Hugh Reilly: Religion has no place in schools

Education would be all the better for teachers focusing on knowledge and not evangelising for their god, writes Hugh Reilly

Trojan Horse row has highlighted the need to rein in religious education. Picture: Reuters

As the Greek fleet sailed over the horizon, the walls of Troy reverberated when its stout defenders sang “Cheerio! Cheerio! Cheerio!” Surviving a ten-year siege hadn’t been easy – for example, the cry that “we’d always have Paris” proved to be particularly ill-judged.

The beleaguered, war-weary citizenry must have thought it a random act of kindness that the departing invasion force left behind a large wooden horse. Rather foolhardily, the Trojans hauled the horse inside the city’s outer defences (to be fair, the phrase ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ hadn’t yet been coined). Later that night, Hellenic Special Forces leapt from the equine edifice and opened the gates of the city to their returning comrades.

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Given this infamous illustration of gullibility, it amazes me that, in Portsmouth, there exists a company called Trojan Security. According to its website, the business “can provide stewards at the venue perimeters to ensure all personnel are protected”. Presumably, festival-goers without a ticket need only cobble together a timber steed to gain entry.

The term Trojan Horse has been in the news recently with regard to an alleged hardline Muslim takeover of schools in Birmingham. In November last year, Birmingham City Council received a letter – helpfully signed “Yours Faithfully, Anon”– detailing a purported plot by Islamic extremists to take control of some schools. In March, council officials admitted they were investigating the claim. This failed to please excitable MPs, who publicly demanded the inquiry be expedited.

In the febrile atmosphere created by scary stories of Muslim manipulation of the Midlands education system, the Department for Education launched its own inquiry. Ofsted, the education watchdog, held its own investigation. It found that Park View Academy hadn’t done enough to shield children from extremism. Park View Educational Trust categorically denies this charge.

The media and political hysteria surrounding the issue frightens me. The paranoia reeks of a McCarthy-like witch hunt, looking for beards-under-the-beds, if you will. Against the backdrop of unimaginable Ukip success largely due to its anti-immigration stance, Prime Minister David Cameron and others have surrendered to the electorally popular notion of being seen to do something to stop Brummies becoming part of a modern Caliphate Empire.

I can’t be the only person who finds it a tad odd that five out of the 21 schools inspected by Ofsted that had previously been declared “good” or “outstanding” now suddenly discover themselves to be deemed “inadequate”. In my opinion, it’s an inescapable conclusion that political considerations have, let’s say, fine-tuned with a crowbar the minds of inspectors. Indeed, the farce gets worse. Tahir Alam, chair of governors at Park View Academy, a school placed under special measures, is an Ofsted inspector.

Instead of venting hot air about a Trojan Horse, perhaps Westminster should be discussing the elephant in the room, that is, the teaching of religion in schools. If education in publicly funded education establishments were to be devoid of all superstitious input, the problem would disappear overnight.

Choosing to believe in chatterbox serpents and resurrectionism should be a private matter, not something that is force-fed to youngsters. I may not have Zeus, Thor or this epoch’s god on my side, but I have the next best thing, the messianic David Blunkett. He said that schools should teach kids to think for themselves “rather than having a particular ideology shoved down their throats”.

To the religious, thinking for oneself is a dangerous concept. A youth may remark after a smidgeon of reflection that the Catholic belief in transubstantiation – eating someone’s body and blood – smacks of cannibalism. Similarly, the dogma that the Virgin Mary’s predictor stick turned blue but she maintained her chastity would be questioned by children weaned on MTV videos.

When I taught in denominational schools, I avoided discussion of the supernatural, whether it concerned fairies, ghosts or insecure, egotistical deities who needed constant praising from the worshipful.

On transferring to the non-denominational sector, I naively expected to enjoy my atheism in a more tranquil setting. Silly me. Inspectors use religious observance as a criterion to judge a school’s performance. Given the alleged non-denominational status, one would expect speakers of various religions or, indeed no religion, to address pupils.

In my experience, schools were de facto Protestant establishments, with various Church of Scotland ministers paraded before disinterested, dragooned school students. Not once did I hear from a Buddhist, a rabbi or a nice person from the Humanist Society.

There’s heavy irony that, despite the secular nature of modern society, faith schools have flourished thanks to the encouragement of successive UK governments. The growth of Christian young-mind-control centres doesn’t cause a single eyelid to bat, yet the very idea that the teachings of Muhammad might equally impregnate malleable kids causes outrage. It’s as if learning about Allah will transform all British-born teenagers into Manchurian candidate-type terrorists. If our decision-makers were truly serious about “draining the swamp” of Muslim extremism, it would alter the UK’s lop-sided foreign policy that alienates Muslims as well as large segments of the British population.

Only last week, the Foreign Secretary congratulated the Egyptian president on his stunning electoral victory, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi securing 96.9 per cent of the vote. The palace vacancy had unexpectedly arisen because the former general had led a coup against the previous post-holder, Mohamed Morsi, the first leader to be democratically chosen by the Egyptian people. Imprisoning a president and outlawing the country’s largest political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, appears to curry favour with Westminster.

The UK’s steadfast support of Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza continues to brass off British Muslims. It makes for horrific and frustrating viewing to watch fellow Muslims being blockaded in Gaza and killed with impunity in the West Bank. Each Benjamin Netanyahu announcement of new housing across the Green Line is routinely “condemned” by William Hague but vacuous words, not actions, are only to be expected from someone who joined the Conservative Friends of Israel at age 15.

If religion is banished from schools, and the role of the teacher is to impart subject knowledge rather than evangelise on behalf of the god industry, some good will have come from the affair. We need to lock the stable door before the Trojan Horse bolts.