Should schools teach children about death?
Proposals for educational reform are often controversial, but a suggestion by the Australian Medical Association in Queensland that death should be incorporated into the school curriculum has made international headlines. There has long been a growing awareness that death is a taboo subject for many people living in the West, and that the closing stages of life now frequently take place hidden from view, in hospitals and hospices. As a result, many citizens find themselves ill prepared when suddenly plunged into a situation where confronting the reality of it is unavoidable, for example, when a relative receives a terminal diagnosis, or a colleague suffers a bereavement. Inevitably, this makes a difficult situation even harder to deal with, and the doctors behind this proposal argue that in making conversations around death a normal part of lessons in biology, law, and ethics, we could break down some of the mystery and fear.
It is very difficult to argue with the logic behind any of their underlying reasoning. However, it is also fair to acknowledge that putting a policy like this into practice would be challenging, and likely to flounder if not well thought out and debated in advance. Talking to children about death in a way which is genuinely religiously neutral is simply not possible. In a UK context, parents have a statutory right to withdraw children from religious and sex education, but not other lessons, and it is uncertain how parents would respond to introducing commentary on the subject of death in other classes.
Even guidance aimed at steering an objective course has the potential to cause concern for some families, and young children growing up in households with a strongly religious, or equally a strongly atheist worldview, may struggle with a different narrative between school and home. If a child has been told clearly that an adored pet is now in heaven, it is hard to hear that some people believe death to be the end of existence. Equally, if a child has been given the unequivocal message that grandma’s body stopped working so grandma’s life ended, and she only lives on in our memories, genetics and through the good things she left behind, it is potentially confusing to learn that some people believe that actually there is a life after death.
Of course, we are not denying that discovering that the beliefs and ideas held by our immediate families are not universally shared is part and parcel of growing up, developing our own thoughts and personalities. Nevertheless, the legal framework at present recognises that some matters are so sensitive that parents should have the option of rejecting state provision, and taking exclusive responsibility for teaching about them, whilst still accessing all other aspects of publically funded education. Having made those concessions about faith and sexuality, it is difficult to see how they could be coherently denied in relation to death. Indeed, some people might even go as far as to argue that teaching about death in anything beyond the purely biological sense, is inevitably straying into religious education, whether or not you label it as such.
Having said which, there are many other aspects of the current school curriculum which inevitably involve considering questions about faith, and indeed sex and relationships. It is indeed very difficult to imagine how students could study history or English literature without engaging with these themes, and whilst some parents may protest about the inclusion of some books within these lessons, they have no statutory right to withdraw their children from such classes. It is easy to see why in pragmatic terms, this has to be this way, as state schools simply could not cater for the logistical challenges presented by every family selecting their child’s educational timetable in an a la carte fashion. Therefore, parents may not like, but must tolerate, their children being potentially exposed to Harry Potter, Mildred Hubble, Gandalf and Merlin, and in many respects, the inclusion of teaching on death would be no different.
Ultimately, it is a political decision as to where the line is drawn between the collective interests in preparing future members of society for life as adult citizens, and it is undeniable that our societal responsibility towards individual children and their educational needs can potentially conflict with the desire of some parents to have control over the messages which their children receive about death, religion and the afterlife. It remains to be seen whether the proposal to include teaching about death with lessons will gain any ground in Australia, let alone be taken up in the United Kingdom. However, opening up debate on the subject must, in and of itself, be a positive step.
Putting death on the school timetable (BBC News 4/7/18)
Religious parents want Harry Potter banned from the classroom because it ‘glorifies witchcraft’ (The Telegraph 16/12/15)