'Fundamentalism' and Education
There's a report in today's Guardian by Natasha Walter on 'fundamentalist' Christian education in the UK. Some might find it interesting and some may not be happy with the use of the term 'evangelical'. Here are a couple of extracts:
Alastair Kirk stopped going to school when he was 11. He is now 20, and not exactly a dropout - he went on being educated at home, and every day he sat down and worked his way through booklets of maths, English, science, history, geography, all couched in a unique style. "Here are examples of interrogative sentences," states one grammar booklet in the curriculum he used, Accelerated Christian Education. "Do you know Jesus as your personal Saviour? Can you ever praise Him enough?"
Although few people outside evangelical churches have even heard of it, more than 500 families in Britain are currently educating their children at home with the curriculum that Alastair's family used. Accelerated Christian Education was developed in the 1970s by American fundamentalists, but its popularity is now growing in the UK, and not only among home-schooling families - more than 50 schools in Britain are using it. The main teaching tools are booklets relating to each subject - the children read a section and then fill in a questionnaire. When I visit the office for Christian Education Europe, in Swindon, I meet one of the directors, Arthur Roderick, who tells me with great gusto that they are getting more and more inquiries every year. "More people understand why we do this now. Black is getting blacker and white is getting whiter," he says, with the rolling rhetoric that betrays his long experience as a preacher.
Much concern has been expressed about independent faith schools in Britain lately, but the anxiety is always concentrated on independent Muslim schools and what children are learning there. Independent Christian schools, on the other hand, are pretty much ignored. The chief inspector of schools, David Bell, for example, recently criticised independent Muslim schools for failing to teach tolerance of other cultures. But after he had made that speech, his office released information that showed evangelical Christian schools are actually even less successful at that task.
Legislation lays down that independent schools can go their own way in many things - they do not have to abide by the national curriculum - but they must "assist pupils to acquire an appreciation of and respect for their own and other cultures, in a way that promotes tolerance and harmony", and of the 40 evangelical Christian schools that were not yet fully registered by Ofsted, 18 had failed on that count.
The evangelical schools that I visit have, in fact, been deemed to succeed in that requirement, even though they do not see it as their brief to talk about other faiths at all. Where other faiths, or even branches of the same faith, are discussed in the ACE booklets, the tone is telling. One social studies booklet on Martin Luther and the Reformation, for instance, is critical of the Catholic church in the 16th century and also, by implication, today, using such words as "idolatry" and "superstitious nonsense" to characterise supposedly Catholic teachings, and inviting children to underline the "correct" Protestant beliefs. At the Maranatha Christian School near Swindon, 60 children are taught with ACE, which emphasises at every turn that evangelical Christianity is the only route to the truth.
Some British state schools have been criticised for putting the creation and evolution as equivalent viewpoints in religious education lessons, but for children at ACE schools the literal interpretation of Genesis permeates everything they are taught. And for the parents who choose schools like this, such literal use of the Bible is the draw. Tom Price has five children at the school, and loves that they are being taught that the six-day creation story is a fact. "Evolution removes God from the world. But I see God's hand in everything. I see purpose and design," he enthuses. Price is a lay preacher in a Pentecostal church, Assemblies of God. "I don't want to have to undo and unpick what they are taught at school."
In addition to frequent incursions of the Bible, ACE also delivers a pretty solid, old-fashioned grounding in other areas. It begins with reading based on the newly fashionable synthetic phonics, and moves on to other core school subjects - maths, history, geography, physics, languages and so on. What stands out is the traditional delivery of the information with none of the role-play and speculation of current mainstream curricula. This is all about getting your head around the "facts" then retelling those "facts" in multiple choice and fill-in-the-blanks tests. Although that means children learn the basics in a way that many state-educated pupils may not, it also means they do not learn to question anything they are taught. Harry Brighouse, professor of philosophy and education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has watched the expansion of ACE in America with distaste. "It is a crude curriculum. It doesn't encourage questioning or individual thought - it is very much based on rote learning."
