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The Christadelphian | February 2010

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Ecclesial responsibility and individual freedoms
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “On mountain top and plain: the Sermon on the Mount” | Dudley Fifield
  • Beechworth – Australia’s oldest surviving ecclesia | Ian Hyndman
  • A question of conscience Education | Cynthia Miles
  • Good fruit | Barry Lambsdown
  • Nottingham Bible Learning Centre
  • Ezekiel – prophet to the exiles 2 – Captives in Babylon | Andrew E. Walker
  • The Letter to the Philippians 14 – “I can do all things through Christ …” (Philippians 4:10-23) | Mark Allfree
  • Book review: A sequel | (A Time to See) | Geoff Henstock
  • Signs of the times Reacting to disasters | Michael Owen
  • Israel and their land “A new Amalek”?
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

A question of conscience

Education

THIS article looks at possible issues of conscientious objection within the UK education system, primarily from a teacher’s perspective, but also from a parent’s view, as they seek to guide children through a system which inevitably inculcates standards and ideas which are not always in accordance with those of the Bible.

Defining conscience and education

How is conscience to be defined? One explanation is that conscience is an intellectual, emotional and practical response to situations which challenge our moral codes. As Christadelphians, our codes are determined by an understanding of the laws of God, the precepts given by the Lord Jesus Christ in teachings such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) and in subsequent guidance by the apostles (Galatians 5:16).

To have a conscientious objection to an issue, a fully developed conscience is essential. Whether conscience is innate is debatable, but human history seems to indicate that unless conscience is nurtured it will wither and may die. The Apostle Paul counsels us to have a good conscience towards God and man (Acts 24:16). Equally, the injunction to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40) has resulted in Christadelphians historically having a conscientious objection to certain elements of organised society, such as military and jury service.

More subtle challenges to our beliefs and practices are now appearing and some of these can arise in and through the education system. When state education was first introduced into Britain in the nineteenth century it was partly as a mechanism to teach Christian principles. Today, that concept has been replaced by a system based on materialism, ultra-toleration and religious multiculturalism. Changes in Science curricula, the introduction of Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), Citizenship studies, and lessons in Philosophy and ethics in RE, exemplify the current direction in secondary education. All these changes may well provide a challenge to our consciences.

There is also the question of what is meant by “education”. Education has always been more than learning facts: it modifies understanding and actions. Brethren and sisters experience two forms of education: the education given from God through scripture that leads to salvation; and the knowledge, skills and understanding in the world that enable us to earn our living and function in society. This second form of education has its place, but conflict can arise when the two programmes clash. Conscience at work is not only about issues in the workplace that challenge our consciences, but whether our consciences have been sufficiently educated to recognise and respond to moral issues.

Education from and through scripture must predominate over that provided by the state. Paul’s comment that believers should concentrate on whatsoever things are pure, lovely and of good report (Philippians 4:8-10) is a sound foundation from which to practise both teaching and learning, though we shall never totally avoid information and behaviour that is incompatible with our way of life. Therefore, believing teachers must consider whether they are being asked to teach knowledge, understanding and skills that are opposed to the Gospel; and believing parents must ask whether their children should be exposed to such learning.

Role models

Teachers have a prime responsibility to be role models for pupils. Whilst ultimately responsible to God, Christadelphian teachers can be particular examples of faith and belief when working with pupils, colleagues and parents (1 Timothy 4:12). It should be through appropriate professional relationships with pupils, developing honest, fair and trustworthy professional dialogues as befits their age and abilities, that role modelling should begin. We can also set high standards for behaviour. School policies will include rules about the use of foul language and violence, but we can show that blasphemy is also inappropriate and that good manners and kindness between pupils and between teachers and pupils is the best basis for educational development and progress.

A similar model should define our relationship with parents. Teachers are in a position of authority. Teenage pupils especially will often listen to teachers where they may not accept the words of their parents. As brethren and sisters of the Lord Jesus we must not force our views on pupils who are either too young, or who lack other knowledge and skills to challenge our interpretations and values. Parents have a right to expect that we will not indoctrinate their children or turn them against them. They put us in a position of trust, in loco parentis, and this is backed by law. It is illegal in the UK for teachers to use any form of corporal punishment on pupils. There are detailed rules about restraint of pupils under particular circumstances, such as the health and safety of other pupils or teachers. We live in times when inappropriate relationships between teachers and pupils attract widespread publicity and it is very important therefore that brethren and sisters are not alone with individual pupils in enclosed rooms. Always have a window, or door open to view. If necessary, have an appropriate colleague or pupil present. These are precautions to prevent either breaking the law or being falsely accused of so doing. Legal matters relating to a teacher’s rights and responsibilities are now quite complex, often implemented through whole school policies, particularly the “Every Child Matters” agenda (Children’s Act 2004) and the “Safeguarding of Children” (Children’s Plan 2007). Specific information can be accessed on government websites and from references at the DfES, “Guidance on the law”, and the General Teaching Council (2002), “The Code of Professional Values and Practice for Teachers”.

Pupils can be curious about their teachers’ private lives. Sharing some personal information can help pupil-teacher relationships, but only within sensible boundaries. Our Christadelphian background may become known and will occasionally give rise to questions from management and parents, especially in faith schools, or where pupils have a particular religious background. If questions are raised, we should have behaved in ways that allow us to reassure them that our personal beliefs and attitudes have not unduly influenced the teaching of particular subjects, for example in RE.

