Religious vs. Secular Schools

I’ve searched a couple of academic papers, who’ve searched a dozen more academic papers, and it seems there are no conclusions. A large amount of social experiments have been conducted. Kids have been put head to head, used as guinea pigs, in an endless debate of which is better: Religious or secular schools?

c78f01c1-7a4e-4408-8f88-6f9798b3d852.jpg image by Caroline Petersen


Studies in from the 1960s to the 1980s declared that children who attended Catholic schools had a higher moral reasoning ability compared to children who attended secular schools. Apparently the children who went to religious schools were better at making decisions as they were driven by “intention” and the impact and reception of it. Contrasting studies rather concluded that children going to religious-based schools were actually “lagging” in the production of moral reasoning skills. However, more recent studies in the 90s, conducted by E. L. Bruggeman and K. J. Hart, found that there is actually very little difference in students moral reasoning and moral behaviour.


I, however, was not satisfied with just reading some fancy-smancy, complicated academic journals on a screen. I decided to investigate, for myself, how religious and secular schools really differ in terms of environments, education, and activities.


Rob le Roux, headmaster at Westerford, a public, co-ed, secular high school in the Southern Suburbs, sat down with me to give me a background, not only into his school, but the history of public schools in South Africa. Westerford was founded in 1953, and at that point, South Africa was still in the firm grips of Apartheid. During the Apartheid era, every national state school was Christian. Le Roux states that since 1992, when ‘the beginning of the end’ was occurring in the country to dismantle the Apartheid system, state schools became secular.

The Westerford school gates, “WESTERFORD HIGH SCHOOL / 1953”

Image by Caroline Petersen


While chatting to a friend of mine, who is married, a teacher, and a Christian, mentioned her concerns about sending her future children to a Christian school. She believes there should be some level of separation between education and religion but believes it “would be quite sad and wrong, constitutionally, if [religious schools] were forced to shut down.” Issues of forcing religion upon young children and sheltering from the ‘real world’ came about, as many discussions surrounding religious education goes. She argues that to “go from a place where everyone is exactly like you, thinks like you, [and] agrees with you” to a tertiary education institution may be a huge culture shock and that “[students] will struggle a lot to go into a secular environment”.


Ian Smith, headmaster at The Vine School, a private, co-ed, Christian junior school in Cape Town, addressed many of these concerns that millennials are facing when thinking about where to send their children one day.

The Vine School’s playground

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Smith addressed some hot topics that I fired at him surrounding sheltering, educating children from a “biblical point of view”, the benefits of a religious education, discipline and exposure to other religions. Smith understands the appeal of Christian and other religious-based schools, saying “all religions have common values that are good: respecting other people, respecting yourself, working to the best of your ability, being generous, sharing with people, [and] caring for people.” He further states his belief that “the values that [Christian schools] impart on kids are good values which will contribute to them becoming people of character – good character – and will make a positive contribution to society as they interact with other people.”

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The Vine School is a primary school situated in Landsdowne, Cape Town

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Smith has a well grounded, interesting perspective on many people’s concern of religious school’s “sheltering” of kids. Smith says that his school “is not immune” from immoral acts and the troubles of the world. “We deal with what other schools typically deal with: bad language, fighting, issues.” They just deal with them in a different way. The Vine School stands apart from the rest and their form of disciple resonates Smith’s comment of how “[they] offer something different from mainstream education”. Being a Christian school, it is a “grace-based form of discipline”. So there is no ‘punishment’, but rather a relational and loving approach to discipline. Teachers or the principal will rather help “[replace] bad habits with good ones.” Instead of demerits or detention, this religious school offers a personal aid in finding specific strategies for each child as they aim to “walk the journey with [them] to help [children] grow in [their] weaknesses.”


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The Vine School prioritises “reading, listening, observing and responding” over homework.

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Both schools approach teaching religion in different ways. Secular schools, like Westerford, expose their students to all religions through subjects like Life Orientation. They support numerous religious societies, such as the Christian Union, the Muslim Association, the Hindu Association, and the Jewish Association. During assembly, Westerford hosts a “devotional slot” where any member from the school can sign up to present and express their religion, belief, culture, or do a motivational speech. On the other hand, the Vine School focuses on the the school’s particular belief by having Bible lessons at the beginning of each day and have chapel once a week, which Smith describes as, “like mini-church for kids, [where] a pastor, teacher or [himself] will share a Biblical message.” Smith teaches his students that “this is a Christian school, but that does not mean we disrespect the beliefs of other people. We understand that is what you believe and you have the right to believe that. But, at our school, this is what we learn and this is what we teach.”

Students playing on the Westerford grounds.

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Participation normally is attached to the word “forced” by some with a bitter taste in their mouths from years in a religious school. However, both schools bring the hammer down on this issue. Le Roux, from Westerford, explains that if students do not want to sing songs that they feel would be a morally conflicting to their personal religion, they do not have to participate, but, expresses sternly, “you stand there and respect people who do want to sing”. Because the school is non-religious, there is great diversity in beliefs and views within the school, so respect is a key factor in the creation of a harmonious environment. The Vine School rather views participation in religious activities, such as singing, as essential to develop a “community where we do things together”. Participation is incredibly important and expected of all the students. “We don’t bash them, but we want to develop in them the ability to peacefully be under authority” because “we believe that one can only be appropriately in authority if [one knows how to be] appropriately under authority.”


One thing is for sure, wherever you send your children, their “moral reasoning” and “moral behaviour” will be well developed and nurtured either way. If the school promotes respect, embracing one another, and appreciation within the school walls, anxieties can be calmed knowing your children are in safe hands.



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