Thursday, 24 June 2010

Dawkins likes the idea of an "atheist" free school

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As the British Humanist Association have been pointing out, a worrying aspect of the coalition government's proposal to extend the role of academies in the schools system is that it is likely that many of the new schools will be faith schools, with greater freedom to set their own curricula than existing, non-academy faith schools.

That's the downside, but new academies don't necessarily have to be faith schools – the idea is that any ambitious and well-meaning group of people can start a school and shape its ethos. So how about a humanist school? Taking part in an online chat about faith schools on the Mumsnet website yesterday, Richard Dawkins responded enthusiastically when a participant suggested he should set up a secular, or atheist, school. Now it's worth pointing out, given how Dawkins's comments tend to be twisted in the news (remember how him saying he thinks the Pope should face legal action of child abuse cover-ups became him saying he wanted to personally arrest Benedict XVI?), that he isn't at present planning to set up a school, and it's also worth noting that he stressed he wouldn't want it to be an "atheist" school so much as a "freethinking" school. Here's what he had to say:
“Thank you for suggesting that I should start an atheist free school. I like the idea very much, although I would prefer to call it a free-thinking free school. I would never want to indoctrinate children in atheism, any more than in religion. Instead, children should be taught to ask for evidence, to be sceptical, critical, open-minded. If children understand that beliefs should be substantiated with evidence, as opposed to tradition, authority, revelation or faith, they will automatically work out for themselves that they are atheists.I would also teach comparative religion, and teach it properly without any bias towards particular religions, and including historically important but dead religions, such as those of ancient Greece and the Norse gods, if only because these, like the Abrahamic scriptures, are important for understanding English literature and European history.”
So, what do we think? Are secular schools, founded as a direct antidote to religious schools, the way to go? (In some respects it'd represent an "if you can't beat them..." approach.) Or would it represent an inadvertent endorsement of the system, and with it faith school? Should humanists and secularists simply continue to campaign against the very idea of schools that operate under the banner of a particular religion or philosophy?


James said...

For so long I have been asking why children can't be taught philosophy early on and learn about religion (especially it's history), spirituality and other world views from within the framework of philosophy.

PaulJ said...

It's a great idea — but shouldn't the state education system already be doing precisely what Dawkins describes? I can't think of a better definition of a secular education.

Paulthebread said...

Responding to both James and PaulJ - check out

P4C is also being practiced in at least two primary schools in Taunton, Somerset - and is being cascaded upwards to the local Comprehensive from September.

On the original question, I would agree that setting up an atheist free school would represent an 'inadvertent endorsement of the system' and as such should be avoided like the plague!

Garkbit said...

Here's an interesting example of philosophy in schools from Australia.

Stephen said...

I'm with PaulJ. This is simply the way all schools should be. Teach about religions, but leave religion instruction out of school (parents, churches etc.)

Teaching evidence-based knowledge is surely the only way to go. The alterntive is to answer the child's favourite question of "Why?" with "because someone once said so".

silvertiger said...

I understand both the enthusiasm for, and the caution about, the idea of starting a "Dawkins school".

Yes, it is true that all state schools should be that sort of school, making a free-thinking academy redundant but, unfortunately, state schools are not that sort of school and until the state starts providing proper education for our children, an interim solution might have to be considered.

No, I do not think that a free-thinking academy would endorse a system in which schools are based on particular faiths or philosophies for the simple reason that such a school would not be based on a philosophy but precisely on a lack of a philosophy. It would be the sort of school that all academies ought to be, whether they are faith based or not. Teaching children to question, to seek evidence and to use logic is not a philosophy. At most it is a methodology and a very sound one that all schools should be promoting.

For the above reasons, Dawkins is right that such a school should not be regarded as an "atheist school". Nor should it be regarded as a "Humanist school", since Humanism most emphatically is a philosophy or even a creed (it "believes" in human values, for instance). Setting up a Humanist school would be a disastrous move and would give aid and comfort to those promoting religious schools.

A free-thinking or secular school would, it seems to me, be a very good thing, not only in itself but also in the example it would set for other schools. It would at a stroke disprove the stupid lie that people brought up without religion are immoral and anti-social. The success of such a school would, I think, put tremendous pressure on faith schools to raise their game - something they would find hard to do, given the obstacles they place in their own path.

IftikharA said...

Almost all children now believe they go to school to pass exams. The idea that they may be there for an education is irrelevant. State schools have become exam factories, interested only in A to C Grades. They do not educate children. Exam results do not reflect a candidate’s innate ability. Employers have moaned for years that too many employees cannot read or write properly. According to a survey, school-leavers and even graduates lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. More and more companies are having to provide remedial training to new staff, who can’t write clear instructions, do simple maths, or solve problems. Both graduates and school-leavers were also criticised for their sloppy time-keeping, ignorance of basic customer service and lack of self-discipline.

Bilingual Muslims children have a right, as much as any other faith group, to be taught their culture, languages and faith alongside a mainstream curriculum. More faith schools will be opened under sweeping reforms of the education system in England. There is a dire need for the growth of state funded Muslim schools to meet the growing needs and demands of the Muslim parents and children. Now the time has come that parents and community should take over the running of their local schools. Parent-run schools will give the diversity, the choice and the competition that the wealthy have in the private sector. Parents can perform a better job than the Local Authority because parents have a genuine vested interest. The Local Authority simply cannot be trusted.

The British Government is planning to make it easier to schools to “opt out” from the Local Authorities. Muslim children in state schools feel isolated and confused about who they are. This can cause dissatisfaction and lead them into criminality, and the lack of a true understanding of Islam can ultimately make them more susceptible to the teachings of fundamentalists like Christians during the middle ages and Jews in recent times in Palestine. Fundamentalism is nothing to do with Islam and Muslim; you are either a Muslim or a non-Muslim.

There are hundreds of state primary and secondary schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion all such schools may be opted out to become Muslim Academies. This mean the Muslim children will get a decent education. Muslim schools turned out balanced citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism. Muslim schools give young people confidence in who they are and an understanding of Islam’s teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fulfilling role in society. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Children like discipline, structure and boundaries. Bilingual Muslim children need Bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods, who understand their needs and demands.

None of the British Muslims convicted following the riots in Bradford and Oldham in 2001 or any of those linked to the London bombings had been to Islamic schools. An American Think Tank studied the educational back ground of 300 Jihadists; none of them were educated in Pakistani Madrasas. They were all Western educated by non-Muslim teachers. Bilingual Muslim children need bilingual Muslim teachers as role models. A Cambridge University study found that single-sex classes could make a big difference for boys. They perform better in single-sex classes. The research is promising because male students in the study saw noticeable gains in the grades. The study confirms the Islamic notion that academic achievement is better in single-sex classes.
Iftikhar Ahmad