What moral values do school choices teach our children?

Our son, who is now 4 years old, will start school next week. The closest taxpayer-funded school to us is St John the Baptist, a CofE school with a good reputation. But he won’t be going there, and the whole episode will provide the whole family with plenty of material to think about “right” and “wrong”.

img_5300-1We did visit St Johns (along with many other schools), several times. Although CofE schools have often been perceived as rather soft on Christian proselytism in recent decades, we had heard St Johns were now tuning up their religious ethos (including optional church visits during normal school hours), so we were curious to see what we could for ourselves. We asked local staff how important it was to “be Christian”. The recurrent reply was that St John’s actually welcomes all faiths “because religion teaches moral values”. True enough. But this statement seemed to barely mask two implicit claims that we think are worrying.

For one, though “religion” does “teach moral values”, the examples of people who trace their moral values to their “religion” do range from the Amish to the Inquisition, from the Ahmadiyya to ISIS, and so on. In other words, there is a very wide range of “moral values” and associated enforcement structures that “religion” has given rise to. You might (rightly) retort that the same holds true of secular worldviews (from Enlightenment liberalism to Stalinism), but that is precisely the point: the content of those values matters at least as much as their religious or philosophical origin.

However, also worrying in this claim that “religion teaches moral values” is the implied converse statement (“atheism/humanism does not”?). Not only does this ignore the numerous moral systems built without needing religious references (say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the French Constitution, or the UN Charter), but it also seems to imply that you need the threat of punishment by some all-powerful super-judge for you to consider being nice to your neighbour. I’m not sure even religious people are ethical only because their religion taught them, or indeed that religion is the only source of their morality.

I quite like various aspects of Christianity (in fact I research, teach and publish on it): the theology can be rich and interesting, and the ethics preached by Jesus quite moving and thought-provoking. One thing which he did seem particularly condemnatory about though was hypocrisy. Funny then that every year parents, clergy and schools play this little game the falseness of which everybody is aware of: attend church for a year, get a letter from the priest, get the precious progeny into the better local state-funded school, then go back to normal. Interesting display of “Christian values”, from all parties.

But why do new parents play that game every year? Can they really be faulted if this is because they want the best education for their children? It’s great that many publicly-funded schools are excellent (even when under-funded). It’s important that they all teach moral values, as well as religion(s). If some religious bodies want to teach kids their way, then the current legislation allows that. But should the schools funded by a multicultural state declare a preference for kids whose parents declare them to be religious?

When our son is intellectually and emotionally mature enough to begin to grapple with the big questions that religion is concerned with, we certainly intend, with his school’s help, to encourage him to consider the various answers provided by different worldviews. Meanwhile we try, like all parents, to teach him moral values by word and by example. As currently designed and lived-out every year, however, the process with which young children enter the British school system is not exactly providing a glorious parable teaching the moral values of honesty, tolerance, solidarity, and so on. Thankfully, there are plenty of examples across Europe and beyond (each with their own challenges of course) of how else the parable could be written.