Religion can be a sensitive issue. There are those who believe that it should be an entirely private matter, and has no place in the public sphere. Others say that a faith which does not express itself in one’s day to day life is no faith at all.
Religion in school is an even more contentious question. In the Unites States the teaching of religion is forbidden in public schools (although teaching about religion is permitted), while in the arguably less religious United Kingdom schools are still required by law to begin each day with a “collective act of worship,” a requirement generally interpreted in the loosest possible way. A ban on religious instruction in the Australian state of Victoria last year caused controversy which still smolders on. In China freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution, but the same clause also forbids the “use of religion to engage in activities that… interfere with the educational system of the state.”
We talked to the lead educators of two Beijing schools, to search out how they find the right path through this tricky area.
Noel Thomas is Co-Principal at Yew Chung International School Beijing (YCIS Beijing). The Yew Chung Foundation, which runs schools across China and in the US, has among its educational objectives to “uphold moral and spiritual values based on Christian faith.” I asked Thomas what he understands by that.
“What I find in schools,” he told me, “is that you tend to get people saying ‘we accept Christian values’. Personally I struggle with the idea of Christian values that are not rooted in Christ. Values must be rooted in something.”
What does this mean for YCIS Beijing in practice?
“The Director of the Foundation, Dr Betty Chan is a committed and devout Christian. There’s an openness of communication – there’s no fear of expressing your Christianity, for example saying ‘Bless you’ or ‘blessings’ in an email, that sort of communication is welcomed. Of course it’s not required, there’s not a religious test for employment, but staff are made aware of the fact that Christian faith is important to many of the leadership of the organization.
“We are a partner of Beijing International Christian Fellowship (BICF). Christine [Xu, the other Co-Principal] and I presented at one of their meetings. We have an agreement where eligible students are members of the fellowship, there’s special arrangements for children of pastors, and so on. We have services after school; not in competition with local Christian communities, but supplementary to them. So for example there’s a service for staff on a monthly basis.
“We honor Christian festivals – although there’s no religious test to the enrollment of children. We offer voluntary Bible scripture classes as an after school activity. We have a school hymn. We pray, on occasions; every assembly includes a prayer. However, if there is any religious observance, it’s always couched in terms of ‘Christians believe that…’ rather than saying to the students ‘and on this day Christ rose’.
“When I was interviewed for my position here, because I knew there wasn’t a religious test, I was surprised and pleased that they wanted to explore my faith background. Then when I came here I thought it might be more obvious that the school had a Christian foundation than it was. But my view has changed again. In a subtle but constant way, it is more of a Christian school than I thought. My first two impressions were wrong!
“It’s more subtle here than in an overtly practicing Christian school, where there would be liturgical activities, where there might be religious staff involved, and so on. It’s not done in that way. I’d say though the Christian ethos is subtle, but not meaningless. Parents who are devoutly Christian respond to this school as a Christian school.”
For Elizabeth Hardage, Head of School at Daystar Academy, the emphasis is different. Daystar is part of Ivy Education Group, which does not refer to religion at all in its mission or values. That’s not to say that religion is taboo at Daystar.
“Nobody’s embarrassed to admit that they practice a religion!” Hardage emphasized.
However she put forward one good reason why an understanding of faith issues is an important part of a rounded education.
“You can’t be truly bilingual without being bicultural. The majority of our students are preparing to go to university overseas. If you go to the US, or another English-speaking country, during December the colors are red, green, and white. There’s Christmas music on the radio. You can’t forget it’s Christmas!”
As an expat it’s easy to grasp the point she’s making. Understanding the festivals, traditions, and core beliefs of a culture, is crucial to understanding the worldview which underpins its language. If Chinese students are to have a successful experience of living and studying overseas, they need to appreciate the subtleties of their environment. For the same reason students at Daystar from a non-Chinese background are immersed in Chinese culture, which, as Hardage told me, is even reflected in the architecture of the school buildings.
There are around twenty nationalities represented among Daystar’s 500 students, and a variety of faiths, among them Christians, Muslims, Bahá’ís, and Buddhists. The religious requirements of students are respected, and based on what the families themselves tell the schools their children need.
