I was pleased to see the schools inspector Ofsted weighing in on religious education (RE) in schools. The report Making sense of religion: a report on religious education in schools and the impact of locally agreed syllabuses [release / report] is interesting – though stops short of a full broadside on the very idea of RE. Ofsted summarises:
The report argues that RE should not ignore controversy or the changes in the role and significance of religion in the modern world. Pupils should be taught that religion is complex, that its impact is ambiguous and should be given the opportunity to explore that ambiguity.
Amen to that!
RE is in the strange position of being mandated by law (Education Reform Act 1988) but also outside the National Curriculum. As a minimum it should come into the National Curriculum with solid guidance about what is to be taught and how – ie. only as a starting point for debate about values (‘learning from religion’) and as a factual account of what many people believe, however irrational and perplexing (‘learning about religion’). I don’t think there is justification for emphasising one religion over another, despite the legal requireemnt to favour Christianity and the dominance of Christianity in declared religion (see chart – source ONS )*. If people want to develop their own belief system, isn’t that what churches, Sunday schools, temples, mosques and madrassas are for?
History of ideas
I would get rid of RE completely. Much better would be to replace it with more neutral study of the ‘history of ideas’ – of which the major religions are a undoubtedly part. It would be great, for example, to see comparisons made between the majestic Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the feeble 10 commandments, with their four commandments devoted to demanding exclusivity and restraint of religious freedom, silly ideas for universal laws like not working on Sundays, unhelpful strictures about killing that give no clue to when it is alright or even essential, and a lot of stuff about not eyeing up your neighbour’s ox or male servant. It would be great to see huge ideas like evolution, democracy, human rights, globalisation, Marxism, capitalism etc. taught and discussed. Great debates are to be had about everything from euthanasia and abortion, justification of torture and the case for terrorism, the limits to free speech to the abolition of slavery, racism and positive action.
Schools have one main job to do, and that is to teach kids to think critically and for themselves – in the arena of big ideas there is no case for limiting that to the largely failed or wrong ideas of religion. RE represents a wasted opportunity to engage young people in the really big ideas in the real world.
* Much has been made of the 2001 census finding in the chart that about 72% of Brits say they are Christian – evidence that the church is alive and well? But what do people really mean when they say ‘Christian’ in response to this question? I think they are probably identifying themselves as part of an ethnic group rather than declaring a belief system. If the question was “what religion do you practice?”, I wonder what the answer would be? Also, for these numbers to be correct, parents must have filled in the form for their kids – but what does it mean when an intellectually defenceless 5-year old is classified as subscribing to a belief system like Christianity?