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Dr Karamat Iqbal

Should education be secular?

Religious belief is very much alive in our schools, but many teachers are drastically unprepared to teach in the classrooms of the future.

One of the most visible effects of globalisation has been the greater movement of peoples and communities. This has led to newer forms of diversity, especially those arising out of religion.

In this new environment, we need to reconsider the age-old question: 'Should education be secular?' For me, the answer is a clear yes. What is not straightforward, however, is what we mean by the word.

In its common contemporary usage, the word ‘secular’ has come to mean la deeniyat, non-religious or in its more radical version anti-religious. The meaning of 'secular' I employ here is one used by secularist societies in several countries. By this definition, the concept is a framework that stresses freedom of religion and from religion. It does not mean opposition to, or marginalisation of religion.

As to what sort of education should be provided within such a state, in my view it is likely to be a mixture of schools of the sort we have in the English system. This is the only way of implementing freedom of religion for the believers among us and freedom from religion for the rest. The education provision for the former is made available in the faith-based schools, which was the focus of an earlier blog post. My aim here is to comment on the rest of our schools.

Religion resurgent

One of the surprising changes of our times has involved the continued, sometimes increased, presence of religion. In an article for the New York Times in 1968, Peter Beger predicted the demise of religion by the current century. Thirty years later, he was big enough to admit that he was wrong:

‘The world today... is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.’

What that means, he admitted, is ‘that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientists... is essentially mistaken’.

What poses a challenge for education (and society more broadly) is that the prevalence of religion is not uniform across locations and communities. The ‘superdiverse’ populations of urban centres are more likely to hold a religious belief than quieter rural areas.

Moreover, within said cities some communities will be more religious than others. In a study of Birmingham, I had found some neighbourhoods to be highly religious – particularly those with a strong Pakistani Muslim community – while others were not religious at all. My doctoral research into children of school age in the same community found a similar story.

Religion and me

In a study of three state secondary schools, I asked 16-17-year-old students to respond to the statement: ‘my religion is very important in my life’. The findings (as shown by those who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement) made clear that Asians were more likely to agree with the statement than White British participants.

Ethnic group Percentage
Pakistani 88.8%
Bangladeshi 87.0%
Indian 85.7%
White British 28.0%

Source: Iqbal, K., 'British Pakistani boys in Birmingham schools: education and the role of religion' (University of Warwick)

The implication for schools

Those in my study, while not being faith schools, had begun to accommodate their children's religious beliefs. All three schools were found to be providing space and facilities for Muslim students to say their midday prayers.

However, little had been done in any of the schools to enable their staff to become more religiously literate as recommended by a report from the Commission on Religion and Belief, among others. This meant that teachers continued to have a 'tabloid understanding' of Islam, Christianity and other religions.

Poor religious and cultural literacy prevents staff from creating coherence in the lives of their students

Perhaps the worst example of such religious illiteracy came from the teacher who spoke of 'Ramadam' when referring to the Muslim month of fasting. Another teacher in the same school informed me that training to improve teachers’ cultural and religious understanding was not considered a priority for the school's CPD programme.

Poor religious and cultural literacy prevents staff from creating coherence in the lives of their students. One teacher I spoke to for my research pointed out a number of benefits for teachers having an understanding of their children’s heritage. These included:

  • better teacher-pupil relationships
  • the ability to link students’ school and home lives
  • greater pupil engagement in school.

He also pointed out the likely impact of such understanding on pupils’ performance:

'By getting on the right side of the kids, you can change their attitudes and then change your results, maybe by 5%. It’s do-able. Just, by, you know, having that little handle on the culture and knowing what makes these kids tick. What would make the pupils focus more on their work? What would improve their behaviour?

'The more information you have like this, the better. I think if you have a cultural understanding; what’s happening in the house; the way they think; what they value; how they value things; I think you can do it.'

Teaching the next generation

Religious literacy has implications at a wider organisational level, as Ninestiles Academy has found. When a Muslim child was fed bacon by the dinner staff, the school were quick to react. The principal apologized and posted a statement on their website.

My study involved interviewing Pakistani Muslim parents. None of them expressed a desire for faith schools. However, all of them wished for teachers to have better understanding of their child’s culture and religion.

The challenge is not just there for the teachers in the school system but also for those going through teacher training. Their level of religious literacy will determine their success in the classrooms of the future.

More from Optimus

No more Trojan Horses

Still marching in: the continuing growth of faith schools

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