Educating the Masses

Dear Mr. Neil Davenport,

Reading your article yesterday on Spiked, called “Why shouldn’t faith schools criticise gays?”, in which you argue that state-funded faith schools should be allowed to teach that homosexual acts are morally wrong because that is what the parents of the children attending these schools want, gave me an idea and I wondered if you wouldn’t mind me running it past you, as it seems like we might be able to work together.

I, like you, am a teacher and I’ve always thought it would be kind of fun to set up my own school. I’d struggled for years thinking about what type of school to set up, but reading your article has given me a great idea. I’m thinking of setting up a school in which the teachers teach whatever the parents want, regardless of what anyone else thinks, especially the pupils. And the government. And the rest of society. The part of your article that gave me this idea was when you argued that state-funded faith schools should be allowed to teach traditional views of relationships and sex (i.e. no pre-marital sex, homosexual sex is bad etc) because the “religious-minded” parents who send their children to these schools also hold these views.

That got me thinking about those poor parents who hold the view that black or Asian people are bad, and those parents who hold negative views of Jewish people and Muslims, and want their children to hold the same views. Where are the tax payer-funded schools for the children of these parents? Some parents want to raise their children with the view that women are inferior to men, but can they find a state school that will instil that value in their child? No! And what about the parents who are suspicious of people with disabilities and wish to raise their children to have the same suspicion, or the parents who want their children to be taught that all people with a posh accent are bad? Where can these parents get a free, state-funded education for their children that will ensure that they leave school holding the same prejudicial opinions as their parents? I’ll tell you where: nowhere!

And that’s where we step in! We could open some free schools, preferably all in a row, somewhere in London, maybe on a road called Prejudice Avenue or something (I’ve not ironed out all of the details yet!). And then we could find teachers who hold prejudicial views and are prepared to teach them to children and teenagers (that could be the hard part, but maybe you might be able to help), sign up all of the racist, Islamaphobic, anti-semitic, anti-disability, anti-posh and misogynistic parents we can find and wait for the money to roll in from the Department for Education! What do you think? Genius idea, right?

I think I’m probably right in assuming that you think the idea of a group of schools on Prejudice Avenue, teaching that Judaism is bad, or that black people are inferior is as bad a one as I do. At least, I hope so. For, of course, I most definitely do not want to set up any school that teaches prejudice. The idea outlined above was fabricated purely to make a point. And it’s a point that I hope is very clear, but, just in case it isn’t, I’ll explain.

No tax payer-funded school (and that includes private schools that have charitable status) should be exempt from the laws of the land that state that no-one can be discriminated against on the grounds of their age, gender status, marital status, disability, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation [Equality Act 2010]. Put simply, that means that no school should be allowed to tell any pupil that they are inferior to anyone else for any of the above reasons. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? No school would want to do that, right? And no teacher would want to make a child feel inferior because of the colour of their skin, their religion or their sexuality, surely? Teachers are there to educate children and to care for them, and to help them learn how to be responsible and upstanding adults. They are not there to make them feel bad by teaching them that discrimination and prejudice are acceptable.

But, alas, it would appear that that is where we differ most fundamentally, for in your article you make the assertion that the self-esteem of teenagers is less important than freedom of speech for religions and religious parents. To quote you in full:

Campaigners will say that it is one thing for adults to hold traditional, anti-gay views, but it is wrong to pass such opinions on to the next generation through schools. This could make gay pupils feel ashamed or humiliated, we’re told. So are we saying that the self-esteem of gay teens is more important than the autonomy of religious communities and also of parents? Campaigners are using apparently hurt teens as a stage army to prevent adults from passing their values on to their children. Under the guise of championing gay rights, we are really witnessing an attack on parental autonomy.

I’m not sure what is most shocking about this quote: the flippant manner in which it suggests that the damaged self-esteem of gay teenagers is unimportant collateral damage in the greater fight for religious freedom, or the fact that it was written by a teacher of teenagers. You are Head of Sociology at the JFS Sixth Form Centre and, consequently, come into contact with teenagers every single day. Despite the fact that JFS is a Jewish school which, I assume, promotes a traditional, anti-gay view of sex and relationships, some of those teenagers you teach may well be gay. How can you, as a teacher, someone who should genuinely care about their welfare and their mental health, believe that it is acceptable to damage them by teaching them that the feelings they have are wrong? Regardless of what you believe and what the majority of the parents may believe (and, who knows, some of them may have very positive views of homosexuality –  lots of religious people do), you are there to ensure that your pupils grow into rounded, self-confident adults, and teaching a vulnerable teenager, struggling with feelings of guilt about their sexuality, that homosexuality is wrong is not the way to do that. Leave the teaching of prejudice (or “traditional views”) to the churches, or the synagogues, or the parents, if they want to do it. There is no place for it in schools, especially those that receive funding or special treatment from the state.

You say in your article that “a free society should be strong enough to allow the existence of all sorts of views, prejudices and judgements without recourse to clampdowns, or official investigations into such beliefs”. You are certainly correct on the views bit, and possibly the judgements, but as for the prejudice, you’re on shaky ground. In the context of the entire world and parents raising their children, yes, a free society should allow them to raise their child to be prejudiced if they so wish (and, sadly, some do) but in the context of schools (the main context of your article), parents should not be allowed to have their prejudicial views backed up and reinforced by taxpayer-funded education. Pure and simple.

I’m not wishing to open up a wider debate about whether government-funded faith schools should exist. I simply want to put it to you that you wouldn’t stand for the existence of a government-funded school that taught that Judaism was evil or that black people were inferior, and rightly so. Why exactly, therefore, should I stand for the existence of a government-funded school that teaches that homosexuality, an innate characteristic as immutable as heterosexuality or the colour of a person’s skin, is wrong?

Yours educationally,

R