Is there a place for God in education?

I'm at the RSA this evening, for a debate over a rather contentious subject: the role of religion in education. I'll be liveblogging it as best I can here.

(Oh, and I'm on my iPad, wishing I had brought my MacBook)

Sheena McDonald is in the chair. Good luck to her.

First up is Trevor Cooling, who wrote the report Doing God in Education. How people handle matters of belief is going to shape our world, he suggests. Learning to live together withe very different strongly-held beliefs is going to be ever more important. The consensus of a fair, broad education masks a fault line. most campaigning for diversity in education is based on the irrelevance of religion. Cooper argues that people's beliefs fundamentally inform their view of knowledge. Why cannot education be predicated on religion as a resource for communities, rather than as clutter in the system?

Andrew Copson argues that humanists are calling for fairness, rather than an unbiased view, and that Cooling's report misrepresents that. The BHA is in favour of teaching about a wide range of religions in school, so they can test their own emerging beliefs. That's the right place for them.

Dr Joyce Miller (a practicing Buddhist) likes the fact that the report addresses the idea the education is not free of inherent values. She feels it's essential that is engaged with in schools. However, she's not comfortable with the essentially Christian view outlined. All voices should contribute to the wellbeing and development of children.

Mohamed Mukadam suggests that our community is built of people of many beliefs and none – and varying levels of those beliefs. Faith schools cater to that diversity. Fairness does not require the closure of those schools, but is a spur for sitting down for a discussion. They are important for the very devout – they are a stepping stone to bring the isolated into mainstream society. Cooling advocates "courageous restraint" For teachers – he doesn't have to be afraid of his beliefs, as it stands as an example to children. But he must engage with criticism and debate. Stand back and give others the space to say what they want to say.

Canon Dr Ann Holt wants to argue that the only way to allow people to be who they are in public is to allow for a diversity of provision. Education has much to do with shaping identity. Faith schools are not funded by the state, they're funded by the people, whose money is administered by the state. Believers pay their taxes like unbelievers. It's not just teaching about religion – that's a reductionist form of knowledge. Every school should teach about religion. But education should not happen in a spiritual and moral vacuum. We need methodologies and curricula that honour that. What are we looking for in management of the public square? Are we looking for acquiescence to a dominance secularity? Or a genuinely tolerant view, because tolerance presumes disagreement.

Cooling thinks that children should be taught to think about the beliefs that shape values, so they can challenge and question, rather than adhering to the prevailing cultural and media norms. Copson thinks he's going too far – partially because he sees values as flexible, changing things. And he's the first to mention Creationism… The gloss science teachers who are christian and humanist put on their teaching will be different – but the worldview is irrelevant, because the base science is the same.

And that's why our curriculum is so boring, says Holt. There's a rich history of philosophy and religion, and an empty view taught in schools leaves them feeling hopeless.

Mukadam suggests that we gave to give God a role in schools. A curriculum which doesn't include a spiritual element is utilitarian – it teaches kids to be economic units, rather that to question the big issues: who am I? why do I exist? Why can those who have decided against God get to enforce that in education? And…he's close to preaching rather than arguing now.

Miller doesn't think science is as neutral as Copson argues. She likes the Buddhist idea of heart and mind as one, and we ned to think about the whole child.

Cooling responds to Copson by saying that he doesn't think that world views are inflexible. But he does think that the secular position that religion is irrelevant to most subjects is a belief and a worldview in its own right.

First questioner is editorialising, rather than asking a question. Pluralism. Blah.

Professor Richard Norman who came up with the clutter idea, agrees that the humanist position is that religion is a resource that can be drawn from throughout the curriculum. However, he suggests that the use of "worldview" in the report suggests an all-encompassing framework more than a resource.

And it's just been pointed out that we have one unbeliever amongst five on the panel… By the chair of the British Humanist Association. He suggests that Cooling's report is a manifesto for the colonisation of schools by the religious. He feels that it is possible for people to behave in a neutral way – it's part of the professionalism of being a teacher.

Ex-Catholic gay man asking a question. The institutions represented at the table are institutionally homophobic and misogynistic, he says. Why should people be allowed to do this to children? Cooling apologises for the harm does by religion, but he qualifies it by saying that atheists do harm, too.

A statistician from Brent says she was lucky to grow up there, because there were no faith schools, so she experienced a rich diversity in education, and formed her own views. isn't this about the children not the parents, she asked?

Mukadam argues that the question confuses the value (homosexuality is wrong) with hating the people. These are not the same thing. Miller says this is exactly the debate that should happen in RE, but without an evangelistic bent, just as they're not allowed to promote party politics – and declares that as a Buddhist she is not a believer. It's two to three not four to one.

An ex-teacher suggests that his experience is that all teaching is coloured by a worldview. Another asks if room for religion means room for all political ideologies, too. Miller points out that ideologies is a loaded world. People who agree with you have worldviews, and those who disagree have ideologies…

One teacher points out that learning is a metacognitive process, and should be viewed through the lens of beliefs as a result.

It's disappointing that so many of the questioners from the audience aren't actually asking questions, they're just having their say (rant?).

Mukadam is "surprised" by the depth of feeling against religion in schools. Hasn't been paying attention to public debate of late, it seems. Copson wants to see the reform of state-funded faith schools is because they're not forced to give a balanced teaching of different belief. He doesn't buy the spiritual vacuum argument leading straight to faith schools. Miller is amazed that no-one has mentioned forced collective worship in schools. Cooling found it disturbing that people are accusing him of believing all sorts of things he doesn't. He believes that you can't have values without beliefs (religious or otherwise), so children need to be helped to understand that.

And we're done.

Adam Tinworth

Living somewhere in the blogging/journalism intersection, and not particularly bothered about making a choice.

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