The influence of religion in schools was recently scrutinized during a House of Lords debate that focused on the role of religion in public life. The debate was introduced by retired Reverend Lord Harries of Pentregarth, who explained that there had been some major issues regarding religion in schools.
Baroness Falkner, honorary associate of National Secular Society, said that while parents’ philosophical and religious convictions should be taken into consideration in the education offered by the state, the demand for religious education, entirely on parents’ terms, was rather unreasonable and quite a divisive expectation that must be resisted.
Falkner said, “Rather than facilitating the segregation of pupils along religious lines, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that children of all faiths and none are educated together in a respectful and inclusive environment.”
She also drew attention to the larger problem of faith-based schools skewing the curriculum to cater to their own religious ethos, by citing the example of Yesodey Hatorah Secondary Girls’ School, which recently confessed to omitting exam questions related to human reproduction, as the subject contradicted the philosophy of the school. Falkner went on to criticize the need for daily worship in schools, saying the practice definitely undermines parents’ abilities to raise their children in accordance with their own beliefs.
Baroness Massey added to Falkner’s thoughts, saying education should help hone personal and social skills, make good citizens and encourage thinking skills based on discussion and dialogue rather than on any one-dimensional doctrine.
Lord Warner, who was part of the panel that overlooked the Trojan Horse investigation, said parliamentarians were shocked to discover such outdated practices were taking place in the name of religion in certain British schools in the 21st century. He also criticized the apparent inability of Britain’s legal and regulatory systems to safeguard young malleable minds from what can only be defined as indoctrination and abuse.
Warner added, “The curriculum in the ACE school system is a fundamentalist Christian one that originated in the United States. It is widely considered to be creationist, homophobic and misogynistic. The teaching materials used in these schools that were presented to us certainly supported this view. Much of the material is in a comic strip format with characters that could only be described as risible if they were not being used to brainwash and indoctrinate young minds. It was very scary that the so-called science teaching was leading to certification that was being used to progress children to further education.”
Then, Lord Dubs took the floor to explain how more religious-based schools lead to more divisive consequences. He insisted that faith schools were causing more damage than good not only to society but to religion as well.
However, Lord Singh of Wimbledon said religious instruction is necessary in schools, explaining that while atrocities may have been committed in the name of religion, worse has been done in the name of secularism. Several other speakers went on to share their opinions on how beneficial religious education can prove to be if incorporated in the curriculum in fair amounts.
While wrapping up the debate, Stephen Evans of National Secular Society explained how Britain’s religious landscape had changed dramatically over the last couple of decades, saying that is why people must reconsider the role of religion in public life.
“The increasingly diverse nature of society means the traditional manner of categorizing people by their faith identity is anachronistic and redundant, not to mention dangerous. If we are to avoid sectarianism becoming a major problem, the state needs to treat people as individual citizens rather than as members of a particular faith or belief group. It's time the public domain became wholly secular, leaving religion as a matter of private conviction – and not the basis on which we organise schools and other public services which we all share,” he said.
Photo Credits: Parliament Archives