By Vexen Crabtree 2016
Religious education (RE) is a statutory subject that all schools must teach in the UK1. Half of it requires studies of two faiths from Buddhism, Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism while the other half looks at philosophy and ethics, including Humanism and non-religious viewpoints2. In England it is a legal requirement that schools provide Religious Education, but, it is not a compulsory subject and children can be opted out3. It has problems and is considered a very low-worth GCSE4 often taken simply because it is easy1,4,5. It has been criticized for abandoning the critical and investigative approach taken by history and other humanities and instead presenting all religions' stories simply as true "and of denying pupils the opportunity to recognize and evaluate competing truth claims"6. It is also ineffective as the UK population remains ignorant of the basics facts of any religions7. RE is considered boring and irrelevant by students8 and much of the time classes are used instead to discuss current events1,4. Despite this, there are benefits to learning about other's beliefs, especially in a world where some children are brought up by prejudiced parents who attempt to deny any free choice of religion. RE should be improved upon, rather than scrapped.
Religious education is a statutory subject that all schools must teach, in the UK. "The legal requirements governing religious education (RE) were set out in the Education Reform Act of 1988 and confirmed by the Education Acts of 1996 and 1998"1. In its current form (2016) it "requires in-depth study of two faiths - choosing from Buddhism, Christianity, Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism - which makes up half of the new GCSE. The rest of the course is based on the study of philosophy and ethics, which the government says can include humanism and other non-religious viewpoints"2.
It is an unpopular subject that has multiple problems. The sociologist Bryan Wilson reports that since the enlightenment and secularisation of Western education:
“Not only did secular schools replace Church schools, but within the secular schools, the significance of religious education diminished. [...] It has low status as a subject, and is often regarded as make-weight to complete formally the demand for examination passes in a certain number of subjects. [...] Finally, it is an open secret that in many schools the period allotted to religious instruction is often used for talks on current affairs.”
Whatever is being taught about religion in schools isn't having much effect on pupils. Research shows that the vast majority of British children as well as British adults are uneducated about even the basics of Christianity (let alone other faiths). Most cannot name the four gospels, etc9. See: Religion in the United Kingdom: Diversity, Trends and Decline: 4. Ignorance of Religion.
Ofsted is the UK government's Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills, who monitor the teaching of school subjects, including RE. Their 2007 report states that despite improvements "standards overall are not high enough and there are wide variations in the quality of provision. Achievement by pupils in RE has improved over the past five years but remains very inconsistent"1. The report continues to reiterate, almost point-by-point, what Bryan Wilson said in his criticisms of RE, but places each element in a positive light:
“At its best, RE equips pupils very well to consider issues of community cohesion, diversity and religious understanding. It contributes significantly to pupils´ academic progress and their personal development. This is one reason why pupils´ attitudes towards the subject have improved. Older pupils, in particular, believe that RE provides opportunities to discuss issues which matter to them and encourages them to respect differences of opinion and belief.”
The point on 'community cohesion' is important: familiarisation with religions different to peoples' own tends to reduce violence between adherents.
Where Ofsted state above that RE contributes to 'academic progress' I am sure that they mean it is a relatively easy pass. Point 33 of their 2007 report states that most of the pupils themselves think RE is easy. The last sentence of the quote above is surely a recognition of the fact that current affairs (not religious studies) is one of the most interesting things discussed in RE classes.
“But is [the quantity of those taking RE] really because young people are fascinated by religion, or could it be anything to do with the course being ridiculously easy, and the "short course" option taking only half the time of a regular GCSE and involving no homework? Well, certainly the exams watchdog Ofqual thinks so. They are about to review GCSEs in English, geography, religious education and history - amid concerns that the subjects have become too easy.”
“A large-scale survey of school children in Cornwall has shown that the vast majority of them find Religious Education lessons boring, irrelevant and of no value to them in forming their attitudes to life. The majority of them do not consider themselves to have a religion. [...] To the statement "R.E. is boring", 53% answered yes, with only 29 per cent saying no.”
|RE is boring||53%||29%|
|RE helps me find the rules to live by||14%||60%|
|RE helps me lead a better life||9%||68%|
|Studying the Bible is boring||63%||16%|
|RE helps me believe in God||11%||68%|
|I like to learn about God very much||10%||67%|
The UK is mostly non-religious. Professional research in 2006 by Tearfund found that two thirds (66% - 32.2 million people) in the UK have no connection with any religion or church11. And in UK law, non-religious folk are given the same rights against discrimination as a religious groupings. Therefore there have been many calls to include the study of secular communities in RE classes:
“In 2004, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority that regulates curriculum content in English schools announced a plan to include humanism, agnosticism and atheism among the belief systems taught in the nation's religious-education classes. A spokesman for the authority explained, 'It is very much the intention that young people in the context of religious education should be studying nonreligious beliefs. There are many children in England who have no religious affiliation and their beliefs and ideas, whatever they are, should be taken very seriously.”
"Religion in schools: controversies around the world" by R. Murray Thomas (2006)12
Unexpectedly support for this change is also being given by the UK's religious establishment - "28 religious leaders, including the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, wrote to the DfE urging the government to ... include the study of humanism". In a victory for the British Humanist Association in 2015, a judge overruled the education secretary Nicky Morgan, making it a requirement that schools do teach students about non-religious viewpoints because the government has a duty to ensure that knowledge is conveyed "in a pluralistic manner" - although the GCSE won't be changed immediately, schools cannot simply limit themselves strictly to the content of the curriculum.2
Some parents remove their children from religious education lessons. Secularists and non-religious parents might do this because they do not want their children being 'brainwashed' by religion. Most RE teachers in the West are explicitly Christian, and religion is discussed almost devoid of criticism, with focus on festivals, calendar dates and with all founding myths discussed as fact. Adherents of religions also remove their children from RE classes because they do not want their children being "corrupted" by the teachings of other competing religions. In short, both groups of people fear that merely by learning about religions, their children are at risk. That last group are bigots, and the only solution is to ensure that their children do attend RE classes in order to have a chance to learn about other people's faiths across the world.
