What’s the purpose of Religious Education (RE) in a country where a majority of people have “no religion”?
The new report of the independent Commission on Religious Education in England and Wales provides a clear answer: the rise of “no religion” doesn’t mean that religion isn’t important. Rather, the report makes a strong case that it is more important than ever that young people in Britain understand and engage effectively with diverse religions and worldviews.
The report proposes a radical overhaul of RE. This is most obvious in the new name it recommends for the subject: “Religion and Worldviews”. Non-religious worldviews like humanism, secularism, atheism and agnosticism would be studied alongside different traditions within Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.
The authors of the report – Religion and Worldviews: A National Plan for RE – are explicit about their reasoning for the name change: it “removes the ambiguity in the phrase ‘Religious Education’, which is often wrongly assumed to be about making people more religious”. The roots of the subject, in the Christian Religious Instruction of the 1944 Education Act, are being thoroughly overturned.
It also asks for a review of the right of parents to withdraw their children from RE, which seems motivated by concerns that some parents are removing their children from classes in order to prevent them from learning about Islam. Further, the report recommends a new statutory “national entitlement” for all pupils in all publicly-funded schools. This is intended to secure and enhance the position of RE across the country. The commission was in part motivated by evidence that the quality of RE provision has been plummeting in recent years, with some schools dropping it altogether.
The national entitlement identifies nine requirements that pupils “must be taught”, including how religions and worldviews “are interpreted in different times, cultures and places”; key concepts such as “religion”, “secularity”, “spirituality” and “worldview”; and the idea “that worldviews are complex, diverse and plural”.
These requirements are very broad and therefore potentially open to misunderstanding. But they are generally in line with the way that religions and worldviews are conceptualised and taught in anthropology, sociology, religious studies and other disciplines in higher education institutions.
Taken together, these changes could result in a significant advance for RE, securing its future as a rigorous academic subject.
The explicit broadening to include worldviews appears to accommodate the rise of people of no religion in Britain, ensuring that their perspectives are represented in the classroom. British Social Attitudes surveys have found that around 50% of the population has identified as having no religion since 2009. Young people are most likely to choose this category. In 2017, 70% of people aged 18-24 said they had no religion, an increase from 56% in 2002.
Only a minority of people of no religion are atheists; most believe in some sort of god or higher power and engage in a range of practices that could be described as religious. So pupils would be invited to explore the complex worldviews and practices of people who do not identify with a religion – including, it seems, most of their peers.
On the other hand, the prioritising of religion as a subject in urgent need of study might be expected to reassure believers who feel that their perspective is increasingly marginalised in the public sphere, ensuring that the growing no-religion majority can understand and sympathise with their devout friends and neighbours.
But while the Church of England’s chief education officer has welcomed the report, the most stinging criticism has come from representatives of schools with a religious character. The Board of Deputies of British Jews criticised “the dilution of religious education through the inclusion of worldviews”; while the Catholic Education Service said “the quality of religious education is not improved by teaching less religion”.
Schools with a religious character exist in part to promote faith formation and ensure that the faith is passed on to the next generation. This was not the commission’s aim. But beyond recognising this divergence in priorities for the commission and for faith schools, it is not clear if or how the National Entitlement would help faith schools maintain their distinctive ethos. For example, would Catholic schools be able to prioritise Catholic teaching and faith formation within the hours allotted to Religion and Worldviews, or would they need to make provision for this to happen after hours?
In this regard, all seems to hinge on the commission’s recommendation for a national body to develop programmes of study and training for the teachers who would deliver the new curriculum. Although some Catholic campaigners have asserted that this would result in “a state-imposed version of Catholicism”, this is an oversimplification. If the national body adheres to what seems to be the intent of the commission, a variety of perspectives on Catholicism (and Islam, secularism and so on) would be included.
At the same time, those who favour and patronise schools with a religious character may overestimate the importance of these schools in passing on the faith. The passing of religion from one generation to the next is a complex and multi-causal process – of which a child’s attendance at a faith-based school is just one factor.
Studies have found that a more important factor for ensuring faith stays alive is the role parents play in their children’s lives: if they practice their religion at home and in their local faith community, their children are much more likely to remain religious.
While this may not reassure those who perceive the commission’s recommendations as a threat to faith-based schools, it shouldn’t distract from the opportunity that these proposals represent. If it is properly resourced and phased in over a reasonable period of time, Religion and Worldviews could enhance – not undermine – the teaching of religious education in Britain.