"I found I surprised myself by selecting a Primary Church School for The Eight Year Old to attend despite us having no faith. Put simply, the school was the best that we visited before making our choice. It just felt like the right place for my son to be. And so, regardless of my previous thoughts about where he would begin his formal education, he now happily attends a Catholic School."
In response, one of the friends left this comment:-
"Interesting that you chose a catholic school, despite having 'no faith'. Were there any good secular schools available? I find the ever-increasing take-over of English schools by church organisations absolutely abhorrent. As The Husband will be able to confirm, we (The Friend and his partner) take our atheism and secularism very seriously. we would be very uncomfortable sending our child to a religious school, but may have little choice in the end. I would be interested to hear about your experiences in this area."
I felt it was impossible to answer this in a couple of lines and so am responding in this post.
|Image borrowed from:- |
Five years ago it was time to decide on where we (me and The Eight Year Old's Dad) would apply to for The (then) Four Year Old to go to school - he would have six months in the Nursery class before moving into Reception. Our priority was to find a primary school (if possible with a nursery attached) that offered a positive experience in terms of the environment being that of a supportive community. I want my children to have an enjoyable experience of school, to grow as individuals in becoming more confident within themselves and in being open to the world. If my children leave school with little more than a questioning mind, being capable of reflection and critical thinking, a love of learning, and an ability to get on with others, then I wouldn't be disappointed.
The only think I thought I was clear on when considering school selection was that I didn't want to choose a Church School because I don't believe in God and therefore I didn't want the views of others to be delivered to my son as a fait accompli. This is despite me having attended a Church of England primary school and now, regardless of that early eductional experience, my being an athiest. Just to pause here for a moment to say that I'm not a fan of the title 'athiest'. I find the term to be a strong one and that 's why I tend to prefer to say 'have no faith' or that I'm a non-believer. I'm not sure why this is. I think, that maybe because I have no desire to convince others of my opinions, and because I respect the views of others who do believe in God, then I don't feel the need to label myself in order to 'set my stall out' as it were. Or maybe it's that I simply don't agree with the need for labels for everyone and everything along with the often acompanying stereotyping.
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Of the two areas in which we were searching, people would typically class the area in which I lived at the time, as the better choice. I believe people would base this on the perception that more of the people who live there either consider themselves to be - or are aspiring to be - middle class. The other area - where we now live - is classed as being a 'poorer' area of the City that is less than desirable. I do not hold with these thoughts. The 'better area' in many peoples eyes always struck me as being predominatly 'white' and - I say controversially - in my experience, more narrow minded. The 'poorer area' we now call home, is very culturally mixed and for that reason alone, is more appealing to me. I don't claim that there aren't issues with living where we do but then I believe there are issues of one sort or another wherever you choose to live and we all have different priorities.
And so, there were potentially six schools on our intitial list to go and view - two of them were Church Schools (which I was reticent about), one in each area. We visited three of the schools before we knew we had found the school for us. At no point during this process did I feel that Church Schools were 'taking over' or limiting my choice of non-church schools. Neither did I find that they were better funded in any way that was obvious. From my limited experience, I didn't feel that the Church was 'ruining it' for the rest of us in terms of their position within, or influence upon, the English School system or, that other schools were suffering as a result of there being Church Schools. Personally, I believe the management of the Education System by the Government is doing enough damage all by itself to our schools but that's just a personal opinion of mine.
The first school we visited was in the area where I was living. It was a non-church school. When we arrived, the office staff seemed surprised, no-one seeemed to be expecting us. We were given a quick tour of the school by a secretary who couldn't answer many of our questions. The pupils in the school seemed happy enough but it just didn't 'feel' right to me. I really couldn't imagine my child going to that school. It felt overcrowed and for want of a better description 'cold'.
The second non-church school that we visited was located where The Eight Year Old's Dad was living. This time we were shown around by a member of teaching staff. The school felt much like the last one although I preferred it in that is was more culturally mixed. I still wasn't happy though. Again, the thought of my son going there made me feel anxious even though I couldn't quite pinoint exactly why that was.
|Image borrowed from:- picturesof.net|
The third, and last, school that we visited was the Catholic Primary School that The Eight Year Old attends. We were greeted warmly by the Deputy Headmistress who seemed to take pleasure in showing us around the school which she was clearly very proud of. We were impressed by the fact that she knew every childs name that we came into contact with. And in return to her saying hello to the children by name, they responded politely, saying hello back to her and to more often than not to us. We were also impressed by the displays that adorned the walls with the childrens work and the values reflected within these. The environment was warm and appealing and a real sense of commumity prevailed. There was, of course, a religious presence within the learning environment but it was a relatively 'light touch' and also seemed to reflect the different cultures and religions of the pupils in attendance. Half way through our visit, I knew this was the place where I wanted my son to begin his formal education.
I don't know how other Church Schools would compare. We didn't visit the other Church School on our original list. I suspect, that without the cultural - and subsequently the religioius - mix that is previlant at The Eight Year Olds school that there may be a stronger sense of 'this is the one truth that we should all believe' that would come through but that's only a theory.
Also, because of the area in which our selected school is located and where we now live, is considered to be a more socially deprived - financially deprived would be more accurate - then a lot of the assumptions and findings of church schools do not necessarily apply. For example, reports of middle class families who are not in receipt of benefits or entitled to free school meals (As reported in the Guardian last year) being more likely to gain Church School places is not evident at The Eight Year Olds school. The mix of pupils and their backgrounds is so diverse that there are no obvious signs of elitism.
Being so impressed and happy at the time with the school that we chose - and still feeling that way now - I can't imagine The Eight Year Old going to any other school. Rather than feeling that he is in some way being 'brainwashed' to believe in God, I feel that the Religious Education aspect of the curriculum is delivered sensitively and thoughtfully and there is the option to opt out if we so chose. But we don't choose to. I believe that in engaging in these lessons, The Eight Year Old is open to perspectives other than my own. At school he learns about a wide range of religions together with a mix of children from many different religious and cultural backgrounds. As such, he is developing a broad perspective about the differing views of people with different experiences and beliefs. At home, we talk about the issues involved and about the different things that different people believe in. I don't know if we would tackle as many of these issues in quite the same way if we had chosen a different school.
|Me and The (then) Five Year Old|
I feel that we are giving The Eight Year Old the option to choose his own believes. Just because I am an athiest doesn't mean that he has to be. And by attending the school he does, together with my input, then maybe his mind is being presented with all the options rather than a limited picture of what is and isn't the 'right thing' to believe. As a 'non-believer', I can see how sending my son to a Catholic school does, in the eyes of some, make me a complete hypocrit. But you know, with my son as happy at school as he is and with the way he is growing in confidence, then I am a happy hypocrit.
I noticed when reading around some of these issues that on the 'Campaign for Secular Education' website, one of the aims of the campaign is this:-
"Our aim is to have every child educated to the highest standards of intellectual honesty appropriate to their age and stage of development - in local schools where they can mix freely with and socialise freely with children of other races, classes, and creeds."
In my experience so far, the local school attended by The Eight Year Old does indeed allow him to mix freely and socialise freely with children of other races, classes and creeds. The combined education he receives from school and home, provides him with intellectual honesty appropriate to his age. I trust that, as things stand, my children will grow and develop into adults who will have the confidence to make their own choices - that are right for them - based on a whole range of knowledge and influences. And I can't ask for more than that really.