[Health warning: more an essay than a blogpost, but after all, it's been a while.]
Few things worry parents so much as how their children are going to turn out. Christian parents worry especially about bringing up their children in a way that is consistent with their Christian profession. This makes Christian parents especially interested in (and vulnerable to pressure from) various theories of how children should be educated.
In recent memory, there were two options for how to get your children educated – state school or private school. Since private schools are prohibitively expensive for most people, state schools have normally been the obvious and natural place for children to go.
Recently though, people have started exploring other options. One is home educating, once the preserve of hippies and parents of children who struggled in the conventional classroom (as victims of severe bullying, or with medical conditions, or similar), and the other is Christian schools.
Parents faced with this array of choices need to be reassured that there is no single right option. None of these options comes with a divine blessing attached. None is automatically the right choice for everyone. The decision to select one or another is constrained by circumstances – the personal circumstances of individual families, given their geographical location, their finances, their academic ability, their context in their community, and their personal tastes, inclinations and temperaments. It’s not a question of absolute right and wrong but a question of what’s appropriate, wise, and practical in a particular set of local circumstances.
On the one hand, this means that homeschooling and Christian schools are perfectly legitimate routes for Christian parents to go down. Nobody would or should deny the right of parents to educate their children at home or in Christian schools. It’s a question of what’s appropriate in their circumstances.
On the other hand, it also means that it is a perfectly legitimate option for Christian parents to educate their children in state schools. This is unfortunately a point which needs to be stated explicitly in our current context where Christian parents may find themselves in constant danger of being rebuked, browbeaten, guilt-tripped, and judged for sending their children to state schools (or for that matter private schools that are not overtly Christian). But for them as for anyone else, it’s a question of what’s appropriate in their circumstances.
In particular, any of the following considerations could quite rightly weigh heavily in favour of Christian parents educating their children in state schools.
1) Everyone else is doing it
Most of us have been brought up on the mantra that just because everyone else is doing it, that doesn’t make it right. But the converse does not hold. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it wrong.
It is important for the functioning of civil society that Christians along with everyone else are part of their community. That means that Christians are not expected to be different for the sake of being different. Christians are meant to be good neighbours – to participate in community activities, join in with local customs, play their part in their local society, to the fullest extent possible. While this world is never going to be a comfortable stay for pilgrims whose home is above, Christians still have a responsibility to be good friends, neighbours, and citizens in their local contexts. Society itself is not evil, and our non-Christian neighbours are not people to be feared or distrusted or kept at arm’s length. Standing aloof and refusing to be involved in what everyone else regards as a perfectly normal part of life, especially if you’re transmitting overtones that your children are too good or otherwise too special to mix with the rabble, is hardly conducive to good relationships in your community.
And school is just part of our society. Everyone – not literally everyone, if you’re ill, or bullied, or the offspring of hippy parents, but as the norm – goes to school and sits in a classroom and plays in the playground and learns with their peers. Specifically in the UK context, and even more especially in the Scottish context, the reason that this has ended up as the norm is not because of some outrageous secularist wickedness, or an evil socialist conspiracy, but because of a vision stretching back hundreds of years, for every parish to be supplied with a school for the education of local children. This vision was embraced and adopted by our Reformers, and over the years Christians have invested a lot in this system. Scottish Christians have valued education highly. Ministers serve as chaplains in local schools. Congregations take a prayerful interest in their local schools. Teaching is regarded as an honourable, respectable profession for Christian men and women. Scottish Christian parents today need not be ashamed of continuing to participate in the local provision for local children.
2) Children need a good education
State schools aren’t perfect, but they’re not as bad as people make out. There is a scaremongering tendency among those who object to the state school system to recycle the horror stories they’ve read in the tabloids dramatising the worst perpetrations of feral children rioting in the iniquitous dens which pass for classrooms in inner city schools. They tend not to notice that these stories shock everyone, however wedded to the concept of state education, or that they are not representative of the state school system in general.
And whatever wonders homeschooled children may perform in American spelling bees, there remains a strong case to be made for both the academic and the social benefits of attending a state school. Children in conventional classrooms learn in the conventional way how to get along with children their own age and stage. Teachers are professionals who know about children’s development from a broader perspective than any individual set of parents learning about their own child’s development, and they teach in an environment geared towards learning. A mum and the family doing long division around the kitchen table while the oldest changes the youngest’s nappy in the background is something of a different kind of learning environment. Arguably it’s one that works for some families, but there’s nothing wrong with Christian parents who don’t find it appropriate for their own situation.
Further, even where Christian schools can in principle avoid the drawbacks of homeschooling, it is legitimate for Christian parents to choose not to send their children there. Christian parents have the right to be cautious about setups which are demonstrably amateur and lacking in resources even if they are indisputably enthusiastically Christian in spirit. Good intentions, fine principles, and burning convictions have to be weighed up against the quality of the actual teaching being delivered, the kinds of exams children will be able to pass, the support provided for children with learning difficulties, the pastoral care available, and even the ability of the organisation to pay its teachers a decent wage. Tiny classrooms run on a shoestring budget where children have to sink or swim academically through their own efforts because the staff are inadequately trained and resourced might work for some Christian parents, but there can be no cause for condemnation when other Christian parents don’t find it appropriate for their own situation.
3) Home is where the heart is (shaped)
The home has a bigger formative influence on children than their school does. People who fret about the negative influences which Christian children may potentially be exposed to in state schools are massively underestimating the role of parents and the home environment in equipping children with the principles to live by in activities outside the home.
