Christianity is under attack in our schools. Olga Craig and Patrick Sawer discover why so many parents – and teachers – are afraid for the future of the faith
When headmistress Julia Robinson introduced multi-faith assemblies at her Sheffield primary school it seemed like an obvious recipe for classroom harmony. With more than 200 children on her roll, 35 of whom are Muslim, it appeared pointless to have two separate gatherings – a situation she had inherited when she was appointed as head of Meersbrook Bank Community Primary School.
Although the majority of its pupils are white Christians, and one fifth of the pupils come from ethnic minorities, it seemed altogether more inclusive to amalgamate morning prayers.
Aware that religious education has become a much-debated and, at times, divisive issue in modern, multi-cultural Britain, Robinson proceeded with sensitivity and caution. She sought the advice of Sheffield city council, set up a working party and spoke to as many parents as possible. Confident that all were in agreement, she decided to hold a single assembly that included the many religions they represented. All seemed to be going well. Indeed, when Ofsted inspectors reported on the school, they praised its ”caring and inclusive atmosphere”. They applauded Robinson’s leadership and described Meersbrook as a shining example of one in which ”pupils feel safe and develop strong relationships with adults and one another”.
Robinson, one might assume, had every justification to be proud of her school’s glowing reputation. That is, until the rumblings of racism began.
A handful of Muslim parents began to agitate against the joint assemblies, lobbying other, more liberal parents to join the protest. Their children, they claimed, were being coerced into religious studies that were Christian in essence and contrary to their Muslim faith.
Devastated at the accusations of racism, Robinson’s health suffered and she has spent much of the past year off work. This term, when she returned, the row reignited. In the end, she became so disheartened and distressed that she felt she had no option but to resign. It was a desolate decision, both for the popular and accomplished head and for the majority of parents who respected and admired her leadership.
One can only assume that those parents who had clamoured for her dismissal viewed her resignation as a victory for diversity. Instead, it was a dangerous and worrying defeat of common sense.
What is more alarming is that the Meersbrook saga is not an isolated incident. In the past few weeks, there have been several similar situations in which Christianity, especially in the realms of religious education, has come under attack.
Erica Connor, a headmistress at a Woking school, felt forced to seek legal redress after what she claims was a string of ”vituperous” complaints against her by four Muslim governors. Although external consultants investigated the situation and Connor was exonerated – their report found no evidence of racism, Islamophobia or religious bias – the alleged ”harassment” continued. Suffering severe depression, Connor took sick leave and is now suing Surrey county council for damages.
Both cases have come to light against the background of a worrying increase in ”attacks” on Christianity, which has seen one Christian school receptionist facing dismissal after her five-year-old daughter was told off in school for talking about God in class – which upset another girl – and a nurse being suspended for offering to pray for a patient.
The cases have highlighted what many believe is the high cost our Christian heritage is paying simply to survive. The growing persecution of Christians in public life has so angered senior clerics that they have found it imperative to speak out about the growing marginalisation of Christianity in Britain. Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York and Britain’s second most senior cleric, has described the targeting of Christains as ”an affront to decency”. Calling on the silent majority of Christians to defend their beliefs, Sentamu said: ”For those who despair at the treatment meted out to these Christian women the message is clear: wake-up Christian England.”
And nowhere, according to councillor Alan Craig, of the Christian People’s Alliance, is that wake-up call more vital than in the classrooms. ”There is clearly growing discrimination against Christianity in our schools,” he says. Teachers are being prevented from implementing policies that may be opposed by some Muslim parents by the fear of an Islamic backlash, believes Craig. Along with the belief that British Muslims are a minority community in need of special protection, such fears have led many schools to deliberately marginalise the values and culture of religions, namely the majority Christian faith. ”This liberal secular ideology – coupled with a fear of Islam – all too often leads to people stepping back from any measures that may be opposed by Muslims,” he says.
