiths. We do not tell children what to believe, rather we aim to show them the range of beliefs and views which people have, including the view that there is no God, with the hope that, if they understand, they will be more tolerant of people with differing views to their own. It seems to work because the community of Bradway children is a happy one, where everybody is valued for who they are, and where the difference is celebrated and encouraged.
Faith schools and their influence
In this context, it appears strange to me that, in a world where religious intolerance is a very real and current problem, schools funded by the state are being asked to hold acts of collective worship at all. But even more perplexing, is the fact that many state-funded schools in England are faith schools.
In 2012 one third of schools were publically funded faith schools, free to teach about only one religion. Faith schools are mostly run like other state schools. They have to follow the national curriculum, except for religious studies, where they are free to only teach about their own religion. These schools are often high performing institutions, providing an excellent standard of education in most areas, but because they are only focusing on one religion, children are not necessarily given the range of viewpoints which they need in order to make their own minds up. Although many faith schools do provide a more balanced approach, the decision about how to teach religion in school is much too important to be left up to individual schools to determine. Although some schools may not fully exercise their freedom to promote one religion, others certainly do, as can be seen by visiting the websites of prominent faith schools across the country. I think that a better way of promoting tolerance in our society would be to have the same expectations of all schools with respect to religion, rather than the current contradictory mixture, in order to give all children the knowledge required to make an informed decision.
Encouraging young people to think for themselves about faith and religion. The use of P4C.
If I was to redesign the teaching of religion in schools from scratch I would be looking at the generic ethical values and qualities that are the bedrock of our society, and of most religions too, rather than being specific about a particular faith. For example the use of Philosophical discussions, which we use at Bradway, enables all children to discuss their views, including religious views, in a controlled way, with the teacher modelling and facilitating. Philosophy For Children (P4C) is a recognised and widely used method of encouraging important behaviours such as good listening and good discussion skills, in a non-judgmental, safe environment of discovery. Pupils really enjoy the sessions and Year 6 had this to say about learning in this way when I asked them recently:
‘In P4C there is no right or wrong. I really enjoy it because you can say how you feel’.
‘You learn how to contribute in front of the whole class and it helps you if you are shy’.
You can say what you believe in and also you can say what you don’t believe in, in order to get more depth in the discussion’.
Towards a more tolerant future?
This encouragement and freedom to explore ideas in an atmosphere of tolerance is what most parents hopefully want for their children, and should be an integral part of what all state-funded schools stand for in this country. By promoting and refining the ancient art of philosophical discussion amongst our children we can look forward to a more tolerant future, and a world where we have a better chance to, as the idiom says, ‘live and let live’. We all still have the freedom in this land of free speech, to educate our children at home about our beliefs and to instil our own moral code and schools should be part of the solution to tolerance, not part of the problem.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Paul Stockley in 2015 and published with kind permission. The article was updated in 2020 by the UKEd Editorial team in accordance with editorial guidance.
The original post can be found here.
Paul Stockley is Headteacher of Bradway Primary School + Chair of the Sheffield Primary Leaders’ Partnership. Standing firm for a broad curriculum!