Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Does Jesus keep you safe at night?

As I have mentioned elsewhere, my two children occupy a tectonically stable summit in my geologically active mental landscape. There are few things I would not do for them and none that involve no less effort than having a chat with a man that probably has more incremental influence on how they turn out than I do (I've given them some genes and can't take them back). Mr Baker is the Head Teacher of Christchurch School, a Voluntary Controlled State School in Bradford-on-Avon, where we live. Within quite strict limits, he is free to decide what my kids are taught and how.

In the UK, education to the age of 18 is free, although there are fee-paying schools that provide a better education than the State can afford. When my wife and I chose the school that our kids attend, our choice was limited by our finances and the schools to which we were entitled to apply. In practice there was a single option, the alternatives being so ghastly that they literally made my skin crawl. For the record, both Corinne and I (though I speak only for myself) are happy with the education they are receiving and there are few other schools we (I'd) rather they attend, money notwithstanding.

The most and best we can do for them as parents is to put them in the way of opportunities to learn and hope that they grasp them. It's also my view that there they should be protected, for a while longer, from exposure to some unavoidable but deferrable truths about the world they were born into. I don't want them to watch hard core porn, for example, or to join the local chapter of the Hitler Youth. I expect most of the parents of my childrens' peers would agree. When I suggest, however, that I don't think it's appropriate to teach five year-olds that human sacrifice is an appropriate way to expiate sins (the disgusting fantasy at the heart of Christianity), I am regarded as a troublemaker. Hence my meeting with Mr Baker. I'd been relaxed, by my standards, about the nonsense that primary school teachers spoon into children until Pieter came home one day and vouchsafed the following information:

'Daddy, did you know that Jesus keeps us safe at night?'

'No.' I said, 'Who told you that?'

'Miss ___', he said. 'We were asked to say something about night and ___ said "Jesus keeps us safe at night" and Miss ___ said "Yes, that's right."'

'Pieter', I replied, 'lots of grown-ups don't believe there is any god.'

'Oh, yes there is, daddy', he said, very seriously.

Prompted by this conversation, and steered into a diplomatic approach by my wife, I'd requested a meeting with Mr Baker to discuss the way in which our kids are taught about religious belief. Arriving uncharacteristically on time I was about to ring the bell when Mr Baker hove into view through the glass door. I waved, assuming he'd recognised me; he opened the door for me, turned his back and asked the receptionist 'So who am I supposed to be seeing, then?' It was an easy gaffe to make but an avoidable one. Never mind; he shook my hand, showed me into his office and asked what he could do for me. 'Please don't poison my children.' Would have expressed succinctly what I wanted to say but I wanted to make him feel the impotent pain of a father watching his childrens' minds being stolen.

I began by explaining that I'm an atheist with kids, who happens to live in Bradford-on-Avon. We decided to send our kids to Christchurch because it is the best school available to us. None of the alternatives have a different policy to teaching religion; all have a 'Christian ethos'. What, I wondered aloud, could a parent in my position do (I had some ideas)?

Mr Baker earned my respect by acknowledging my difficulty and stating his own, that he is answerable to a board of Governors, a third of whom are appointed by the Church-of-England church that owns the land and buildings. He said he'd been reprimanded for removing the teaching of 'spirituality' from the 'RE - religious education' syllabus; that one of the governors had suggested that all children attending the school should be prepared for 'confirmation' (into the Church of England); that there had been complaints following his decision to invite a local Muslim to lead a school assembly; that there had been opposition from some parents to the project, which the kids loved, of studying life in a Sri Lankan village, on the grounds that Buddhism is apparently rife in Sri Lanka. But when I pointed out that somewhere between a tenth and a fifth of the world's population (the stats are very hard to come by and highly unreliable) is declared atheist and isn't it therefore a school's duty to bring this to the attention of children, he admitted that it hadn't occurred to anyone to set the study of religion in the context of a world in which billions have no god. RE, even in enlightened schools, consists in the study of faiths, not in the study of myths.

After I'd been in Mr Baker's office for about five minutes, there was a knock on the door. A little man in a tracksuit, whom I took to be a sports teacher, came in without waiting for an answer. Ignoring me, he said to Mr Baker 'there are four of us waiting for you'. I need 15 minutes said Mr Baker. The small man frowned and left. Mr Baker and I carried on talking and I gradually received the impression that I was being told that there is little he (Mr Baker) can do. I suggested giving a talk, with the permission of parents, to kids in their final year at primary school, about atheism. He told me that the deputy head is chairing a working group (including some parents) on the teaching of spirituality in the school. 'Can I be on it?' I asked. I'll need to check with Mark, he said. There was another knock on the door and the little man came back in, looking quite irate. 'There are five of us waiting for you now.' He said. 'Who was that?' I asked. 'Mark', said Mr Baker, 'the deputy head.'

I am going to become a thorn in the side of the forces of evil, who want to teach my children that Jesus died for them on the cross.

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