A report from the National Secular Society (NSS) has scrutinised the activities of external visitors to schools and says it is concerned that some groups are “gaining access to children and young people”.
Evangelism in State Schools says that evangelical groups seek involvement in publicly funded education through RE provision, school worship, pastoral work, and bible-based school clubs. It says groups are operating not just in faith schools, but across non-religious community schools as well.
The NSS operates from the belief that there should be “no place in publicly funded schools for evangelism and proselytization”.
The report lists a total of 18 evangelical groups which it claims are currently active in schools in England and Wales, although it adds that this is by no means an exhaustive list.
It quotes examples of a group which has reached more than 365,000 children with a resource designed to “show that Jesus is relevant today”, another organisation that creates “prayer spaces” in schools, and a third which says it communicates “Biblical truth” and targets “unchurched people” including through its schools work.
The NSS report argues that often parents are unaware of activities and given “little, if any” opportunity for withdrawal. It adds: “The motivations and aims of external groups, either out of complicity or naïvety, are going unquestioned by headteachers, governors, local education authorities and the Department for Education.”
State schools are barred from teaching creationism as scientific fact, but the report raises concerns about the blurring of the line between religious belief and proven science.
It argues: “External visitors to schools will be regarded as figures of authority, particularly by younger pupils. When fundamentalist Christians express their sincerely and passionately held belief in the creation story, few children are likely to differentiate between what is being presented as a ‘belief’ and what is being taught as a ‘valid scientific theory’.
“Testimonies from concerned parents have revealed inappropriate views are also being expressed by external visitors on a number of other social and moral issues such as celibacy, abortion, and gender equality, for example.
“Furthermore, many of the evangelical groups present ethical and moral issues, such as environmentalism, as uniquely Christian concepts. We are concerned that this biased approach leaves pupils with a skewed and very poor understanding of ethics.”
The NSS is calling on the Department for Education to issue national guidance for schools setting out best practice for visitors and contributors, “particularly religion and belief groups”.
It also urges schools to forbid “proselytizing and evangelism” by visiting groups, ensure that teachers or support staff are present during any activities, and ensure parents have as much notice as possible so that they may withdraw their children if they wish. To download the report, visit www.secularism.org.uk/evangelism-in-schools