As the principal of a religiously affiliated school, I often have cause to reflect on what difference, if any, being religiously affiliated should make to a school. Often it doesn’t make much difference at all. Commenting on how approximately half of the schools in Hong Kong, both private and government, are religiously affiliated, Jackson (2015) observes:
However, religion has never had a substantive role in the formal curriculum of government schools, where the majority of students are educated today. As Lee (2001, 214) notes, local educational leaders rank religious education as relatively unimportant within formal education, while religious organisations have shifted from 'an evangelical approach to a professional approach in running schools' over the last few decades. (p. 44)
Religiously affiliated schools, such as my own, all follow the same basic curriculum and our students all take the same public examinations as students in non-religious schools. On top of this, they are subject to the same government regulations, have to follow the same guidelines, and meet the same expectations as any other school.
Most people, if asked what difference there is between religious and non-religious schools, would probably see any difference in terms of the ‘extras’ offered by the religious schools. So, in my own tradition, church schools will normally have Christian services of worship, observe the major church festivals, and have Scripture lessons.
If pushed to identify any other differences, some may look for a greater emphasis on ‘values and attitudes’. Parents may expect there to be more stress on such qualities as honesty, fairness, and caring for the world around us. But this is more about emphasis than anything else. Religious schools wouldn’t claim to have a monopoly on virtue.
The unspoken question, of course, is where belief in God and religious belief in general fits in. Is all mention of God to be confined to the extras, if, that is, God is to be mentioned at all? It is interesting that those who view education from a secular standpoint often argue that schools should teach social values such as inclusivity, diversity, and equality, whether the parents agree with how they are being taught or not, but then scream ‘indoctrination’ at the slightest mention of God.
I would argue, however, that fundamental to being a church school is a belief in God as the creator and sustainer of all, who made humans in God’s own image. God, for the Christian, isn’t simply an item of faith, but the One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’, as it is expressed in the New Testament (Acts 17:28). It is from this belief that the church’s values and attitudes are ultimately derived. For those who believe it, being made in the image of God means that humans are not simply body and mind, but body, mind, and spirit. To put it another way: we humans are spiritual beings.
It follows logically, then, that if education is to be about the whole child, it needs also to cater for the spiritual needs of children. This is something, I believe, we have seriously neglected to do as society has become increasingly materialistic and the goal of education has become primarily to help children get the qualifications they need to succeed economically and socially. Hence the desire of the academically most successful students to pursue high-paying, high-status careers. Ironically, religious schools are often popular with parents not because they are religious but because they are seen by parents as achieving good academic results!
Our present emphasis on body and mind to the exclusion of the spirit is, however, not without consequences. We see this in the number of students suffering from mental health issues: stress, depression, suicidal tendencies, eating disorders, self-harm, and substance abuse – to name but a few. For many, the consequences of spiritual neglect only reveals itself later in life when the high-paying, high-status jobs don’t bring the levels of personal happiness and satisfaction they were supposed to.
It is because of this that there has been the growth in recent years of the positive education movement and a greater emphasis on children’s well-being and mental health (Jackson, 2020). This is to be commended and welcomed. But it is not enough. We need to take more seriously the spiritual dimension of a child’s life. It is here that religious schools have an important contribution to make. I don’t mean in the narrow sense of inculcating dogma and recruiting members, but in the broader sense of helping a child to develop and grow spiritually as a whole person. This will only be achieved by recognising the child as a spiritual person and putting their spiritual needs at the heart of the curriculum.
It is the time for church and religious schools to fulfil their calling.
Winnie went to school at DGS and a boarding school in England before studying law at the London School of Economics. She then studied for a master’s degree in law at New York University. After qualifying as a lawyer, she worked as a tax attorney in New York.
She qualified as a teacher at HKU and has been an early childhood teacher for over twenty years. She has also obtained a Postgraduate Diploma in Early Childhood Education, again from HKU, and several qualifications in music and education.
She is currently the Principal of Christ Church Kindergarten.