Even moderate Church schools can do real harm

“Being from a Muslim family, Ali was not allowed to attend assemblies…. I have a very clear memory of seeing him peering through the glass into the hall, trying to see if assembly was over. Could there be any clearer image to reinforce my notion that Ali was not fully ‘one of us’?”

I did my first three years of secondary school in a private fundamentalist school that used the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum. It was not a pleasant experience. As a result, I hardly ever talk about the school I went to before that, a Church of England primary. I remember being very happy there and I’ve always thought of it as an excellent school, especially in light of what was to follow. Reflecting on it now, though, there are some things that bother me.

I never thought of the school as Christian at the time. I think I’d been there a year or more before I even realised it was a faith school. My family believed that to be a real Christian you must be Born Again. Since the Christianity propagated at this primary was not of the Born Again variety, as far as I was concerned it didn’t count. Yes, we were encouraged to believe in God and go to church, but everyone did that, didn’t they? “Even the devil believes in God”, my dad said.

There was one boy from a Muslim family in my year, Ali. I’m exceptionally glad he was there now. He was the only Muslim I’d ever met (and one of the handful people I knew who weren’t white). He was the lone face I could put to Islam. Without him, Muslims would have been entirely the inhuman Other in my mind. Ali and I were not close friends, but we got on fine.

Well, we got on fine when we didn’t talk about religion. Unfortunately one lunch break we did just that, which ended with me telling him he was going to hell, and Ali in tears. I was kept in at lunchtime the next day while two teachers hauled me over the coals for what I’d said. I was genuinely perplexed, since as far as I was concerned I’d only told Ali the truth.

To be clear, I do not blame my intolerance on the school. I grew up with a poisonous religious ideology that I learned mainly at home and church. I don’t know what the local vicar had to say about hell, but I imagine his response would have involved tea and a biscuit and telling me not to worry. But there was nothing about about the school’s faith status that made reconciliation with Ali easier. The school’s stance just confirmed for me that Christianity was supreme (I just did Christianity better than everyone else). Had the school taken seriously the beliefs of people with other faiths and none, it could have been a much-needed brake on my fanaticism.

Being a faith school, we had religious assemblies, and being from a Muslim family, Ali was not allowed to attend them. He sat in a room adjoining the hall during these gatherings. I have a very clear memory of seeing him peering through the glass into the hall, trying to see if assembly was over. Could there be any clearer image to reinforce my notion that Ali was not fully ‘one of us’?

Despite it being a Christian school, I was pretty sure that some of our teachers really didn’t believe, and that conviction has not dimmed with time. We ended the school day with prayer, and some of these prayers were less than convincing. I remember a teacher taking the opportunity one November to ask God to help us remember that Christmas was still quite a long time away, so we shouldn’t start getting excited yet.

One afternoon the teacher told us we were about to pray. I waited silently for the prayer to begin. “When you’re all ready, we’ll begin”, prompted the teacher, and I wondered which straggler was holding up proceedings. “We’re waiting, Jonny,” she snapped. What? Me? It took me a second to work out what was wrong: I had my eyes open. My family didn’t really believe in closing our eyes to pray. We did sometimes, when it felt right, but we saw Jesus as more of a friend, and I didn’t close my eyes to talk to my friends. I dutifully closed my eyes, indignant at the implication I was ‘doing prayer wrong’ coming from a teacher who, as far as I was concerned, wasn’t even a proper Christian.

What aspect of this farce seemed like a good idea to the architects of my education? The teachers compromising their integrity by pretending to espouse a religion they did not believe? Using this charade to filter children towards a religion they did not choose? Shaming a child whose religious observance was not ‘correct’?

I maintain that my primary was an excellent school. But the things that were excellent about it were not distinctively Christian, and the things that were distinctively Christian were not excellent.

Jonny Scaramanga blogs at Leaving Fundamentalism.

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