Sunday, October 29, 2006

Faith Schools: from theology to practice

Schools are the battleground of ideas that will define the future of our society. Children will be hugely influenced by what you tell them at a young age. As a society what are we going to teach the next generations in our schools? People with strong belief systems (whether religious or secular) are therefore likely to have robust opinions about schooling and in particular faith schools. In the midst of this debate I want to set out what I consider would be a good Christian school starting with theology, moving through values to policy. I write using the Christian example, but I don’t believe that this rules out a good Muslim school. This piece is not designed to defend all faith schools or their policies and the approach here is not that of all Christian schools.

There is a strong emphasis in the Bible on ‘building God’s kingdom’ (Many of you like me who went to a C of E school will have learned the Lord’s prayer - ‘Thy Kingdom Come on Earth as it is in Heaven’ – my italics). This means that we are (very junior) partners with God in creating a society as God intended it to be before we all got tangled up in sin. In the gospels ‘God’s kingdom’ is compared to earthly kingdoms which are held together by force and coercion and God’s Kingdom which comes about through people’s free choice.

There is also an emphasis in Christianity about giving freely of the good things that we have, with no strings attached. God gave his son freely to the human race and allowed him to die and we should follow God’s example with our money, ideas, gifts and time. Therefore if Jesus says that He can give life in all its fullness and we find that to be true then Christians have a responsibility to assist and support people and communities who choose to do that.

Schools are an important building block in society and also an arena where Christians can give freely of valuable (certainly not complete) understanding of how to live life well. Crucial positive values and practices for schools can emerge from the theological roots crucial outlined above: that each individual treated as someone created with loved by God with unique gifts; a strong caring community rooted in compassion (not just tolerance or respect) for others; and modelling strong moral characteristics including self-confidence, giving selflessly and leading others wisely and honestly. For all the evil that has been done in the name of Christianity down the years there is also a strong tradition and working out of these values as part of faith down the years and within the church there is still an explicit desire to practice and live these tough values, with God’s help.

Whilst it is possible to instil these values in children in a secular school and there are many good schools with excellent head teachers and staff that do this, it is hard to do. We live in a society where learning to live well is not normally explicitly practised or desired. You cannot just turn ‘values’ on at a tap. They have to come from somewhere and they have to be practised. We all know that we’d like to be kinder; more self-assured without arrogance; wiser leaders, but if it was easier to do our country would be a lot better place to live in. I’m not saying that churches have this sorted by any stretch of the imagination, but that they are rooted in a history hundreds of years long of people who down the years have tried with God’s help to practise these values. There is also more likely to be an explicit subculture in a faith to encourage each other to learn to live well that can be passed on into a school and be a defining feature of it for many decades. A church aims to be in a community for generations; a head teacher, however good at creating a positive school culture will not.

To return then, to the principle of freely giving of what we have which is good. On these grounds selection on the grounds of faith in church schools is wrong. If, as Christians we are genuinely giving freely and sacrificially as God did then we cannot create schools just for our own children. I know that as a parent I would find this more difficult to say, but Christians should expect no favours from faith schools because of their beliefs. No selection would also rule out the sham of parents attending church to get their children in. That is bribing parents to attend church and God’s kingdom is not built by coercion.

If parents do not want to send their children to a faith school they are free to send them elsewhere and eventually faith schools or particular ones would close down. However, this is not the pattern at the moment and my experience working in London’s East End was that most parents found Christian values instinctively attractive, even if they were of no faith, nominal faith or other faiths. I have heard a number of Muslims say that they would rather send their children to a Christian school than a secular school, because of the values system and also that holding one faith can aid respect of someone holding another. The details and practice of a different faith can be worked out and taught at home and through the Mosque.

To build God’s Kingdom in society and to give freely of what we have that is good as God did. These two principles should be at the centre of all Christian faith schools. A friend of mine always used to explain a Christian community project he ran by saying that ‘faith was his motivation, not his hidden agenda’. The schooling of our children will rightly always produce passionate debates because the development and input they have at an early age is so important in who they turn out to be. My hope is that this debate will not always be as fraught as it has been in the past week as all sides seek to understand each others' motivations and make clear own agendas.

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