Free the spirit

As pressure increases on young people to achieve better exam
results and improve their “life chances”, developing their
spirituality is unlikely to be a high priority for professionals
who work with them. But the development of a child’s spiritual side
should not be an optional extra for professionals from all sectors
who are involved with them.

Children’s right to spiritual and religious development is not only
enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the
Child under article 27, but also in UK legislation and government

  • The Education Reform Act 1988 says that the “spiritual, moral,
    cultural, mental and physical development” of children must be
    built into a school’s curriculum.
  • Standard seven of the national minimum standards for care homes
    says services should help “children develop an individual identity
    in relation to their gender, disability, religion, racial, cultural
    or linguistic background or sexual orientation”.
  • The Children Act 1989 stipulates that, under a care order, a
    child must be brought up under the religious persuasion he or she
    already has.

Under these laws and regulations children from a religious
family must not only be allowed to worship when they wish, but also
be encouraged to do so. The same principle applies to children from
a secular background who express a desire to explore their
non-religious spirituality. This might be from a starting point
such as wondering what happens to their grandparents when they die
or how the world was made.

There has been little research on whether agencies are delivering
effectively on these aims. But the Children’s Rights Alliance for
England found in its report on implementation of the UN
Convention1 last year that a government inspection of
services for looked-after children from ethnic minorities “reported
concerns about how children’s religious needs were being

Jane Erricker, a researcher on children’s spirituality, says
teachers are pre-occupied with academic targets, and parents have
to be committed to their jobs, with the result that not enough time
is spent listening to children.

“The impression from the children that I have spoken to is that
neither in the school nor in the home is time given to spiritual
nurturing that is so important,” she says.

Foster parents are also under pressure. They should ensure the
children they care for can maintain their culture and religion if
appropriate. Department of Health guidelines say that a child in a
foster home should be allowed the privacy to pray or build a shrine
if they choose.

Fostering Network spokesperson Jackie Sanders explains how foster
carers must be role models for the children placed with them, but
not to the point where they change the child’s outlook on life. “It
takes hard work and imagination and foster carers should receive
training and support from social services,” she says.

When children are placed in a care home it is part of the admission
process that their religious needs are assessed. Charles Sharpe, a
residential child care consultant, says one of the problems
encountered by care home staff is the tendency for children to move
away from their religion and follow the peer group. But there are
other difficulties to overcome if spirituality is not to be
neglected. If staff are dealing with emotional problems of young
people and managing challenging behaviours, it is easy for them to
stop focusing on the wider picture of children’s development,
Sharpe says.

In the voluntary sector a different approach to spirituality is
sometimes taken. Bob Holman, a volunteer with the Easterhouse
community project, Glasgow, says the constitution of the charity
forbids overt interaction with children on religious matters.
Holman, who is a Christian, says: “You have a responsibility to
give children a sense of something beyond themselves, and of their
relationship with the environment. Sometimes families talk to me
about religion, but I wouldn’t want to use our community work as a
vehicle for it.”

This more relaxed attitude clashes with the standpoint of Christian
charity Care. Its Scottish education officer, Alastair Noble,
believes that the UK’s Christian heritage must be reflected in the
way children are taught. He has opposed talk by some Scottish
ministers of a move away from religious observance in schools to a
more secular approach, with any religious content based on
multi-faith principles.

He says the last census showed that about 70 per cent of British
households consider themselves to be from a Christian background,
and that schools should reflect this as well as Scotland’s history
and culture by not trying to be homogeneous.

He says in school assemblies “religious observance gives children a
chance to observe and then take part if they want to”. He
emphasises, though, that religious education should involve all

In the palliative care setting spirituality is particularly
poignant, and service delivery has to be sensitive to this. Susan
George, services director with the childhood cancer and leukaemia
charity Clic, says adolescents in particular ask for support in
exploring their spirituality.

The charity funds many nurses and doctors posts in bereavement and
palliative care settings of the NHS. The professionals are given
guidance on how to help families with spiritual needs. Clic also
runs homes for children, where families can observe any cultural or
spiritual belief they have.

The emphasis is slightly different at the three hospices run by
East Anglian Children’s Hospices. Pam Thorn, community team leader
managing psycho-social support, says staff are encouraged to be
proactive and gain a full understanding of families’ spiritual
needs. The starting point is that everyone has some spirituality
that gives their life meaning. “We are often working closely with a
family at the time of the death of their child. Whether they have a
religion or not it is a deeply spiritual time in their lives,” she
says. Families are helped to produce scrapbooks, “memory boxes”
with mementoes for siblings, and hand and footprints. “These are
all quite spiritual activities,” she says.

Every effort is made to ensure the funeral is what the family want.
Both Buddhist and humanist funerals have been arranged. The
chaplaincy service can respond to the needs of any faith, even
though the chaplain in each hospice is a Christian. A remembrance
service is held each year in a church, but is not religious
otherwise. “Spirituality is an extremely sensitive area, and we
work hard to give families what they need,” she says.

What about social workers? Can they be expected, with their
workloads, to even consider a child’s spiritual side? Margaret
Crompton, a freelance lecturer on children’s issues who has written
a guide for practitioners,2 believes it does not have to
involve extra work for practitioners. “It shouldn’t take more time
because it should be integral to the whole thing. You wouldn’t
suddenly do a bit about spiritual well-being,” she says. But she
warned that if they are not trained properly, practitioners will
not help children develop.

Legislators have not forgotten the spiritual development of
children, even if there are now other priorities. But services need
to consider whether they are delivering in this important area of
children’s development.

State of Children’s
Rights in England
, Children’s Rights Alliance for England,

Who Am I? Promoting Children’s Spiritual
Well-being in Everyday Life
, Barnardo’s, 2001

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