One of my personal philosophical battles that I have with myself even if with nobody else is deciding how much I consider state run schools should teach values to children and if I agree they should then what values, given we live in a post-Christian, multi-cultural society? In my recent post, I touched on the subject of British Values, noting some of the problems that schools, especially faith schools, encounter when they try to teach values or, given some of the examples cited, not teach values the government would rather they did teach, often having an agenda (benign or malign depending upon how you look at it) to influence children in a certain way. I make the distinction between faith and non-faith schools, knowing my personal preference is faith schools, starting from the premise that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and we should teach a child the way he/she should go, both of which are values, although recognizing education is or should be about empowering the recipient to understand the world he/she lives in and the various points of view that have existed and exists. I suspect many faith schools have compromised more then I would in the way they do teach values in order to gain favour with the powers that be, and that can be a bad thing. Many parents decide to home school their children because the values that are taught in the schools they might otherwise go to and their ethos are not ones they share.
But can education ever be value free? When it comes to a fairly innocuous subject like history, in my day I was taught about rulers and battles from a British perspective. Nowadays children are taught about social change and the role of woman from a wider perspective. In geography, I was taught about the countries of the world and their economies. Nowadays children are taught about ecology and the environment. In the case of literature, we are seeing a tendency for the old classics to be replaced by modern texts with a contemporary radical theme. Even the sciences have not gone unaffected. In my day, it really was more about a systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment, but nowadays the social effects are given a lot more prominence. I suspect that the subject most likely to be impervious to changing values is maths but even there the tendency to not to find solutions from first principles and the use of calculators suggests something about underlying values. Don’t tell me values don’t come into it, even if it only comes down to selection of material! This is particularly noticeable in the teaching of RE, which nowadays is often multi-faith and cosmetic, and school assemblies if held at all containing a religious element also multi-faith. Nowadays, there is a new subject and it is also mandated in the national curriculum – Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education, comprising such diverse topics as alcohol, smoking and drugs; personal health; bullying; citizenship, democracy and human rights; careers and the world of work; personal finance; family and relationships; sex education. In my day RE was Bible based and daily assemblies were Christian, even if those who led them weren’t, and as for PSHE, while elements were taught in an ad-hoc manner, the subject was hardly known.
So this brings me to a pet subject and that is to do with LBGT rights, discussed for example in a recent blog titled the “gay conundrum”. It is not that I have a fixation over homosexuality, but it is the one subject more than most when those whose values differ from the supposed (some say imposed) national consensus on the subject could proverbially come a cropper. Knowing I was going to blog on this subject, I asked my 17 year old son what he had picked up from his PSHE learning on homosexuality, which appeared to be hardly anything. As a parent, I am guilty of not being more on the ball but part of the reason is that I felt in this case I could trust the school (although that wouldn’t apply in the case of some other schools) and, besides which, we also taught elements of this along with other PSHE related topics at home and felt it is was important that he critically evaluated what he was told, realizing that he would soon have to make up his own mind where he stands. Three things struck me following our discussion: firstly, the subject was not broached in PSHE or any other teaching as far as I could make out. Secondly, when the subject of relationships was broached, it was done in gender neutral ways, presumably to accommodate the possibility of same sex relationships. Thirdly, while the school is not overtly homophobic any more than it is racist (which is just as well given the ethnic mix) there may be some underlying homophobia.
All of which brings me to a story that broke in the past week. As some readers will know, when it comes to culture war subjects like homosexuality from a societal perspective, I try to read sources from near both extremes. The Christian Institute run a story titled: “Force schools to endorse gay relationships, says NUT” and went in to write “Schools should be required to give children a positive portrayal of same-sex relationships, according to a major teachers’ union. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) backed the promotion of LGBT History Month and an ‘LGBT inclusive’ curriculum at its annual conference in Harrogate this weekend. However, the Christian Institute said it would force Christian teachers “to have to choose between their faith and their job””. Pink News understandably took a different slant and their story covering many of the same issues had the title: “Christian groups slam ‘intolerant’ teachers over calls to teach about gay relationships” and went on to write “Christian anti-gay groups have complained that the National Union of Teachers is “intolerant” – for calling on the next government to make it compulsory to teach about same-sex relationships”. Understandably, most of the Pink News readers who offered their comments on the subject were unsympathetic to the plight of those Christian teachers who might feel they are being put in the intolerable position of acting against their conscience.
Although this might be seen as but one small example of values influencing what us taught in school, it is arguably a necessary one if one is of the view this is something schools should be doing to prevent homophobic bullying and helping LBGT folk who might feel threatened because of societal attitudes on the matter. Yet as I search my own heart, while mindful of some of the horror stories of LBGT folk having experienced homophobic attacks, I still feel that I have to stand with my “brothers” who feel they cannot endorse what God doesn’t by speaking about same sex relationships in a gay affirming way, even if it were to cost them their jobs, for if they were to do so it would dishonour God. It is a tragedy that we are constantly seeing in our culture Christians who give as much, if not more than most, to serving their communities, being penalized for acting according to their conscience. I do, however, accept that given same sex marriage is now legal that children over a certain age should be told about what is involved, and if there is a value to be taught, and I quite accept there may well be, then it is the one of “love your neighbor” irrespective of his/her sexuality. In checking out the definition and meaning of education, I found little that hit the nail on the head. I am of the view that good education is not about indoctrination but it is about discovering more about the world around us and learning to think for oneself, be able to weigh up situations, and see things as they really are. If values are to be taught, or implied by the way we define the curriculum, they should help not hinder this journey of discovery and do what the ancients saw as pursuing wisdom: which is the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment, i.e. being wise. One of the outcomes of the culture war we are seeing is who decides which values are to be taught in our schools? In my view these need to be true and right, which as far as I am concerned are those based on the Bible rather than the outcome of the human reasoning of some liberal elite.