Inside Britain’s homophobic Christian schools

“Though the researchers do not put it this way, the evidence suggests that attending a New Christian School makes you more likely to be homophobic”

There has recently been a flurry of interest in alleged homophobic teachings at Islamic and Jewish faith schools. In particular, unregistered schools reportedly promoting “misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic material” have come under fire. Of course, it is right that homophobic teaching is challenged wherever it is found. Strangely, however, numerous Ofsted-inspected private Christian schools have promoted similar views, yet attracted comparatively little scrutiny.

Known collectively as the ‘New Christian Schools’, a group of evangelical schools have long been open about their teaching of what they would call ‘traditional Christian morality’. Accelerated Christian Education schools are a part of this loosely-affiliated movement, which also includes numerous other kinds of evangelical school. In a 1988 book, an advocate for these Christian schools listed “homosexuality taught as a valid alternative” among the reasons for parents to reject mainstream education.

Husband: means a man who has a wife. Wife: means a woman who has a husband.
Image from ACE Social Studies 1029, a workbook used in some New Christian Schools.

In a 2005 study, 21% of boys aged 13-15 in non-religious secondary schools agreed with the statement “homosexuality is wrong”. For boys attending New Christian Schools, that figure was 70%. It’s an alarming statistic, but these boys’ negative attitudes to homosexuality might not be caused by their schools. Students in the New Christian Schools are much more likely than secular school students to come from evangelical homes and attend evangelical churches. Maybe they get their negative attitudes to homosexuality from their family or religious leaders.

Using the same data, a 2014 study tried to find out. Using statistical analysis, they tried to disentangle the effects of attending a New Christian School from other demographic factors: age, sex, location, social class, and religious affiliation. Unfortunately, the study did not control for parents’ religious affiliation and observance, which limits the conclusions, but it did control for students’ religious practice and belief.

Boys attending New Christian Schools are over three times more likely than secular school boys to agree “homosexuality is wrong”.

Before controlling for demographic factors, the researchers noted that “students in independent Christian schools were less accepting of abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and sex outside marriage”. They then found that even after demographic factors had been taken into account:

Independent Christian schools seem to shape students … who hold more conservative views on sexual morality (abortion, conception, divorce, homosexuality, and sex outside marriage).

Though the researchers do not put it this way, the evidence suggests that attending a New Christian School makes you more likely to be homophobic.

Just 20% of New Christian School students think gay couples should be allowed to look after children. We should ask why. Children are not born bigots.

More recent data supports this conclusion. In 2009, Sylvia Baker, a senior figure in the New Christian Schools movement, completed a survey of the schools’ secondary students for her PhD thesis. Explaining the schools’ position of homosexuality, Baker writes:

The new Christian schools tend to take a conservative line on the Christian view of marriage as it has traditionally been defined and regard the Bible’s teaching as precluding homosexual behaviour …

The schools would deny the accusation of homophobia and would claim that in their teaching they stress love for one’s neighbour and the importance of non-judgemental attitudes. However, historically, the teaching of Christianity on the subject of homosexuality, based on various passages from the Bible, is that homosexual practice and lifestyle is a sin.

Baker collected questionnaires from almost the entire student bodies aged 13-16 at 25 New Christian Schools. For our current purposes, three of the items on her questionnaire are of particular interest:

Homosexuality is wrong. Agree 68%, Not Sure 15%, Disagree 16%. Gay couples should be allowed to care for children. Agree 20%, Not sure 18%, disagree 62%. Gay couples should be allowed to marry. Agree 15%, not sure 16%, disagree 70%.

Just 20% of students in these schools thought gay couples should be allowed to care for children, and 15% think they should be allowed to marry. Baker seems to regard these findings as a success. Elsewhere in the thesis, she denies that the New Christian Schools indoctrinate their students, and she seems to take these findings as evidence:

While these data certainly support the view that the schools are upholding traditional Christian teaching on the issue of homosexuality, it also indicates that 30 to 40% of the pupils feel able to either reject or question that teaching.

The data, of course, tell us nothing of the sort. This was an anonymous survey, so we know nothing about whether students feel able to express support for homosexuality openly in their schools. And no system of indoctrination—not Hitler’s Germany, not Mao’s China, not North Korea—has ever been entirely effective, so these data also tell us little about how many students (if any) are indoctrinated.

The findings do give cause for concern, however. Rather than point to the 20% of students who agreed gay couples should be allowed to look after children, Baker should ask about the 62% who said the opposite. Children are not born bigots.

Since the introduction of the Government’s controversial ‘British Values’ programme, many Jewish and Islamic schools have come under scrutiny for their teachings on homosexuality. One school was recently banned from accepting new students in part because it did not teach students about same-sex relationships or encourage “respect for people who have such characteristics”.

If Ofsted and the Government do not apply these criteria evenly to all schools, including Christian schools, then the ‘British Values’ scheme will start to look less like it’s about promoting tolerance and more like a crusade against ‘alien’ religious beliefs.

Jonny Scaramanga also blogs at Leaving Fundamentalism.