The Future of RE in the UK 16 February 2015

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Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain considers the changes to Religious Education proposed by the government.

Epiphany Stained Glass in Tours CathedralSometimes molehills can grow into mountains, and we may be witnessing the start of this process with Religious Education.

On one level, the proposal of the Secretary of Sate for Education, Nicky Morgan that those taking GCSE Religious Education should have to study more than one faith is a molehill. It will have minimal impact on most school children as it will only affect those at secondary school, and only those who opt for that particular GCSE. Moreover, the suggestion that was trialed initially of a two-faith syllabus, implying equal time for both, has been watered down to a 75/25 ratio. It will therefore disappoint those who hoped we might be entering a brave new world where all children would learn about all faiths in Britain, and a new chapter in RE was about to begin.

Moreover, cynics might claim that her move had nothing to do with education and everything to do with politics. They perceive it as a kneejerk response to the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ affair in which certain schools in Birmingham were deemed to be limiting the horizons of children in their care and alienating them from the rest of society. ‘It’s a scandal – the government must do something about it!’ screamed the daily papers, and so the task fell to Nicky Morgan to instigate an instant reform that would answer the headline even if it did not address the much deeper problem.

Perhaps just as depressing was the reaction of some religious leaders – especially from the Jewish and Catholic communities – who spoke out against the dual faith idea and tried to have it withdrawn.

The official reason they gave was that there would not be enough time to do justice to two faiths, but it is hard not to suspect they are more concerned about preserving the state of religious mono-vision in which they seek to cocoon children at their schools.

But despite the minimalism of Nicky Morgan’s reform, on another level it is highly significant. It has made a breach in the ability of schools until now to teach only one faith, and of faith schools to teach only about the faith to which most of their pupils already belong.

It opens the RE syllabus to subsequent reforms, expanding both on the 25% time allocation and on the number of faiths covered. If this does indeed happen in future years, then the small changes instituted by Morgan will be looked back upon as a decisive moment in the process.

Many would argue that it is long overdue because of the crucial importance of RE as a subject, despite being frequently undervalued.

It is both a matter of general knowledge – RE as an academic subject in its own right – and a way of promoting social harmony, so that those living in neighbouring streets understand each other. One cannot comprehend world events – from Sunni/Shia tensions in Iraq to Catholic/Protestant problems in Northern Ireland to Muslim/Hindu rivalries in the Punjab – without a grasp of the religious history behind them.

Meanwhile, on an inter-personal level, children should know what Christians do at Lent, and why Muslims avoid pork, Sikhs wear a turban, Jews cover their head in prayer and humanists do none of them.

As every RE teacher knows, such knowledge not only shows the differences between the faith but also the points of connection, be they parallel rituals or corresponding beliefs. A good RE syllabus can lead to the social cohesion which governments so often talk of achieving.

This highlights a curious anomaly in the educational system. RE is a statuary subject (and so must be taught), but not on the National Curriculum (so can be taught in any way). Surely it is time to make it both, and insist that all schools adopt a broad inclusive syllabus. This will not infringe any religious rights, for it would focus on religious knowledge and not attempt to inculcate beliefs.

Far from being an impossible ideal, such a syllabus already exists thanks to the work of the Religious Education Council. Moreover, it has been agreed by many of the major faith groups and the British Humanist Association. At present it is voluntary and for guidance only; adopting it nationally should be an urgent priority.

Still, as some of the no-notice Ofsted inspections have demonstrated recently, it is not enough to propose a syllabus: the actual teaching has to be monitored. It has long been an extraordinary own-goal that Ofsted has outsourced inspection of RE to teams from within the same faith as the particular school they are visiting.

Some of those teams operate with the highest integrity, but others consider the purity of their faith as more important than wider social interests. As RE – much more than Maths or Geography – can be crucial in shaping the values and attitudes of children, it cannot be left to self-regulation, but should have the same independent assessment as do other subjects.

One does not have to be religious to appreciate the role of faith – or at least religious history and culture – as a force in the country today. The more children can appreciate how it affects society at large and individuals within it, the more rounded their education and the greater their ability to participate positively in the Britain that emerges.

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About Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain is minister of Maidenhead Synagogue and chair of the Accord Coalition for inclusive education.