Is the promotion of mutual respect and tolerance incompatible with the faith ethos of some schools?

Jonny Scaramanga

The Government has repeatedly affirmed its support for faith schools and parents’ right to pass on their religious beliefs. At the same time, standards for independent schools, announced last year, require the promotion of “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. Has the government considered cases where the promotion of respect and tolerance is incompatible with the school’s faith ethos?

Media reports have emphasised extremism in Muslim schools, but my research indicates that some evangelical Christian schools are also preaching intolerance. I am researching the approximately 50 Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) schools in the UK. Belief in the eternal damnation of unbelievers is part of ACE’s statement of faith.

In cases like this, where religion makes exclusive truth claims, other beliefs are necessarily seen as inferior. Evangelical Christianity views other religions as at best ‘man-made’ – in contrast to evangelicalism’s God-made Truth – and at worst inspired by Satan. A typical evangelical response to accusations of intolerance is the bewildered defensiveness of Josh McDowell’s The New Tolerance: How a cultural movement threatens to destroy you, your faith, and your children. For McDowell, beliefs and moralities other than his own are wrong. To respect them is to suppress his religious freedom.

ACE schools select on the basis of the parents’ faith, and the environment minimises other cultural influences. This idea of protection from ‘harmful’ outsiders is crucial to its educational philosophy. Other cultures are simply alien to ACE students. Although not intolerant in itself, this risks ‘othering’ different religions. A conscious effort to understand other viewpoints would be required – an effort ACE schools seem unlikely to make.

The schools point to Ofsted reports which rate them as good or outstanding for spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development, but the pedagogy of these schools makes such evaluation difficult for inspectors. Students work in silence at individually-partitioned desks. They complete a series of workbooks (PACEs). There are hundreds of these – 144 in each core subject, plus a labyrinth of electives – and Ofsted will see only the ones students happen to use at the time of inspection. Even then, a class of 20 children, each working on at least five PACEs (typically of 40 pages), will be far more than one inspector can examine.

I was a student at an ACE school in the 1990s. My PACEs were vitriolic about Catholics, Muslims, and ‘liberals’ of all stripes. I have recently purchased the latest editions of many PACEs and found that they remain critical of all outside their own religious tradition.

The strongest attacks occur in Basic New Testament Church History, an 11th grade elective which distinguishes between ‘true Christians’ and others.

Liberalism and Islam are two targets: Muslims are ‘infidels’, while liberal Christians are not ‘saved’.

“Liberalism is most illiberal in that liberals are liberal only to their (and other) unbelieving doctrines. If you believe in the Word of God, you will find out how “liberally” you will be treated! Liberalism is to Christianity what the watermelon rind is to the watermelon: an outer shell but with no fruit inside.”

“Mohammed’s religion would be strongly monotheistic, anti-idolatrous, but false… Fanatical military advance, booty, polygamy: all made Islam attractive (to men only; women were and still are repressed).”

The ‘evil deeds’ and ‘false doctrines’ of the Catholic church are repeatedly emphasised in this and other ACE courses:

“One of the proofs that the papacy was not of God is the dreadful condition of the papacy… Between 880 and 1050, some of the Popes were so evil that one era was called the Pornocracy, “the rule of harlots.” Lewd women actually controlled the papacy through their influence… The whole era was so unedifying that one need not sully his mind with details.”

In English, students study Jonathan Edward’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, which teaches that God “abhors” sinners, and “you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful and venomous Serpent is in ours”.

If this is how their God views non-Christians, what position are the students likely to take?

It seems unlikely that schools using such materials encourage mutual respect and tolerance. The government should think seriously about whether it values faith or tolerance more highly.

Jonny Scaramanga is a Doctoral Student in the Faculty of Children and Learning at the IOE. He is researching Accelerated Christian Education through interviews with former students, critical discourse analysis of curriculum materials, and autoethnography. He is currently working on a book about life as a fundamentalist.

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9 comments on “Is the promotion of mutual respect and tolerance incompatible with the faith ethos of some schools?
  1. This is an excellent, though disturbing article, Jonny. I find it disturbing because it shows a view of faith and education that is almost wholly opposed to both the spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ and the heart of the epistles. If we are a school that nurtures faith, then it is almost essential that we are highly inclusive, backing our faith to be strong and effective in nurturing and attracting others. If we are otherwise, we begin to espouse values that are exclusive, stereotypical in their simplification of others and dishonouring of God, who in their faith statement seems, I’m afraid, very small!