In England and Wales, the law states that children at state schools ”shall, on each school day, take part in an act of collective worship” which should be ”wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. In the light of the many instances of Nativity plays being banned and Christ’s birth being celebrated at “Wintermass” rather than Christmas, Craig points out that it is difficult to remember that the Christian element of religious education is statutory.
Traditonally, religious education in Britain was the province of Church and teachers. All that changed, says Penny Thornton, a former RE teacher and author of Whatever Happened to Religious Education? and co-author of Inspiring Faith in Schools, in the early Seventies, when the ”bureaucrats” took over. ”From that point,” she says, ”what teachers had to say was not welcome. Thus, the modern trend in schools is to put religion under the microscope, to question it, in a way that doesn’t apply to other subjects, such as maths or science. The result is that teachers are now nervous, feeling that they can’t just teach or promote one religion over the others.
”Given that the law is set up to acknowledge that the religious traditions in this country are in the main Christian, teachers should not be afraid or ashamed to teach on that basis.”
Thornton doesn’t believe that the attacks upon Christianity are intentional, but she is concerned enough to admit that she would be ”nervous if that legal framework was taken away”. While Thornton is cautious not to scaremonger, others are more vocal.
Government proposals aimed at giving increased legal rights to Muslims have left many wondering if the result will be a further clampdown on Christianity. The measures will force councils, schools, hospitals and other public bodies to treat members of all faiths equally. The result, says Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, could be a fresh onslaught of politically correct rulings. ”We are worried that this will further squeeze out Christians,” he says. ”Christian groups already find it difficult to get funding from local councils.” He fears that town hall bureaucrats could ”over interpret and gold-plate” measures. ”It will simply mean more of the politically correct rulings, such as banning Christmas celebrations and crucifixes from the work place.”
Mark Pritchard, a Conservative MP and campaigner against anti-Christian discrimination, believes that the legislation is merely vote chasing. ”Labour untie the Judaeo-Christian cords that have held this nation together for centuries at their peril,” he warns. ”This is not about equality, it is about shoring up Labour’s declining Muslim vote.”
Already, scores of British schools have introduced a raft of measures, including Muslim prayer rooms and halal dinners, in an attempt to placate parents. But the measures have so worried white Christian parents that increasing numbers have been withdrawing their children from classes.
Michael Simpkins removed his 16-year-old son from RE classes at Corsham school in Wiltshire, claiming that the teaching was ”one-sided”. Simpkins, 46, a taxi driver and parishioner at an Anglican church, says: ”The school wants to give a nice, fluffy view of Islam, without teaching about some of the controversies surrounding the faith. It is simply pandering to political correctness and I don’t want my son to be part of that.”
For many committed Christians, the decision to remove their children has been difficult. When Ruth Weston’s daughter turned four, her mother, a churchgoer and theologian, wanted to encourage Christian values in her. ”I wanted her to embrace Christianity – but not Christianity alone. I wanted her to be educated in schools where faith, all faiths, were taken seriously.”
Weston enrolled her daughter at a Church of England school in the Bradford area. Although the 200 pupils were predominantly Muslim, she believed her daughter would do well in a multicultural school.
Three terms later, she decided that she had made a mistake. ”I had to put my daughter’s welfare first,” she says. ”She wasn’t thriving at a school where she was the only girl of her religion and culture. I wanted her religious education to be inclusive, but the reverse was the case. She became isolated among her classmates and instead of learning about all faiths, there was increasingly little of her own.”
Perhaps the answer might lie in a new approach to religious education that has been adopted in Birmingham. Marius Felderhof, who lectures on theology at the city’s university, drafted a new RE syllabus last year. ”Before, the curriculum had been diverse,” he explains, ”and the effect had been to diminish the time available available for any Christian treatment. Our new framework is not focused on one religion, per se, but rather on moral values – which draw, in the main, on Christian resources.
Birmingham’s response may seem something of an opt-out, but the syllabus has proved popular with teachers and parents. It is, as Felderhof, says: ”A solution to a very difficult situation. It is a way of dealing with pluralism that doesn’t divide.”