In wishing to be free to express our own consciences, we must be alert to the consciences of our pupils. Most will have moral values even if they are founded on secularism. Some will have very sensitive consciences from religious convictions or cultural expectations. It is important that we respond to these, especially when teaching sensitive or controversial topics.

Issues in the curriculum

PSHE, Citizenship and aspects of RE and Science are the most likely areas of the curriculum where such problems may arise because of the moral and practical implications. Teaching styles about drugs and relationships have changed considerably over the last fifteen years and the intention behind what pupils are taught is to give them an “informed choice”. The concept of an absolute moral framework is no longer used. Teachers have to deliver lessons in these areas at primary and secondary levels. Government guidelines provide useful boundaries at primary level, and it is therefore in secondary schools that challenges are likely to arise. Graphic presentations are sometimes used to make pupils aware of issues around violence, prostitution, homosexuality, abuse and related drugs activity. Teachers will base their lessons on appropriate government frameworks but materials, including a pack based on a BBC programme called “Pleasure Land”, may conflict with what we might feel is appropriate either for teaching or learning. How should we handle such situations?

Educational law and school support

The laws in England and Wales relating to education give guidance for teachers and other staff, such as teaching assistants and cover supervisors. A teacher must carry out any duties deemed “reasonable” by the head teacher. What is “reasonable” is not closely defined, but court judgements tend to focus on how an ‘average’ person would respond. However, legal approaches should be our last resort and used with ecclesial advice. There is a provision for conscience (the Cowper clause) for teachers asked to teach RE, but teachers do not have a conscience clause for PSHE or sex education, though unions have asked for this in the past. It may be possible to negotiate with sympathetic managements to avoid teaching sex education, but there is at present no right in law. Brethren and sisters, as teachers, need to be familiar with the curriculum and resources they will use, whether at primary or secondary level, and decide if they feel morally able to proceed with particular topics or resources. Opportunities may occur to include alternative views or exclude some materials. It is wise at an early stage to discuss any concerns with Heads of Department or line managers and this may pre-empt later problems. My experience is that colleagues are often sympathetic to an expressed principle and if known early enough will sometimes make suitable timetable or group arrangements to avoid tensions. Careful consideration of what constitutes essential conscientious objections in topic and content must be undertaken by brethren and sisters, and the willingness of colleagues and managers to facilitate our principles should not be taken for granted. Topics like evolution, political democracy or even sex and drugs education, often present useful opportunities to discuss with pupils alternative concepts.

Brethren and sisters as parents and pupils

Much of the advice given above also applies to brethren and sisters who are parents. Young people may be exposed to learning which challenges what is taught at home and at the meeting. Parents need to be aware of what the curriculum demands and ensure that teachers respond sensitively, especially with quiet children. Parents have the right to withdraw their children from RE and Sex Education lessons, but pupils do and will relay information to each other and few children flourish as separate, isolated individuals. Alternative forms of education exist, but children cannot be withdrawn from the world totally and as parents we must try to teach them how to respond to worldly pressures. Daniel is a good example. He had an excellent education in Godly principles, and though at an early age he was taken into a totally alien culture, he was able to express his conscience and still retain the respect of those who did not share his faith. Our children and young people need sound religious education at home, at Sunday School, Youth Circle and Youth Weekends. All of them should include opportunities for open forums where young people can discuss attitudes to drugs, relationships, politics, and speak freely and in detail about their knowledge, concerns and temptations. Examples such as Joseph and Moses and their reaction to problems are useful, but it is vital that our teenagers can talk about the world as they find it. Home may not always be the easiest place to discuss some matters. Parents and children can be equally embarrassed about discussion of detailed personal relationships, and some brethren and sisters may be happily ignorant of matters faced frequently by the 12-21 age groups at school and elsewhere.

For teachers, parents and pupils, recognising that we are not alone provides the strongest guidance and support we can access. Through prayer and the word of God, He is always near to help, and we should never try to tackle a conscience issue alone. Make it a topic of prayer, discuss it at home, with members of the ecclesia, or take advice from the wider brotherhood.

Conclusions

Occasionally, brethren and sisters find themselves with unsympathetic managers, or are falsely accused of unprofessional behaviour. On rare occasions this leads to the need for legal advice. We are reluctant to be involved with trade unions, but the teaching profession does have organisations where legal advice is offered but where strike action is rejected. Individuals must decide whether they use such groups as a provision of God or avoid them. That we can “appeal unto Caesar” (Acts 25:10-12) though, should not be forgotten. God provides human organisations and support in the brotherhood in various guises for our help.

Education and teaching can be exciting and worthwhile. We can learn so much about many aspects of God’s world, about human relationships and those between man and God. Very occasionally, because of our dedication to following the commandments of Christ, conscientious objections arise and need to be tackled carefully and prayerfully. We know that “all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28), even though this may be through difficult, painful experiences. Teaching and the world of education is similar to other environments we experience. If we put God at the centre of our lives, try to live by the example of the Lord Jesus and the apostles and put ourselves last, the situations we experience will support our growth into characters which will be welcomed into the kingdom as good, faithful servants (Matthew 25:21).

Cynthia Miles

 

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