If the Prime Minister pores scorn on a corporation, I would expect it to be due to tax avoidance, awful working conditions, or the mistreatment of customers. I suppose I might also think that it could be the result of a negative/prejudiced advertising campaign. I would not though assume that she had taken the time to speak out over the name change of a holiday egg hunt. And yet, at the beginning of this month, I witnessed Theresa May describe Cadburys’ decision to change the name of its National Trust trails (dropping the word ‘Easter’ from Cadbury Easter Egg Hunts) as ‘absolutely ridiculous’.
These religious-correctness debates have popped up semi-regularly in recent years. Every time winter rolls around it seems that one can find an article of how the word ‘Christmas’ is being dropped from public celebrations or that nativities are being squeezed out of the school calendar. While being sensitive to different religious views, it feels like no one has quite worked out the best way to combine religious sensitivity with respect and recognition for the messages/beliefs at the heart of festivals that many are a part of. With a likely mix of faiths and backgrounds between pupils, schools are a useful microcosm for reflecting on this struggle.
As a teacher/school leader, it is difficult to balance enthusiasm and the tradition of a festival like Christmas with the concern and outright objection from parents that they do not want their children to be forced to partake in a religious practice that they do not believe in. We have come along way in ensuring that children are not coerced by any state institution to accept specific religious doctrines. Yet one could argue that comprehensive schools find themselves now in an odd middle ground whereby they sometimes risk picking out the parts of religion that they think students will be happy with e.g. giving presents at Christmas, while leaving out the central beliefs that deserve to be recognised.
While this might sound over-simplistic, I think the solution lies in giving the decision over to the students themselves. As the VotesforSchools team has seen frequently, passing decision-making responsibility over to students not only engages them in the topic, but also helps to build long term reasoning skills.
In practical terms, school leaders could launch a school-wide debate on whether the school should recognise and do something to recognise all religious festivals from the six biggest global religions (the exact wording can be fiddled with and it could be relevant for the school to focus on a specific religion). The debate would have to be an informed one, with students given a session in the week to learn about different festivals and the views/values they uphold. This could be extended to parents by encouraging students to take the debate home and discuss it with them. It would be best to have a letter sent home to parents so that they can be included in the open discussion and allow them to raise any potential issues. Once all the students have had some education and discussion on the idea, a whole school vote could be carried out.
In giving the say on recognition of religious festivals over to young people, I can see this voting exercise having four clear, positive effects:
- It validates the school’s approach towards what can be a tricky issue. By having a transparent vote on whether the school should recognise religious festivals and acting on whichever side the verdict falls upon, it will sidestep the potential criticism and grief from parents who were not happy with the school policy
- It hands over the decision-making responsibility to students on an issue that is much more significant than whether or not they should have an extra ping-pong table, or whether they should be allowed pizza once a week. Student councils and student-oriented democracy can often feel and genuinely be tokenistic. A vote on what is a serious and important issue like religion is the opposite of that. It will demonstrate to young people that teachers/adults take their views seriously and that they can have an impact
- For point 1, many teachers will have likely been thinking that some parents could still make this issue a difficult one. That is true. However, having a vote Though parents might still not be content with a school following the students’ vote, they would be given the chance during the process to talk to the school in a more progressive way where the school is in a position to take parents’ views on and do something with them. It can include them in the debate
- Finally, in engaging in a debate about religious practices, students will have the opportunity to learn more about religion in general and about each other. This (again if monitored in a sensitive way) will be a chance for students to discuss their views with each other and learn more about each other
I recognise that a religious debate in a school will never be easy, especially if there are strong views running through sections of the community. However, if chaired and implemented in a sensitive and structured way, students could be empowered, parents could become more engaged and the community become more cohesive. A school that has a positive debate about religion could be the standard bearer for dealing with religious differences in the community and wider area.