Parents are obliged to provide children with an upbringing which will equip them to bring Christian principles to bear on every situation they find themselves in. In the (Scottish) Reformed context, the duty of bringing up children has traditionally been understood as involving baptising them, including them in family worship, praying with and for them, taking them to church to hear the gospel preached, ensuring that they understand the doctrines of the Bible, and showing them by example how to live a God-honouring life. By bringing children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, parents provide their children with a worldview, or a set of guiding moral principles, to carry around with them as they go about their lives, whatever their circumstances may be.
Although this obviously includes when they go to school, those who object to state education have a tendency to refuse to believe that the influence of the home, which they’re otherwise so intent on emphasising, can truly be carried over by the child into school, or at least not concurrently with being brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. But this generally fails to recognise the amount of active effort that Christian families put into preventing their children from succumbing to undesirable influences in the school environment (or life, in general). Parents and children are more conscious of worldly influences, and more exercised about dealing with them, than they generally get credit for among those who object to state education.
If Christian parents only started to consider the need of bringing up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord once it came to wondering whether to send them to school, or find a Christian school, or start homeschooling, then they would evidently have been somewhat remiss. But Christian parents who have been concerned from the outset about their children’s spiritual wellbeing and attempting to raise them in a way consistent with Christian faith and practice need not fear that sending them to school is automatically incompatible with bringing them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
4) Scripture is our only authority for defining sin and duty
‘Sin’ is an accusation that needs scriptural backup, just as the imposition of ‘duty’ does. Because Scripture does not specify how children should be educated, therefore the education of children is an area for people to exercise prudence and discretion as they seek to apply the scriptural principles on the duties of parents towards children in their own specific practical circumstances.
Education has, after all, become the single biggest opportunity for the flourishing of legalism in contemporary Christianity. This needn’t mean legalism in the sense of people believing that they or their children will be saved by the good deed of homeschooling (or opting out of state education), but rather legalism in the sense of imposing their own definitions of duty and sin on other people.
Some of the most disturbing rhetoric from those who object to state education seems to say that simply sending children to a state school is sinful, a neglect of parental responsibilities, a failure in parental duty, a moral wrong perpetrated against the child if not even against God. This is essentially guilt-tripping parents who send their children to school, or in more technical terms, binding burdens on their conscience which don’t come from Scripture – accusing them of sins, and holding them to duties, which don’t scripturally exist. Granting that all parents have the duty of raising their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, it’s still not obligatory by biblical principle to opt out of the state education system. What parents are obliged to do by biblical principle is to provide children with a Christian worldview, a Christian way of acting and interacting within God’s creation and providence. One family may decide that this is best done by homeschooling. Another may decide it is best done through a Christian school. Another may decide it is best done in a way which includes conventional schooling. None can accuse the others of failing in their duty to their children simply for making one decision rather than the other.
Rather than seeing the decision to withdraw from state schooling as something inherently noble and virtuous, the only safe way to view it is as a pragmatic response to a particular set of circumstances which happens to be apparently the most appropriate choice for a given family taking all the details of their context into consideration. Change the circumstances and the most appropriate choice for even the same family could equally be to use the option of a state school. Christian parents need to be assured that how a family chooses to educate their children is determined by circumstances and not by black and white scriptural absolutes.
5) Salvation is by sovereign grace
The outward and ordinary means by which souls are saved are the ordinances of God, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer.
Education is not one of God’s ordinances.
If we believe in original sin, then we must acknowledge that children who are sheltered from every possible pernicious external influence have fundamentally the same wicked hearts as everyone else. This remains true even when their sheltered upbringing means they are outwardly unblameable in every aspect of behaviour. They might not be ‘worldly’ in the senses that Christians have traditionally deprecated, whatever we understand by worldly entertainment, worldly music, worldly dress, worldly pleasures, worldly language, worldly companions, worldly tastes. But you can be unworldly in all these external respects while having an incorrigibly worldly heart, a heart in which the love of the Father doesn’t exist.
The very best outcome that home schooling or Christian schooling can hope to achieve is only on this external level. It’s not even capable of making children’s hearts less hard against the gospel. It certainly doesn’t make children more eligible candidates for salvation. Education, even on the soundest Christian principles possible, is incapable of reaching the heart so as to bring about a saving change – there are simply no grounds for expecting it to do this, because it is not one of the ways God has ordained for achieving this outcome.
The Word, sacraments, and prayer, on the other hand, are the ordinances which God especially uses in the work of saving souls, including children’s souls. If we were more able to appreciate the value and efficacy of these means which he has actually ordained, we might be less tempted to grasp at non-ordained means such as ‘Christian education,’ so as to invest it with such undeserved significance, whether in itself, as a silver bullet to escape the ruination of our children’s souls, or as a standard for judging the holiness of other Christians.
Salvation is gifted by a sovereign God, who blesses the means he has himself ordained. Christian parents weighing up the options for educating their children will undoubtedly be able to see advantages in home education and Christian schools, but Christian parents are right to keep them in perspective – they belong to the domain of what is pragmatic, appropriate, constrained by circumstances – they are not remotely in the same league as the Word, sacraments, and prayer. When their children are saved, it will be in the diligent use of the same outward and ordinary means as ever before.
The bottom line
Any, or any combination, of these considerations would be weighty enough for Christian parents to decide to send their children to their local school, or decline to withdraw them from it, without needing to feel guilty. How Christian parents educate their children is not a question of absolute right and wrong but a question of what’s appropriate, wise, and practical in a particular set of local circumstances.