Religion in the Education System

Before one can establish whether or not religion is a beneficial or a corrosive element in primary and secondary education, one must first define both what religion and education consist of. One can define “religion” as a set of beliefs and practices, or as a more holistic response to the events of one’s life. One can define “education” as the inculcation of information from the topics set by the National Curriculum, or as a more general preparation for the rigors of adult life.
Because this paper addresses religion in general, as opposed to one particular faith, such as Anglicanism or Islam, religion will be viewed as the human response to the events of life. Based on what happens in life, one may choose to follow the Judeo-Christian God, or Allah, or Buddha, or to follow no particular deity at all. Education will be viewed in a more holistic sense as well – the role that schools play in taking Britain’s children and molding them into adults. It will become clear, after a review of relevant literature, that there is not one mixture of religion in education that works for every student. The multiplicity of educational choices has arisen from a multiplicity of personalities, collective life experiences, and individual responses.
The Muslim educational experience in Great Britain is particularly demonstrative of this need for variety in educational choices. In the first half of 2005, the Imam Muhammad Zakariya School for Girls in Dundee received its second consecutive poor report on academics (Saeed, 2005). While Ibrahim Hewitt (2005) makes a strong case that the British government should establish and support schools run according to the Muslim philosophy of education, and that only a "complete Islamic education as delivered in a well-resourced Muslim school" will give Muslim students the "spiritual, moral, cultural, mental, and physical development of pupils" (Education Reform Act 1988) required by law, the results of the Zakariya school are troubling.
However, Osama Saeed, of the Muslim Association of Britain, points to the results of Feversham College in Bradford, a Muslim school that finished at the top of the "Value Added" ranks in the same period that the Zakariya school finished so poorly (Saeed, 2005). He argues that a Muslim education will help to combat the "lack of values currently within the non-denominational sector" and that even non-Muslim parents would want their children to have the opportunity to attend Muslim schools to avoid the corrosive effects of this "selfish, consumer-driven world" (2005).
Hewitt is similarly frustrated with an education system which, in his view, "largely regards religion as a nuisance best ignored" (2005). While there are some who would argue that such a parochial approach to education would intellectually shortchange students, Hewitt responds with the example of the Ennerdale and Kinniside Primary School, which is a parochial Church of England school, but which received a gold star from the educational inspectors (2005). Hewitt argues further that a parochial education more closely mirrors real life – at home, he says, children celebrate only one winter holiday – but at school, they often observe all three of the major celebrations.
Hewitt also points out that the removal of religion from the classroom, is not a neutral position, but is just another choice (2005). For those who would argue that the removal of religion from the classroom would create a neutral environment, this is an important corrective – agnosticism or atheism is a religious choice.
The Muslim and Anglican schools are not the only parochial environments that have produced successful students. A report in June 2005 showed that standards of academic achievement at Stage 4 in Catholic schools exceed national norms, and that Catholic schools are particularly effective at helping socially disadvantaged students who come in from the