Initiated and edited by David Warden
Many humanists in the UK and elsewhere help to support the wonderful humanist schools in Uganda. And yet we are resolutely opposed to the idea of establishing humanist schools in the UK. Surely there's a philosophical contradiction here. if humanist schools in Uganda are a good thing, then why not in the UK? I gave some direction to ChatGPT to write this article, arguing the case for humanist schools in the UK. I broadly agree with the case it has made and I hope it will help to stimulate a wider debate in the humanist community.
The United Kingdom's education system is replete with diverse schooling options, ranging from state-run secular schools to a variety of faith-based educational institutions. While secular humanists generally advocate for all schools to be secular, some may find it paradoxical that the same group supports humanist schools in Uganda, under the aegis of the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust. This article aims to explore this seeming inconsistency and make a case for the establishment of humanist schools in the UK.
The humanist ethos
One of the strongest arguments in favour of humanist schools lies in the foundation of their ethos. Humanist values—such as rationalism, empathy, and a focus on human well-being—are principles that can offer a strong moral and ethical framework for education. While secular schools also impart values, they often lack a consistent and well-defined philosophical underpinning. Humanist schools offer a structured approach to moral and ethical education, equipping students with a coherent set of values that can guide them throughout their lives. In a society that is becoming increasingly pluralistic, a well-defined ethos can provide children with a clear sense of identity and purpose, helping them navigate the complexities of modern life.
Freedom of thought vs. indoctrination
A common argument against humanist schools—or any other denomination-based educational institutions—is that they can serve as conduits for indoctrination. However, humanism, at its core, values freedom of thought, scepticism, and the scientific method. Far from indoctrinating students, a humanist education encourages children to think critically, question assumptions, and arrive at their own conclusions. This form of education aligns closely with the democratic values that we cherish, promoting a citizenry capable of thoughtful participation in society.
The issue of state funding and faith schools
One of the most significant roadblocks to the idea of humanist schools in the UK comes from within the humanist community itself, particularly concerning the issue of state funding. Humanists have long campaigned against state-funded faith schools, arguing that they contribute to social fragmentation and religious segregation. Introducing state-funded humanist schools would vitiate the argument against public funding for faith schools. But this resistance to state funding for schools with a particular religious or philosophical ethos rules out the possibility of establishing humanist schools. Moreover, it implies that, instead of valuing a tolerant, free and pluralistic society, our ultimate goal is to enforce a monolithic and monocultural form of secular education which encourages children to develop as rootless individualists, belonging nowhere.
Strengthening the humanist identity
Another compelling reason to establish humanist schools is the opportunity to strengthen the humanist identity among younger generations. Currently, the term "humanist" is not as widely recognised or understood as it could be. Humanist schools could act as catalysts in bringing the philosophy into the mainstream, enabling more individuals to identify with humanist values and contribute constructively to society.
The risk of division
While there are strong arguments for humanist schools, critics worry that the proliferation of faith-based and ideology-based schools can impair social cohesion, creating divisions along religious and philosophical lines. They argue that secular schools, by not promoting any particular worldview, offer a neutral ground where children from diverse backgrounds can come together.
This is a strong argument in favour of secular schools. However, it is worth noting that a humanist ethos, with its emphasis on universal human dignity and shared ethical values, could be highly inclusive, mitigating the risks of social division. A humanist school could educate children from different faith traditions—such as the one pioneered by Irumba Juma Siriwayo in Uganda. Katumba Parents Humanist Nursery and Primary School caters for the children of both Christian and Muslim families. You can read more about it in this edition of Humanistically Speaking.
A balanced approach
Given the UK's rich tapestry of educational choices, adding humanist schools to the mix would not be revolutionary but rather evolutionary. These schools could operate alongside existing institutions, offering parents and students an additional option that aligns with a set of well-defined, progressive values. Furthermore, lessons learned from the success of humanist schools in Uganda could be applied to ensure these institutions fulfil their educational and ethical missions effectively.
The establishment of humanist schools in the UK offers an intriguing opportunity to reconcile the need for a strong ethical framework in education with the broader goals of secularism. While there are risks to be considered, particularly around social cohesion, the potential benefits—ranging from the promotion of critical thinking to the strengthening of a humanist identity—make a compelling case for their introduction into the UK's educational landscape. By creating a space for humanist schools, we are not only broadening educational choice but also enriching the moral and ethical fabric of society.