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  • September 2018 : New recommendations for teaching Religious Education in British schools

The independent Commission on Religious Education in England and Wales has just published a new report about the role of Religious Education (RE) in Britain. In light of the declining religious affiliation in the country, the report makes a significant contribution to understanding the changing role of religion in British society and education.

Earlier this year, the former Labour education secretary Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead, a professor in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, produced a pamphlet outlining their vision for religion and belief in schools, in which they called for a series of changes in how RE is being taught. There has been a strong criticism of the Education Act 1944 which is increasingly seen as outdated and no longer relevant for the needs of contemporary society in which the Christian faith is not as important as it once was. In 2017, the British Social Attitudes Survey found that 52% of people had no religion compared to only 41% in 2002.

Based on the findings of a two-year study carried out by the Commission, the new report suggests that the syllabus should be updated to reflect the diversity of religious and non-religious perspectives. The core recommendation is a new National Entitlement for all pupils in all schools that specifies the ways in which the subject is to be taught to reflect the complexity, diversity and plurality of how ‘religion’ and ‘worldviews’ are being conceptualised and experienced in modern Britain.

The report does not claim that religion has completely lost its significance. However, it highlights the need to engage with a variety of religions and worldviews, including humanism, secularism, atheism and agnosticism. It also recommends that RE should be statutory for all publicly funded schools, and that teachers should receive better training for the discipline.

The Commission was in part motivated by the evidence that the quality of RE provision has been plummeting in recent years coupled with the decreased intake of the subject. There were also concerns expressed by some parents who were reluctant for their children to learn about Islam as part of the RE classes.

The report has received some mixed reactions. While the Church of England’s chief education officer has welcomed the recommendations, the most outspoken criticisms have come from representatives of schools with a religious character. For example, the Board of Deputies of British Jews criticised ‘the dilution of religious education through the inclusion of worldviews.’ The Catholic Education Service said ‘the quality of RE is not improved by teaching less religion’ (see The Conversation).

The debate on the changing nature of RE in schools continues to divide opinions. For some, it is an attempt to dilute the syllabus or even undermine some of the multicultural concessions secured by faith schools in their struggle to maintain their distinctive ethos. For others, a wider and a more inclusive scope of religious education is seen as a progressive measure designed to enhance the role of religion in the national curriculum.

Katya Braginskaia
  • 29 July 2008 : Sikh girl unlawfully excluded from school for wearing a bangle

The high court ruled that a Sikh girl was unlawfully excluded from school for wearing a bangle, in contravention of the school’s uniform policy. Mr Justice Silber declared that the school was guilty of indirect discrimination under race relations and equality laws. The girl had been supported in her case by Liberty, a human rights pressure group.

Siobhan McAndrew
  • 3 July 2008 : Jewish school allowed to rejected admission of a child on the grounds that his mother was not Jewish

It was ruled that a Jewish school did not discriminate against a boy when it rejected his admission on the grounds that his mother was not Jewish. Mr Justice Munby heard how the Jewish Free School in north London refused a place to the boy because its religious authority ruled that the boy’s mother had not converted to a branch of Judaism recognised by the Office of the Chief Rabbi (OCR). The boy’s father was considered Jewish but his mother, who converted to Judaism after his birth, was not. Mr Justice Munby said that the heavily over-subscribed school was not breaking race discrimination laws by giving preference to children born to Orthodox Jewish mothers, and that it was a religious rather than a racial issue.

Siobhan McAndrew
  • 24 March 2008 : broad base for religious instruction in state schools

The National Union of Teachers, Britain’s largest teaching union, presented proposals to offer a broad base of religious instruction in state schools, as an alternative to single-faith schools. The proposals involve :
 All schools becoming practising multi-faith institutions ;
 Faith schools being stripped of their powers to control their own admissions and select pupils according to their faith ;
 The daily act of ’mainly’ Christian worship to be liberalised to include any religion ;
 Schools to make ’reasonable accommodations’ of children’s faith, including providing private prayer space, recognising religious holidays and being flexible on school uniform, for instance by allowing children to wear religious jewellery or headscarves.
However, a spokesman for the Church of England responded that ’It is for religions to teach their faith to people ; it is for schools to teach about religion’. See ’Union calls for end to single-faith schools. NUT pleads for more religion in all institutions : Heads "should make space for private prayers".

See The Guardian (March 25, 2008), p. 4.

Siobhan McAndrew

D 9 octobre 2018    AKatya Braginskaia ASiobhan McAndrew

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