"You should know that I'm an atheist, but I'm broadly in favour of Chapel. If we didn't have Chapel we'd all have to sit through some ghastly citizenship address." I was encouraged by those words from a Classics master as a new Chaplain, and remain so as a Headmaster! One of the concerns some prospective parents have is that a strong religious ethos will inhibit free-thinking and robust debate. Actually, I think it's quite the opposite; at a time when adolescent boys and girls are pushing hard against boundaries and flexing their intellectual independence, there is no more congenial environment, in my experience.
A school that is confident in what it stands for, whilst at the same time welcoming of different views and pupils of all faiths and none, has a decided head start in encouraging boys and girls to consider questions of ultimate value and meaning. "Why are we here?"; "Is there such a thing as a real right and wrong?"; "Is there a point to your life beyond the passing on of blind DNA?". In decades of teaching, I have found that the teenage years are the most fertile ground for pupils to really ask and begin to answer these questions for themselves. That accords well with the insights of classical education, which saw that these years were naturally when a child began to develop in logical argument and discussion.
It's been well-said that the Germans have a word for everything; the Christian faith offers a Weltanshauung: a worldview, or way of making sense of reality. It is of course one of a number of worldviews that pupils will encounter as they navigate their way through an increasingly interconnected and global village. It is important to us that all pupils at KHS study the breadth of those traditions in their first three years with us, before they make up their minds about GCSE choices. In Theology classes they will study the Scriptures, doctrine and philosophy which undergird Christianity, alongside a wider understanding of the Western, Eastern and non-religious traditions. What encourages free-thinking debate is that they can't all be right! Instead of a fluffy mish-mash of ill-thought-out opinions, we want pupils to consider critically questions like: "What happens after death?" The Western Abrahamic faiths (including Judaism and Islam) see death as a prelude to another reality; the Eastern faiths (including Hinduism and Buddhism) see it as part of a cycle of reincarnation; the non-religious traditions would say (with Mr Keats of Dead Poets Society) that after death we are "food for worms". Theology is rightly called the Queen of the Sciences because there could hardly be more important questions than metaphysical ones; we want pupils to follow the argument wherever it leads, learn to understand how to evaluate evidence, and make up their own minds.
What is undeniable as a modern issue facing our children is a mental health crisis. So much of the research into why this is the case points the lack of a coherent worldview and an experience of real community: a sense of having no firm moorings in the world. At the most turbulent and insecure time of their lives, boys and girls are exhorted constantly to have high self-esteem and "pursue their dreams", all the while parading themselves for constant comparison in the goldfish bowl of social media. Little wonder, then, that rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm are at record levels. Here KHS unashamedly offers a living faith, and a community which lives it out. The focus for that is Chapel, and of course much of what we teach and encourage is hardly controversial, such as honesty, kindness and patience. In contrast to the more individualistic tenor of our own age, we also encourage humility: that we are guests of a larger reality. I would argue that this makes for better mental health, in whatever form it takes. We also encourage all pupils to feel that they belong, regardless of their convictions or lack of them, and Chapel is an important part of that. It should also be added that they will have a far better understanding of English literature and history, and British Values, alongside the glories of the musical traditions of this country, through encountering that living faith in action.
There will be, of course, Christian teaching that jars with the zeitgeist our pupils encounter online and elsewhere. For this reason we think it very important that there is a weekly forum called Right To Reply. Every Friday the Headmaster offers himself up to the lions' den of pupil Q&A on aspects of the daily assemblies they wish to interrogate and question! It is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, and I love the free interplay of ideas that results. The current President of our Octagon Society has been a regular attendee for a long time; he has just won a place at Oxford, and disagrees almost entirely with practically everything I think! In an age where it has become sadly necessary for government to intervene to protect free speech at universities, I think that is a healthy sign of our own vitality as an academic community.
The Founder of the School wanted all pupils who came to KHS to evaluate the claims of Jesus Christ for themselves, and make up their own minds. There could hardly have been a more important historical figure, in terms of influence, and so any education would be impoverished without that consideration. One of those claims was the inspiration of the Hebrew scriptures, which teach that every human being is made in the divine image, and thus of worth and meaning. At KHS, we think there could not be a better basis for the idea that human beings have rights, that their thoughts have real meaning, and that we were made for relationships that reflect that. A fertile ground for free-thinking indeed!