TCS Daily

Secular Education Loses the Faith

By Josie Appleton - December 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Secular education produces kids who take drugs, get pregnant, and have no respect, physician and social affairs writer Dr. A Wahid recently told an audience of Muslim students in an east London lecture hall.

The debate was organized by the discussion group "Dialogue with Islam," which aims to provide "a bridge of understanding and discussion between Western intellectuals and the Muslim community in Britain." The two secularists on the panel -- Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee and Marilyn Mason from the British Humanist Association -- had a hard time of it. Secular state schools were portrayed as barren and lawless hellholes, which would be the ruin of tender Muslim youth.

Abdullah Trevathan, head of the Islamia primary school in London, argued that: "If Muslim children don't see their home life reflected at school, they will lose self-esteem. And that could encourage fundamentalism in youth." Trevathan and other speakers saw faith schools as oases of decency, where Muslim kids could feel affirmed and learn right from wrong. The secularists ended up on the back foot, protesting that their creed wasn't all bad. "I am insulted by the implication that I don't have any values", Mason was forced to plead.

It's not just in this lecture hall that secular education is in a shaky state. Prime Minister Tony Blair has a soft spot for faith schools, too -- he thinks that they provide "ethos". While the British comprehensive school is represented by the paper-throwing, glue-sniffing antics of pupils in Grange Hill, a popular children's TV program, faith schools apparently give kids a more lofty sense of purpose. They certainly get good results -- the country's first all-girl Islamic state secondary school, Feversham College in Bradford, recently came top of the national league tables for 'value added' performance at GCSE. Haunted by the specter of run-down inner city 'failing schools', the government perhaps hopes that Allah will get kids to sit still.

The heart of the problem is that secular education has lost its backbone. The government trumpets the value of "choice" -- gearing schools towards the wishes of parents or local communities -- rather than setting down national standards. British schools today aim to make kids feel valued rather than to develop their minds: buzz phrases such as 'pupil-centered learning' and 'recognizing identities' pepper education policy documents. Meanwhile, the school curriculum is positively embarrassed about any scientific or rational heritage. Rather than elevating the achievements of Newton or Einstein, science classes often teach kids to consider the limits of their knowledge. Small wonder that Dr. Wahid felt justified in describing evolution as 'just a theory'.

The young Muslim audience in east London came down overwhelmingly on the side of faith schools; the handful of representatives from the National Secular Society fought a defensive losing battle. It is of little surprise that the debate went this way, though, when there is so little faith in secular education in mainstream British society. Young British Muslims can recognize the smell of self-doubt, and it sends them in the opposite direction. After the meeting I was given a glossy magazine, New Civilization, by a polite, articulate young man, arguing for the virtues of the caliphate. "[Is] Western society ready to re-examine the suitability of its own core secular and liberal values and their failure in building a stable society?" the magazine's editorial asked.

We need to put the spirit back into secular education. This means being proud to teach science and rational enquiry, rather than presenting it as a dodgy business. And we could also use a new secular morality: kids can be taught right from wrong without the fear of God hanging over them.

The best advert for secular education came not from the panel, but from a young Muslim man in the audience, who plotted a lone course away from his peers. "I went to a secular school, and I think it was a good education. It made me think about what I believe, and decide for myself what I think is right." Amen to that.

The author is a journalist for spiked (, and author of 'Museums for The People', a critical look at changes in museum policy.

1 Comment

Must agree with the Muslims - and Darwin - on this one
A few points:

1) Modern secular culture has been around for less than 100 years.

2) This secular culture has been undergoing population reduction over this time - and is currently well below replacement rates. For this reason, high-breeding, non-secular Muslims are taking over the lands of the secular culture.

3) Modern schools are a reflection of this modern secular culture.

4) Enlightened moderns want Muslims to be like them.

I think I'll go with Darwin on this one. Give me a culture that actually believes in something over the wishy-washy, make-up-your-own-morals, PC, non-breeding modern culture.

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