“Nobody knows how important [a religious requirement]is to a person except the person themselves,” as Hardage put it.
Thomas too leads a diverse school, where the rhythms of the year can be different for different students.
“We know, for example, that during Ramadan there are students for whom it has its challenges, and the teachers are aware which kids are fasting. We don’t make special arrangements, but we honor the fact that’s going on,” Thomas explained.
And if a student needed time off for a religious festival, I asked him, would you permit it?
“It wouldn’t even get to my office. If a child needed time off, they’d get support from their teachers organizationally. The coordinator wouldn’t need to bring it to our attention as principals.”
I asked how, in a multi-cultural, multi-faith environment, you deal with conflict over the issues, or talk about the conflict that’s going on in the world.
“That’s where some of the Christian ethos would come through,” Thomas said. “If you look at what I see as the core of Christian faith, a belief in the fundamental worth of every single individual, in the dignity of human life, in forgiveness, if you see those as the core things then you are inevitably teaching tolerance. Where there is conflict your natural inclination is to try to teach understanding and respect. My Christian faith is driven by seeing Christ as the perfect example of those characteristics.
Hardage agrees that respect is central to this issue.
“What we say to the students is that you might believe something very deeply, but the person next to you might not. Just because you disagree with someone, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a mutually respectful and constructive relationship. And how you handle these questions is really important, because the outcome can either be enormously positive or enormously negative.”
Both schools see character education as crucial.
“We have a structured character education program running through the school,” Thomas told me. “In secondary it occurs with a specific teacher, in primary it deliberately permeates all classes. We have a character trait of the month: this month it’s respect. Respect’s probably a good example. You can respect other people’s religion, and the dignity of other human beings. You can tie it to both secular and religious concepts. There’s a belief system as well as a social system around respect.
“One of the mottos of YCIS is ‘We will align with love and charity’ – it’s one of the three tenets of the school. We have a charitable foundation which runs right across the Yew Chung Foundation, which is called Seeds of Hope. Students are actively engaged in fundraising, but not only for Seeds of Hope. Another area where you see love and charity in action is through the Community Activity and Service (CAS) program in the International Baccalaureate diploma. Many of our children meet their CAS requirements through charitable work; not just raising funds, but being directly engaged in helping others. For example, they might volunteer at an orphanage. If they’re actively involved that’s more powerful.”
Daystar students too are encouraged to put their values into action. For example, on December 10-11, Daystar Academy will host the “Be the Change Celebration,” where children from around the world are encouraged to showcase their involvement in making change happen.
“We also have the Family Lunch Program, where students from different grades will sit around a table as a ‘school family’ and share a meal. It’s one of the ways we bring the students together.”
I asked Hardage how much she sees this sort of education as the responsibility of schools, and how much it’s the role of parents and families.
“We as a family talk about our faith and our values, and I think it’s something every family should do. In the US this question will often guide parents’ choice of a school, because you want to know what the school is teaching your children. That’s certainly owed to parents, to know what their children are being taught about religion.”
“The answer is almost inevitably glib,” Thomas said when I put the same question to him. “It’s both, it’s a partnership, it can’t occur in one without the other.”
I asked him how he sees that partnership developing at YCIS.
“I’d like to explore this year being a little bit more overt about responding to the school’s Christian dimension, but it will never be the case that walking into YCIS will be like walking into, for example, a Christian Brothers school, where it’s evident that the Christian faith is constantly brought before children.”
Both educators were clear that what different faiths share is more important than what divides them. As Hardage put it, “I don’t know that there’s any religion which doesn’t want people to be kind, caring, and respectful.” And when you compare these principles to the core socialist values which the Chinese government aims to instill into children – civility, equality, friendship, integrity, and so on – it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that what we all want for our children is fundamentally the same, in the words of the Ivy Group’s mission statement, for them to be people “who will make our world a better place.”
This article originally appeared on pages 29-31 of the November/ December issue of beijingkids magazine. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTOS:COURTESY OF YCIS, DAYSTAR ACADEMY