I started writing this blog post a few weeks ago when the event actually happened but it didn’t get finished for various reasons. Better late than never!
Toward the end of term a new cover teacher started at the school I teach in and as I was sitting on my own (as I tend to, needing that time to recover from one psychological battering before the next) she came over and introduced herself before parking her bottom down next to me and telling me her life story. I’m much too polite not to engage chatterboxes in conversation so I patiently listened to her autobiography with a smile.
There came a point where our children came up, as they inevitably do, and she told me that her daughter was moving up to secondary school in September. At this point I really began to regret the decision to let her waffle on at me for the entirety of my lunchbreak as she told me – with great relish – that the school her daughter is going to is one that discriminates on religious grounds.
I’ve explained here before that we’re an atheist family and I believe that all education should be secular. Yes, we’re technically a Church of England country and the Queen is the head of that, but we live in a multi-cultural society and no one religion should be given priority over any other. Some people argue that secularism is exactly the same thing, but what it really means is that there is no expectation that any one religion is right, but rather that they should all be taught under the same terms within religious education. My husband actually suggested that they should be taught more within a historical context than a daily-practice kind of way and I like that idea, but that’s a separate post.
This woman really shocked me. Of course people will always argue for the right to send their children to religious schools, and I guess nothing much is going to change the fact that they exist. But religion seems to be to be the one thing we’re openly allowed to discriminate on (I’m thinking equal marriage here). If Ted decides that he wants to go to a CofE school, or I decide that the best school in our catchment area is affiliated to a religion, I don’t expect to be told that he can’t go there based on the fact that he doesn’t have any particular beliefs (or, if he’s chosen any, that his aren’t the ones they subscribe to).
This woman, however, obviously couldn’t read my reaction and proceeded to tell me that they let in 85% Christian denominations, 10% Muslim and also have 5% in scholarships where they’ll “look the other way” on religion if the students are particularly gifted in music or the arts, but that by turning down atheists they keep out “a certain type of person” and that although they can appeal they will always be “kept out” and the school will find “some reason” to base it on.
Not only was I offended on a personal level, but I was so disappointed that a teacher with years of experience could hold such discriminatory views and be so naïve as to think it was okay to share them with a stranger. Ordinarily I would have entered into a lengthy debate about why this was offensive – and just plain wrong – but, hot and pregnant as I was, I just didn’t have the energy. I regret that now. Allowing prejudice and discrimination to go unchallenged is like condoning it.
I guess there’s the possibility that she was wrong and that the school does nothing of the sort; that she was simply proud of her faith and of her daughter’s entry to such a good school. But what if what she said was true? What if she did have that knowledge based on being a teacher and a devout Christian? There’s no way to prove that it happens and no way to challenge the school on it. But it’s wrong.
Education is important. Freedom of choice is important. Taking away people’s right to choose the best schools in their area based on their differing views on one aspect of their lives is unfair at best. And why the inclusion of Muslims in this Christian environment? Is it because they have similar principles at their core? Is it to tick an Equality and Diversity box for OFSTED that doesn’t include people of no faith? Or, as I suspect is the case, is it because they’re more afraid of being challenged by a visible minority than by people who, by definition, don’t belong to a group at all?