Problems arise when religious education focuses only on one religion, or is given by an overly religious teacher who cannot teach impartially. Ideally, religious teachers should be liberals or secularists who are not concerned about any particular set of beliefs, and who is capable of being critical of all of them. No teacher of history, humanities or science could get by by providing a purely positive view of world events or theory. Critical thinking is a necessity. This should go for religious education too.
“Nearly all topics at school are taught in a context of a contest of ideas: history, science and drama all present the dynamism that results from conflicting opinions and ideas. Schools aim to teach children to discern how to debate ideas, how to weigh evidence and how to balance concepts. But, the scholar Andrew Wright (1993) finds that this does not happen in religious studies. He says that the promotion of religious studies has led to 'misrepresenting religions - as equally agreeable, valid, and socially functional - and of denying pupils the opportunity to recognize and evaluate competing truth claims'.”
"The Teacher of Religion as Ethnographer" by Eleanor Nesbitt (2011)6
I think that religious education should be treated like any other subject; if it is a subject that is on the school timetable, then all children should attend with no exemptions. If RE can be taught impartially, then, there should be no parent exemption. It does not harm children to teach them about the secular horrors of war, nor does it harm children to teach them about the religious horrors of the dark ages or of fundamentalism. This gives the children of religious parents a chance to debate the ideas of their own religion and to see how other religions work from an impartial point of view, thus negating any bias in their own upbringing. It doesn't harm anyone to learn about what other religions are about, in fact, sociologists have found that familiarisation reduces conflict.
“In 2001 there were 7000 state faith schools in England (of 25000). The worst teach creationism/intelligent design and some, although they excel at religious education and Koranic studies, fail on everything else from science to fitness. Faith schools on the whole take in far fewer poor pupils and fewer of those with special education needs than do non-religious all-inclusive schools. Conversely, faith schools tend to select better-educated and more well-off pupils. Reports on the race riots of 2001 criticized faith schools for creating the segregation that increases racial and religious sectarian tensions. Over 800 studies by social psychologists have found that cooperating and extended contact between racial groups is a very good way of producing positive race relations. Faith schools sometimes produce better-than-average results, but they also select students based on ability (despite attempts to stop that), whereas state schools accept poorer students in the first place. The Home Office, National Union of Teachers, Chief Schools Inspector, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers have all spoken out against faith schools. The United Nations Human Rights Commission and the European Union's Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia both recommend non-sectarian education, especially of children, as a means to reduce intolerance. The National Secular Society has long campaigned for the government to reverse the creation of faith schools (100 new ones since 1997), and instead convert faith schools back into all-inclusive secular schools where religion and race do not define the children. Abolishing faith schools will decrease social tension between ethnic and religious groups, increase the fairness of the schools system (as religious schools accept fewer poor and disadvantaged students), and reduce the scope for religious extremism and indoctrination.”
The Education Act of 1944 in the UK made it compulsory that every state school began the day with an assembly that involved some form of collective worship14 that is 'broadly Christian in nature'. Children can be opted out on the behest of parents, but this tends to be done by those with stricter beliefs, than by those who prefer to avoid collective worship at all, simply because while the majority don't care about religion, a minority care far too much. The state shouldn't be towing any particular line however, so, any ideas of collective worship shouldn't form part of the State's repertoire in a modern democratic country where religion is a private affair, not to be fostered on to those who'd rather avoid it. In modern secular countries there is often widespread disagreement and avoidance of such legal requirements.
In the UK in 2011, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) "have signed an open letter to education secretary Michael Gove urging him to abolish the requirement" for collective worship of a broadly Christian nature"15, and in previous years Wales (as a whole) has been newsworthy for its dismissal of collective worship:
“Schools in Wales can't be bothered with "collective worship"
School inspectors in Wales are reported to be using a stopwatch to time how long pupils spend on "personal reflection" to ensure schools meet the law on acts of worship. Anything less than 20 seconds reflection and the school can fail, according to the Association of School and College Leaders.
Gareth Jones, secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said spiritual and moral education was important but the legislation surrounding it too stringent. Believing the Welsh Assembly should use its new lawmaking powers to relax rules, he wants secondary schools to provide regular rather than daily acts of collective worship.
The Church in Wales' education officer the Rev Edwin Counsell said 20 seconds was "a cop-out" and not long enough to be meaningful. Under the Education Act secondary schools are required to hold daily acts of worship but many do not. Estyn's most recent annual report shows one in six schools broke that law in 2005-06.”
Current edition: 2016 Sep 17
Originally published 2007 Jun 24
Parent page: United Kingdom: National Successes and Social Failures
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The Guardian. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper..
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Paperback book. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
Nesbitt, Eleanor. Professor of Religions and Education at the University of Warwick, UK.
(2011) The Teacher of Religion as Ethnographer. This essay is chapter 53 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages 965-985).
(UK government 's Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) "Making sense of religion" (2007 Jun). Published by Ofsted, London, UK. www.ofsted.gov.uk. Accessed 2007 Jul 02.
Thomas, R. Murray
(2006) Religion in schools: controversies around the world. Paperback book. Published by Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, USA.
(1966) Religion in Secular Society. Paperback book. 1st edition. Published by Penguin Books.
(1993) Religious Education in the Secondary School: Prospects for Religious Literacy. Published by David Fulton, London, UK. In Nesbitt (2011) p974.