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Shouldn’t you be in school?

Beyond headlines about school refusers and ghost children, lies a challenge to adult notions of schooling. Henna Cundill unpacks the issue, inspired, in part, by fish.
A school of tropical fish swims to the right, while one swims to the left.
A school of tropical fish off the Maldives.

The squeaky black shoes are back in the hall, and by now all the white polo-shirts in the land (except aged 4-5, slim-fit) have been snaffled by harassed mums and dads. Yes, it is that time of year again – the time for newspaper editors to dredge up some statistics about the rising number of “school refusers” – anxious young people whose squeaky shoes and white polo shirts are looking set to never leave the house.  

The numbers are “spiralling” frets the Guardian, and the Daily Mail asks “Are you raising a ‘ghost child’?” Forth come the stock images of a sulky teenage girl pulling the duvet over her face, or a young boy with an oversized backpack and hands clamped firmly over his ears. A parent, frowning, is quoted as saying that the school isn’t doing enough. A headteacher, eyebrows knitted, says how difficult it is without the support and cooperation of the parents. Then everybody shakes their heads and blames the pandemic. 

In my time as a School Chaplain, before the pandemic, I saw how truly awful school refusal is – for everyone involved. Beneath the covers, underneath the backpack, there is actually no “refusal” of anything – in fact, there is a campaign to get rid of this term, which I heartily support. Refusal implies there is a choice, but when a young person feels so overwhelmingly anxious and afraid, there is no choice for them, other than fight, flight, or freeze. Parents and caregivers feel judged, teachers are largely helpless. Social workers, when they get involved, quickly feel like they are the enemy of absolutely everyone involved. Surrounding any long-term school refuser there is often a hot mess of frustrated adults, and underneath the frustration, sadness.  

No Scouts, no community choir, not even traipsing down to the park to hang out informally with their peers. Instead, anxiety traps them into the perceived safety of home. 

Why sadness? Because we know that, regardless of our views on the importance of cookie-cutter educational attainments, no young person should be isolated. Even families who are committed and evangelistic about home-schooling will also schedule social activities for their children, be it membership of various clubs and organisations or group sessions of learning with other home-schooled kids. But the school refusers I have known have typically also refused anything like that. No Scouts, no community choir, not even traipsing down to the park to hang out informally with their peers. Instead, anxiety traps them into the perceived safety of home, that one tiny corner of the world where they have a sure sense of belonging and some modicum of control.  

With the idea of “belonging” in mind, perhaps it is helpful to think about what a school actually is. The word school is multi-faceted in meaning. In nature, it denotes a group of fish, all swimming together. Such behaviour would seem counter-intuitive, since it means that all the fish are then competing for the same food or other resources. But ask any fish and it will tell you that being part of the group is itself a resource, enhancing their ability to find food and to protect themselves from predators. We could put this a more familiar way: a school is where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  

There’s also another meaning to the word school – groups of creatives or philosophical thinkers whose styles and methods influence and complement each other, e.g., “His paintings are those of the Impressionist school.” We can see how, in these schools, people spark off one another, constantly developing and refining their own work in response to the work of others. Those with greater skill and experience mentor those who are just beginning. In this respect, we could say that a school is where people can push the boundaries of human creativity and knowledge.   

Since the ancient days, when learners gathered around the Greek philosophers, first to listen, then to discuss, and then to refine ideas, we have gathered our young people into schools for the purpose of educating them. We have long acknowledged that the best learning is a group activity which takes place over time. This is why home schoolers also schedule the clubs and activities – not just because children need friends (although that is important) but because there is a particular “other” kind of human progress that happens when we have to rub along with other people. When learners are placed in groups, ideas can be tested, boundaries can be overcome, creativity meets with critique - the whole quickly becomes greater than the sum of its parts.  

You may notice that many schools promote themselves as being a “learning community” or a “family.” It’s not just about being twee – research shows that promoting a sense of belonging reduces the amount of school refusal and non-attendance. We know that belonging matters, as Belle Tindall has recently discussed, and that a sense of belonging can impact our health and even our mortality. (“Well, I told you so!” says the fish.)  

This was something the early Christians knew too. In the first few decades after Jesus’s life and ministry they gathered in groups to pray and to discuss, just like those earlier followers of Plato and Aristotle had done. There was an eagerness to learn from those who had heard Jesus’ teaching first hand, and to develop and refine their understanding of what that teaching could mean in practice. It was a school, although they called it a church – or strictly speaking an ecclesia in the Greek, which just means a gathering of people.  

In the ecclesia there was good natured debate, but also some spicy disputes and arguments, along with a lot of discussion about who was “in” and who was “out” - something which is also a hot topic in the school playgrounds of today. Into that context, Paul (one of the first leaders of the ecclesia) wrote that the church was a bit like a human body, in which:  

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 

His point was that belonging is about knowing not just that you belong but that you are needed. In a human body, different parts have different roles, and Paul also asks his readers to consider this point:  

“If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?”  

I have seen that schools do often try very, very hard to communicate to young people that they belong. But, shackled to the syllabi and never more than a few short months away from the next round of exams or individualised assessments, it’s much harder for schools to show young people that they are needed. With our present system, how can we show young people that, even if they are not predicted to be the student in the class who gets straight A’s, their presence there in the group and their role in the learning process is vital, and contributes to the learning of others? 

When it comes to the presence of absence among our young people, schools have often gone as far as they can practicably go, as have parents, as have social workers. And the young people themselves? Well, they are stuck – biologically their only options are fight, flight, or freeze.  

So that leaves us, the society that over-emphasises individualised achievement, that glorifies celebrity and individual success. In adulthood we so quickly forget how to “do” school, how to model it to our young people, swimming all together in a way designed to promote human knowledge, protect each other from danger or even just to ensure that everyone gets fed. No wonder our young people absorb a sense that their presence isn’t needed, when in so many areas of life it’s every fish for themselves. 

As adults, perhaps we should be asking ourselves the question: why aren’t we in school?          

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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.