    I lead a voluntary aided school and have a lot of freedom to talk about the love of God and the life of the Christian gospel in my school. I take this freedom to heart and we are known as a school with a very strong faith perspective. We take collective worship really seriously and enjoy it together. However, we measure our impact though the comments of visitors, the freedom that staff of all faiths and none have to engage with the ethos at the level they feel comfortable, and in our welcoming and celebration of the cultures and festivals of those 45% of our children who have come from overseas. If we cannot rejoice and celebrate our life in Christ as we see children flourish as humans, we are not in any way reflecting what we believe to be God’s affection for us.

    I worry that this ACE approach reflects all that is worst about faith-based education, and (from their pedagogy) has NO real socialisation aspect, nor does it impart (as we uniquely can do in the UK) a deep respect for and understanding of the aspirations and perspectives of those who are increasingly making up the demography of the west!

    I would love to read your work once it is published. I find the tenor of your article very fair, and wish you well.

  2. […] is a disturbing blog article about Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) that I have just commented on, by Jonny Scaramanga at […]

  3. Andrew Jones says:

    Is religious tolerance best served by secular schools teaching Religious Studies, which should include a critical pedagogy, as a Humanities subject dealing with humanity’s beliefs, ways of life and ethical viewpoints?

    Should we separate academic studies from personal/collective belief and worship in order to foster a balanced view of other peoples’ beliefs?

    Is any of this possible in a faith school? If so, how?

    • I would argue that secular schools are the best solution, but I wouldn’t accept that a balanced view of belief cannot be fostered in a faith school. If we accept that people of faith can be tolerant (which seems evident to me), then I see no reason why faith schools can’t be tolerant places. I like Geoffrey S. Duncan’s chapter “The church school: commitment and openness” in Francis and Lankshear (eds), Christian Perspectives on Church Schools. Duncan describes a school where “the ethos of Christianity pervades the school, but its dogma is notably absent”.

      ACE schools are extreme, and I doubt the findings of my research will have much to say about mainstream faith schools.

  4. DavidWebster says:

    Reblogged this on Dispirited and commented:
    Clearly not all Faith Schools in the UK have these failings, but this still seems rather serious and disturbing..

  5. John Mountford says:

    You may not agree with my answer to your blog question, Jonny but I’ll offer it anyway. NO, I do not believe that the promotion of mutual respect and tolerance is compatible with SOME faith schools. Just on the evidence of what you have written, and I make the assumption that your remarks are unbiased, how is it possible that the values espoused in schools promoting extreme views on the spiritual status of others (as you claim to be the case in ACE schools) can assist in the development of tolerance in young minds?

    As to your second question, “Has the government considered cases where the promotion of respect and tolerance is incompatible with the school’s faith ethos?”, my answer is also NO. I base my response to this question on the increasing tendency for the government to be out of touch with reality. It has certainly forfeited its credentials as a societal structure capable of modeling ethical and moral values worthy of adoption by its citizens.

    A third of your questions also tempted me to ‘wade in’, much like some of the organisations your article describes offering harsh judgements over the faith options of others. You ask, “If this is how their God views non-Christians, what position are the students likely to take?”. Having taken us through a troubling litany of ‘oddball’ beliefs that can hardly do anything but divide society, I suggest to you that it will take particularly deep thinking individuals to escape the outcome that tolerance will be at a premium in the lives of believers incubating such extreme views in the formative years of life. One can but hope that immersion in a wider community outside of school (warts and all) will promote more balanced thinking.

    Finally, as an ex-Ofsted inspector, I have to admit that for most of my colleagues, being presented with the requirement to report on the schools performance in SMSC was akin to being handed the poison chalice (sorry for the unintended pun).

  6. Reblogged this on Leaving Fundamentalism and commented:
    A post I wrote for my university’s blog a while back. More joys from ACE; almost every link leads to a PACE scan.

  7. […] fact, when it comes to gender discrimination and religious tolerance, ACE can give any Islamist group a run for its money. Still, with Muslims getting hate mail for […]

  8. […] that only ACE’s version of protestant Christianity is true, and that other belief systems are false beliefs. There are two non-Christians shown in PACEs, and they stereotype the girl as sexually immoral, […]

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