Wednesday 5 December 2007

An atheist's experience of teaching in a faith school

In the very recent past, I worked in a place where I wasn't able to apply for a more senior post because I don't believe in God.

That's Gordon Cairns describing his experience teaching in a state-funded Catholic school in Scotland. He catalogues the discrimination he and other atheist teachers experience in faith schools, which include being prevented from teaching religious education and biology and from applying for headships. To which one response might be: what did you expect? If you choose to work for an organisation whose mission you don't fully endorse, how can you expect equal treatment? Isn't it rather like those nominally christian parents who push for their children to get into church schools, then complain about the amount of RE and religious services?

Of course, the situation is complicated by the issue of state funding. As Cairns explains, since Catholic schools were incorporated into the state system a century ago, they became part of mainstream provision and their teaching posts theoretically open to all those working that system. He adds:

Scottish teachers don't have a lot of influence on which school they work in. Where you pitch up by chance as a supply teacher is often where you end up working permanently, as most jobs go to the sitting candidate.

If faith schools (whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or whatever) are going to accept state funding, it could be argued that they should be subject to the same employment practices as other public bodies. Cairns notes that the Catholic Church has always managed to wangle certain exemptions: 'One practice the church demanded was the right to be able to approve of teachers in certain jobs by means of a certificate signed by the local priest and renewed every few years, and known unofficially as the teacher's MOT. '

At the same time, Cairns feels no hostility to the school he worked in. On the contrary, he found it to be a 'warm, supportive community' and he was sorry to leave. And he acknowledges that faith schools have strengths that might be lacking in secular institutions:

I suppose in any environment it is when we encounter death that religion comes into its own. A popular former teacher died suddenly and a mass was held for him one lunchtime. The crowd overspilled into the playground from the chapel as pupils and teachers came together to pay their respects. I can't think of any secular ritual or act that could so successfully allow a community to come together and mourn.

Here, Cairns pinpoints to a dilemma familiar to uneasy secularists like myself: secularism might be necessary (indeed increasingly necessary, and needing to be defended, in times of revived fundamentalism and irrationalism such as these) - but is it sufficient?

Despite his criticisms of the discriminatory practices that he experienced, Cairns ends his piece by articulating a decidedly ambivalent attitude - as an atheist - to faith schools:

I am against the role religion has in education in a country where these old practices are dying away, never mind being the central tenet of the school. I think if parents want their children to have a religious education they should do it themselves, with the support of their church. But my experience is of a faith school system that is working. In general, the children identify with their school far more strongly than I ever did with my non-denominational school. Although it is a myth that Catholic schools are more academically successful than non-denominational schools in Scotland, recent school inspections have given them excellent reports, particularly praising community and ethos. It is difficult to say whether these successes are down to the schools having faith as a unifying factor or because they are truly comprehensive, but they succeed, so why break up something successful?

1 comment:

Roland Dodds said...

This may make me a wuss of the highest degree, but I would have just lied and said I believed. I don’t know much about the relationship between religious school’s and tax dollars in the UK, but if he was able to work at the school for a great deal of time and didn’t have major issues before, I think a simple lie about faith would have been in his best interests.

But like I said, I don’t know the relationship the school has with tax dollars. If they were receiving public funds in the States, that line of questioning would never have flown.