A report released a couple of days ago has decried the absence of a robust RE programme in over a quarter of England’s secondary schools. Apparently they are simply not teaching it despite the law stating that they must. The National Association for RE claim that it leaves students unprepared for modern life. Modern Life. I could end it there, but that would look a little snide…
Quite why this antiquated hangover of a bygone era remains a law at all is similar to the issue of Sunday trading laws, religion impinging on policy and to a small degree civil liberties. If I want to buy Ben & Jerry’s at 4.30 on a Sunday afternoon I don’t feel the Church are in a position to deny me that opportunity. Yes, it’s true that they are no longer directly responsible but the policy is one born of an historical hang up about the Sabbath.
One of the main unions for heads in secondary schools countered NATRE’s concerns by explaining that many issues covered in RE had been rolled into other lessons, through historical context and citizenship lessons etc. Given our movement towards being a more secular culture, with 53% of people identifying as being of no religion that would seem to be in step with the current cultural mores, in the same way that 200 years ago teaching RE, or Scripture (as it was in my day) would have been in step with their values. However these antiquated laws have been upheld after pressure from religious lobbyists and all state funded schools must teach RE ‘properly’ with detailed syllabuses.
Too often in schools RE is conflated with Philosophy, the discussion of the meaning of life, what happens after death, good and evil and so on. But these are arguments and discussions that exist perfectly well without a religious context. Or at least without the need for a religious context beyond an historical understanding. These are questions of science, ethics and morality, and when it comes to morality, despite what the Church believes it does not have the monopoly. Quite the opposite in my opinion, doing the right thing out of a fear of retribution or punishment isn’t inherently good but rather an act of submission fueled by fear, I may be a shit but as an atheist if I do the right thing it is out of a sincere belief that it is the right thing.
An understanding of other faiths and cultures can be as easily covered within a well thought through curriculum, Literature, History, Geography, PHSE, Citizenship, Philosophy all have something to say on the subject without the proselytizing of RE. Some schools of thought suggest that RE creates a better understanding and by extension, a greater acceptance of other faiths which would encourage tolerance and harmony but many schools will begin from a position of having a bias towards a particular religion, informed by their cohort, their governing body, their SLT. At my school it was certainly the case that the Church of England was the ‘right’ religion but look at these silly buggers in China or India etc and what they believe. The teaching will be inevitably polarising in many cases and the opposite of harmony may be achieved. One only has to look at the fomentation of quasi radicalisation that emerges from schools with a specific agenda – the notion that Tony Blair allowed to develop, that Creationism should be given a platform is in itself utterly backward.
By hiding behind the law NATRE have rather tipped their hand, they claim it is important to be religiously literate to understand what and why people believe what they believe but is it unreasonable to think that this is something that can be dealt with equally well as part of the wider curriculum? This is about protecting something that demonstrably a fewer number of people care about nowadays than have done historically. It’s the same reason that we no longer offer blood sacrifices to Zeus or talk in hushed tones about Thoth and Thor in schools. That would be laughable. But we learn it as part of classics or history. So why do the major religions of today believe they are exempt from the increasing disinterest of the younger generation and that by strong-arming them into learning this stuff they can cling to relevance for a few more years?