What is undeniably attractive about this curriculum - even for the sceptical observer - is the way that it moves at the same pace as the child. With ACE, children are assessed on entry and progress at their own speed, working through booklets and doing the tests at the end of each one before they can move on to the next. They work mainly alone, but if they get stuck they put a little flag up in their cubicle and a supervisor will help out. This flexible pace with its built-in checks can clearly work for children who have fallen through gaps in the state system.
Another parent, Des Starritt, tells me that one reason he wanted to withdraw his children from state school is that they were given books about witchcraft there. At first I don't understand, but then I click - he means books by JK Rowling or Philip Pullman. "We would not put Harry Potter in the school library," says Paul Medlock, the Maranatha headmaster. "It is a book without proper values," says Ben Pike. "It treats witchcraft lightly."
This school, church and community centre are the creation of two pastors, Maxine and George Hargreaves, who have a vision for this deprived community. George Hargreaves is a charismatic, articulate man in his late 40s, who recently stood for election for the fundamentalist Christian political party, Operation Christian Vote.
I can see that here the staff strive to give children a sense of pride. But their learning is shaped by the narrowest interpretation of the Bible with all the preconceptions of this religious bias, including a very particular approach to sex education. Maxine responds first when I ask the Hargreaves about the subject. "We talk to the older girls about virginity," she says. George takes up the theme. "We tell them that the blood shed when virginity is broken on the marriage bed is part of the blood covenant made between you and your husband under God, and if the blood is shed elsewhere it will weaken the covenant." A few moments later, George reaches into his pocket for a tiny pink plastic doll foetus, and drops it into my hand: "180,000 babies like that are killed every year in Britain. That is what happens when you take sex out of God's order."
For parents who mistrust mainstream education, the ACE system provides the means to avoid it completely. The curriculum is easy for parents to use at home because all the information is contained in the booklets, which also provide self-tests and which progress neatly from level to level. And by withdrawing children from school altogether, of course, parents can exercise even more control over what their children think and read and say. I watch Arthur Roderick play to that desire for control when he speaks at a seminar for ACE home-schooling families. "The deepest temptation is up here," he says fiercely, pointing to his forehead. "Philosophical pollution is all around them." Beverley England, who is in the small audience of parents, has already made the choice to save her family from such pollution.
Because the question still burns about how this kind of education can possibly prepare children to make their own intellectual choices. In the US, where ACE is a much bigger force, that is really what exercises its critics. One American educationalist who is hostile to fundamentalist Christian education, David Berliner of Arizona University, has complained that in ACE schools "nearly all speculative activities about the world and the human condition have been purged from the curriculum and so, therefore, have all of the teaching methodologies that promote speculation."
A style of education that discourages doubt and debate clearly poses a question for the rest of society. As David Berliner says to me, "Their educational system is closer to ultrafundamentalism than is healthy for a democracy." Yet ACE schools are independent, they ask for no state support, and families who choose to educate their children at home do so in the face of indifference or hostility from local authorities. Aren't they just exercising their own right to free choice as to how their children should be educated? So long as their children reach a reasonable standard of learning, has anyone the right to interfere?
Ben Rogers, the associate director of the thinktank Institute for Public Policy Research, produced a recent report, What Is Religious Education For? which argued that discussion of atheism and agnosticism should be included within religious education for all children. "There is this view that parents own their children," he says. "Nobody owns kids. Children aren't yours to control, you hold them in trust, and you should cultivate certain qualities in them, including the ability to understand the value of different points of view."
The future is likely to see more of this debate, since most of the people I interviewed believed that independent fundamentalist education is set to spread in the UK, partly because of the inspiration evangelical Christians seem to take from what's happening across the Atlantic. Ben Pike talked wistfully to me at Maranatha School about the way that evangelical churches in the US have managed to bring so many children into their independent schools and home-schooling networks. "America provides us with a vision for the future," he says.
In the US evangelicals have effectively created a parallel system of education which has schooled hundreds of thousands of pupils in its messianic world view and the evangelical social and political agenda has moved into the mainstream. Evangelical Christianity is far from being such a force in Britain, but it is clearly the desire of many of those I met that it should become so.