Christian Schools: Desirable or Detestable?

Arthur Jones enters an area of increasing controversy

EDUCATION FOR LIFE in the world means education with and by the world.1

Unquestionably, if at all possible, the Christian school is the place for Christian parents to send their children.2

Controversy unlimited

Out of that select group of most controversial issues, that of Christian schooling is one that evokes some of the strongest emotions. Although Christians have been establishing schools in Britain for well over a thousand years, in recent times relatively few have been established. And although founding Christian schools was a central part of the mission strategy of many famous missionaries, today a clear majority of British Christians are against religious schools and against the state funding of such schools.3 What are we to make of it all?

We are where we are

We cannot separate ourselves from our history and that history has confused and clouded the whole issue of Christian education. Three points need to be made:

First, we are the heirs of generations of Christian warfare over education. We know that the Church of England is the Established Church: what we forget too easily is that for centuries the Church supported policies of active discrimination (and often persecution) against all other Christians. In the field of education this was manifest as a vehement struggle over the ownership of schools and of Religious Instruction. In the 19th and 20th century debates this became a social and political battle as the Church and upper classes identified almost totally with the Tories, and the nonconformists and middle classes with the Whigs/Liberals.4

The failure to break the Anglican monopoly in the early decades of the present century led to much disillusionment amongst non-conformists about public life in general and politics and education in particular. For several generations (c1920-1980) we entered the Great Reversal – the withdrawal of most non-conformists from Christian involvement in public life. Inadvertently, this paved the way for total secularisation in the public realm (including education). By the time of the 1944 settlement, only the Catholics were still committed to Christian nurture in school. Nonconformists generally advocated a unified state system of secular schools with undenominational agreed syllabi for RE. Most Anglicans defended the dual system, but with declining support for educational nurture. Fifty years on it should be no surprise that research finds that, whereas Catholic schools generally have a positive impact on the religious attitudes of their pupils compared with county schools, Church of England schools have only the same impact or a negative impact.5

Second, the past century has seen the entrenchment in society of two key dualisms – between private and public and between secular and religious – which have further undermined support for Christian education. It has become taken for granted that the public areas of life must be secular where secular is taken to mean religiously uncommitted (or ‘neutral’). This view has been seen to be undergirded by the objectivity and power of modern science. Indeed, this understanding of science has been a key source of the affirmation that Christian education (i.e. in all curriculum areas) would be a contradiction in terms. (‘If a distinctively Christian perspective on all of life were non-existent then there could be no real justification for Christian schools) Undoubtedly many Christians have imbibed this notion of religious neutrality, even though it is a myth.7

Third, and perhaps most important because less recognised, the processes, or forces, of modernisation – especially corporate capitalism, scientific technology, urbanisation, and mass communications/mass media – have created a total environment from which God and faith are completely excluded.8 To use an educational term, we are all very effectively indoctrinated with secular perspectives. One clear outcome is that most of us don’t know where to begin to think about being a Christian in public (other than in terms of individual morality and piety). The processes are so all-pervasive that Christian faith is now felt to be strange and alien. It is not simply that faith is marginalised, but that all family and community life is radically undermined.9

Who are the Guardians?
In recent times secular scholars have become increasingly exercised by the issues of pluralism and multiculturalism as regards education. Many have now recognised that by maintaining the private/public divide and by privileging secular neutrality’, our Western societies are actually imposing individualism and secularism on everyone. Far from being the real defenders of pluralism and tolerance, secularists are following agenda that ensure that faith is experienced as irrelevant and the communities and cultures of faith are banished to the margins. The secular defence of pluralism is really a self-interested defence of the secularists’ own hegemony over Western society.

The Real Question
Forget the word ‘school’. Tile real question is ‘Where do our children (or we ourselves) have the space to practice obedience to the Truth for all of life?’ ‘Where do they (we) learn to understand and practice the language of faith (instead of the internationalised language of secular modernity)10’? The central thrust of the famous education passages of scripture (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Ephesians 6:1-4) is not to do with schooling (at least not directly). Those passages make a simple point that demands reflection – and surely repentance? The point is that if we don’t create for our children a God-focused environment then the secular/pagan environment in which we allow them to be immersed will seduce them from the Truth.

Arthur Jones is an education consultant.


1 Eric Lane, Special Children? A Theology of Childhood, London: Grace Publications, 1996, p 37.
2 Richard Edlin, The cause of Christian Education, Northport, AL. Vision Press, 1994, p 38.
3 Tariq Modood, Culture and identity, Chapter 9 in T Modood et al, Ethnic Minorities in Britain.. Diversity and Disadvantage, London: Policy Studies Institute, 1997, pp 290-338 (pp 320-325 on choice of schools). Preference for religious schools was highest amongst Catholics, New Protestants and Muslims. Interestingly there was more support from those without a religion than from Hindus, Sikhs, or members of the old Protestant churches.
4 The absence of reference here to Catholics and the working classes reflects the reality of the history, As Protestants we have yet to come to terms with past sins whose consequences we still suffer.

5 Leslie Francis writes that he remains puzzled, ‘that a church radically committed to serving the nation’s children should consider undermining their confidence in Christianity to be an essential part of this service.’ (Church schools and pupil attitudes towards Christianity. a response to Mairi Levitt,British Journal of Religious Education, 17 (3), 1995,┬áp 137)
6 Paul Hirst, Christian education: a contradiction in terms?, Learning for living, 11 (4), 1972, pp 611. More recently Hirst has rejected the ‘hard rationalism’ and ‘radical individualism’ that he then espoused.

7 See Arthur Jones, The idolatry of secular science, New Directions, 2 (25), 1997, pp 5-6, arid Science in Faith (Romford: Christian Schools’ Trust, due late 1997, c 200 pp).
8 Most potent in this regard are all the popular TV soaps.
9 For Christian commentary, see the writings of David Wells (No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland) and Rodney Clapp (Families at the Cross-roads, A Peculiar People). The writings of Alasdair Maclntyre and Peter Berger are also relevantly insightful.
10 See MacIntyre, “Whose Justice? “Which Rationality, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988, p 373.