My daughter attends an excellent school. It was the only one in the area with a place, but after a few nail biting weeks on the waiting lists, we were over the moon when it was the school offered. It is also Catholic. We are not.
I have had a few people ask me how I reconcile my belief in separation of church and state with sending my daughter to a school where prayers and church services are part of the school day. I have no problem at all with there being Catholic schools, and with them including aspects of their religion in the school day (as long as the children are not restricted from finding out fair information about other belief systems and are not encouraged to make harmful choices). We could have home educated her, or held out for a school that is less overtly religious. What I have a problem with is the lack of choice for parents who wish to avoid religious instruction altogether.
I start from the general principle that everyone should be free to practice their own religion or none at all. As long as you are not harming anyone, you are respectful of others and you allow members of your religion access to other beliefs, then I don’t see why anyone could object. I also feel that, if you use the facilities provided by a group, you should abide by the rules of that group, and as such you should also be able to get basic services with no special conditions. This is why I do not think that the “collective worship of a broadly Christian nature” in mainstream schools is at all fair.
If we had not been ok with our child going to a school that does not fit with our beliefs as an atheist/agnostic family, we would have had to home educate. There is no option in the state system for a school where no religion or religious practices are imposed on the children. To me, the default should be no religion, as that leaves it to the parents and child to add on whatever they believe at home, or to find a school that does provide religious instruction. As it is, in a country where an active belief in Christianity is very much in the minority, nearly every child is expected to take part in worship at school.
My primary school was a mainstream community state school, yet we had ministers from the local evangelical church in assemblies, holiday clubs and classrooms telling us that evolution was impossible and that non-Christians would burn in hell, which leaves a strong impression on an eight year-old. We also had the standard vicar-with-guitar-and-beard singing hymns at us, and a teacher who told us that global warming is just a test from God. I left primary school in 1996, but websites like Mumsnet are full of the same kinds of stories. Of course, these people are more than welcome to hold whatever beliefs they like and to worship how they feel, but they shouldn’t be able to essentially force children to join in.
Yes, there is the option to withdraw your child from assemblies and religious practises, but why isn’t the default position that of the beliefs of the vast majority of the population? A child is not given the option to refuse to participate, and so is dependant on their parents being aware of the school’s level of religious instruction.
I have no problem with teaching about religion. In fact, call me Gove, but I do think that children should be familiar with the Bible, and the King James version is particularly useful. I also feel that children should be familiar with classical mythology and the stories of other religions too – without religion, much of history and the arts would make very little sense. I would encourage children to respectfully visit churches and other religious monuments, and to meet believers and leaders of all different faiths. I just think that the beliefs of one particular religion should not be taught as fact in the vast majority of schools, unless the parents have specifically opted in by sending their child to a school affiliated to (and partially funded by) that religion.
Anecdotally, it would seem that most schools have very little religious instruction in the curriculum. However, it is something that schools are assessed on by Ofsted, and a parent has no way of knowing if a school will suddenly start singing hymns or having religious talks. If a school is about to start sex and relationships education – in which a child will be told facts about their own body and how to keep themselves healthy – the parents are called in to discuss it and are given the chance to ask questions and raise objections. Why can’t parents be given the same option when it comes to matters of a far less scientific nature?