How church schools brainwash children

A candle is lit, the curtains closed and the five-year-olds begin a session of "prayer meditation".

Of all the religious slogans that pushed European liberals into anti-clericalism, the Jesuit boast "Give me the child until the age of seven and I will give you the man" was the most provocative. The impressionable young were to be brain-washed. Superstitions were to be buried so deeply in their minds that they would be beyond the reach of reason when they grew up. What could be sicker than this declaration of intent to engage in intellectual child abuse?

It feels like dragging up ancient history to speak of the Jesuits today. The world of militant Christianity and militant atheism died in the early 20th century. Their conflicts were fought in France and other strange countries, not dear old Blighty with its traditions of tolerance and getting along. They had ideological wars; we had the Church of England, whose delightfully muddled moderation offended none but the likes of Richard Dawkins.

Secular middle-class parents go to extraordinary lengths to get their children into C of E schools, and do not for a moment think that they will come out as burning-eyed zealots. Parents are just trying to get the best education available. Everyone has known for years that, to parents who can't afford private fees, church schools offer the next best thing (because, in reality, such schools often boost their impressive-looking results through covert selection).

Yet the past may no longer be a reliable guide, in an age when fundamentalism is sweeping the world's religions. The very reason why a majority of the British reject established beliefs - that the Bible, or the Koran, or whatever, can no longer seriously claim to be a source of authority - is turning faith into the fanaticism of the defeated. Like nations, religions are at their most dangerous when they feel their power slipping away. The need for evangelical piety is all the greater. In its own small way, the Church of England is no exception to the global rule.

According to documents sent to the National Secular Society, if you send your five-year-old children to C of E schools in the diocese of Canterbury, they will be subjected to what sounds very like hypnosis as their teachers attempt to manipulate them. Instructions to heads from the Canterbury Diocesan Board of Education are headlined "Doing prayer meditation and imagery". Pupils must "engage their minds in prayer rather than simply see or say or hear", the diocese says.

The engagement is a formidable process. First, teachers are told how to arrange their charges. "The legs are uncrossed. Feet are flat on the floor. Hands are resting on the lap and, most importantly, the back is straight." The technique the teachers are following is described as "evoking and seeing pictures in the mind". It "provides the chance to control that ability to imagine and to use the imagination to some purpose". As we shall see, the control of the imagination is all-important.

A candle may be lit and the curtains closed. The children are told to shut their eyes. "Some infant children find it frightening to close their eyes." They must be reassured that all is well. The teacher should then use a "calm soothing voice" and begin the "unhurried narration or questioning".

Anyone who has tried hypnotherapy to give up smoking will be familiar with this scenario. You are relaxed into a suggestible, dreamlike state. The board doesn't call it hypnosis, but "guided meditations". It accepts these can "produce deep emotions", and Virginia Corbyn, the diocesan schools adviser, says it is important to make the exercise voluntary. Corbyn does not say whether a five-year-old at a C of E primary school is any more capable of voluntarily understanding the risks of "deep emotions" than a seven-year-old at a Jesuit college.

She goes on to list all kinds of thoughts which may be implanted. Snippets from her guidance do not convey their hypnotic force, so it's best to go through one in full.

You are an infant again. You are sitting, eyes closed, back straight, hands in your lap, in a darkened room. A calm, soothing voice begins:

"Imagine you find yourself in a kitchen, a very old-fashioned kitchen, no modern cookers or refrigerators. Food is hanging in sacks from the ceiling . . . There is a fire burning . . . There is a large table in the middle . . . and an open fire on which are cooking pots . . . You gaze around. What

sort of kitchen is it? Is it small or large? Can you smell all the food? As you are looking around, there is a tap on your shoulder. 'Come on, stop daydreaming, take the food in. The Master will be here soon.'

"You pick up a big bowl from in front of you full of delicious-smelling stew . . . You carry it through the door and into the next room where people are gathering . . . They're all dressed in long robes, men and women . . . All standing around talking . . . Peter, one of the disciples, comes across . . . What does he look like? . . . 'Here, I'll take that,' he says. You pick up some bread from the side table and put it on the main table . . . You feel very shy in the room full of adults . . . but everyone is very friendly . . . You stand and look around the room. What is it like? . . . walls . . . ceiling . . . floor . . . Can you see anything out of the windows?

"Then the cook comes and speaks to you: 'Come and sit down with me. The Master will be here any minute.' You go and take your place at the end of the table with the cook . . . Everybody else begins to sit down. The door opens and in comes Jesus. Can you see him? . . . What does he look like? . . . Is he clean-shaven or bearded? . . . Young or old? . . . Happy or sad? . . . Everybody greets him, including you . . . He goes and takes his place in the middle . . . Jesus takes the bread that you set out and breaks it in half and says: 'Take this and eat, because this is my body,' and he passes the bread along . . . How does he look? . . . The bread comes along and everybody breaks off a piece and eats it . . . What does it taste like? . . .

"Now nobody is talking and everyone looks very serious . . . Then you see Jesus take the jug of wine and pour into two goblets. He lifts them up and says: 'This is my blood which will be poured out for many.' And he passes the cups along and everybody in turn takes a drink . . . You turn and whisper to the cook: 'What does it mean?' Watch the scene in your mind. Does the cook explain? . . . What is he saying? . . . What happens next?"

Like any good hypnotist, the Diocesan Board of Education recognises that the moment of coming out of trance needs to be managed carefully. When the calm voice has finished its gentle pleading, the board advises: "It is probably wise after guided meditations and guided imagery to bring children back to reality, eg, get them to say their names. Always disengage from meditations or guided visualisations slowly and peacefully so as not to break the mood."

Follow-up questions to the children reinforce the message once the spell is broken. As I'm sure you have realised, any five-year-old going through the above evocation of the Last Supper is scarcely likely to have had scepticism banged into his or her mind. But just to make sure that the lesson has gone home, the teacher is instructed to ask: "What were your thoughts and feelings as you watched the disciples and Jesus? How did you feel about Jesus?" The correct answers to these questions are not "Isn't this gross?" and "Bad", and only a child with exceptional spirit would think or say so.

Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society says the Church is engaged in brainwashing, and the determination to indoctrinate is part of a pattern. Most attention on Christian fundamentalism in British schools has been directed at the teaching of creationism in the handful of city academies run by Sir Peter Vardy, the God-bothering second-hand-car dealer new Labour has allowed to buy his way into the education system.

It's a disgrace, to be sure, but concentrating on the sheer weirdness of Vardy misses the wider point that the C of E isn't quite the quasi-agnostic institution it once was. As pews empty, controlling children's education is the Church's last best hope. In its 2001 report The Way Ahead: Church of England schools in the new millennium, the Church criticised schools that were indistinguishable from ordinary state schools. Their heads must stop offering a good education with a bit of God thrown in and "demonstrate that educational 'effectiveness' is concerned with the development of the whole person as a child of God".

The Church was going to be saved by hitting the young early and hard. "Our work over the past 18 months has confirmed the crucial importance of the Church schools to the whole mission of the Church to children and young people, and indeed to the long-term well-being of the Church of England."

In other words, the hypnotic classes in Canterbury aren't a one-off. One might object that children are subject to all kinds of brainwashing, delivered by everyone from advertisers to PlayStation manufacturers, and that most manage to survive. But advertising and PlayStations aren't funded by the taxpayer, and parents can control what their children watch. They can't control what happens in church schools, yet they are expected to fund them through their taxes. If desperate priests feel the need to start playing mind games with children, shouldn't they do so with parental consent and in their own time and at their own expense?