Religion has no place in education

Posted on October 10, 2013

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Schools should not be run on a faith basis. End of story. And I cannot fathom why anybody thinks it is acceptable.

Hopefully those who know me will realise that I am not about to embark on a UKIP-style rant. This isn’t about Britishness or Englishness or any of that nonsense. It’s simply about religious beliefs being irrelevant to a core education.

Whether you’re Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever, you need to know mathematics. You need to know how to read and write. You need to know the basics of science. Even if you do follow a set of religious beliefs – which is perfectly acceptable – these beliefs have nothing to do with what you need to learn in the classroom.

This isn’t about pretending that faiths don’t exist or stamping them out of individuals and schools. I have no problem with people expressing their faith, prayer or other facilities being made available when appropriate, religious holidays adhered to. I fully support religious education and promoting a better understanding of different beliefs in the world.

What I do take issue with is schools being run on the basis that they ‘are’ Catholic or Muslim or any other religion.

As described above, it isn’t necessary. But it potentially brings in a dangerous level of ‘norm’ that permeates young brains before they’ve had the chance to form opinions of their own.

I used to volunteer in a Catholic primary school and observed one lesson about God. It involved reception-aged children learning about where the world came from. And where does it come from, children? “God made the earth,” chant a set of five-year-olds, oblivious to the concept of evolution.

Thankfully (hopefully) we are not at a stage in this country where biology teachers refuse to teach evolution. I’m not suggesting that five-year-olds should understand evolution, and I’m sure they will learn about that later. But what has happened in this case is they have been given a message and, if they choose to disbelieve later in life, they will inevitably feel like they are turning against something they were taught.

I have experience of this myself. My school was not overtly Protestant but undertones were there. Every day we sang hymns. We had prayers. We had a minister come in to do assemblies. Religious education was about religions ‘other’ than our own (it being assumed, of course, that everybody was Christian). Now, personally, when I choose not to believe in that faith, I feel as if I am protesting against what ‘is’. And that is wrong.

I’ve no illusion that faith schools are setting out to do anything wrong. Presumably those who run them believe they are imparting a good thing on those young minds. But it is a mistake to think that being ‘good’ means being religious. It doesn’t. And vice versa.

The examples above are generally quite insidious. But the reason this subject has caught my attention was the recent case of a Muslim school being threatened with closure, because – among other reasons – of its unacceptable teaching standards and discrimination towards female staff members and pupils.

The examples cited from this school said that non-Muslim teaching staff were instructed to cover their hair and females were treated less favourably than males. It would be wrong to suggest that all Muslims treat women less favourably than men – indeed, the Quran states that men and women are equal – but incidents such as this should not happen, whatever their reason, whether it’s based on interpretation of a religion or purely just because. Discrimination is not okay, regardless of the reason.

My ideal model of education is one where everybody is treated with equality, religion plays no part and wealth or gender does not set individuals apart. I come from a family of teachers and I know that such a aim would be a huge stretch for an education minister who fails to listen to basic requests from the unions. Different religions have different views and that is a good thing. For religious families, those views can be shared and taught at home. But those views should not be brought into the classroom.

Image from murdelta’s photostream at Flickr.

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