Recommendation 4 (Suspension of requirement to write agreed syllabuses)
More than thirty years after the introduction of the national curriculum entitlement for all pupils, one subject remains exempt: religious education. Unlike any other compulsory subject, RE curricula are determined at a local level.
Providing pupils with knowledge about religion is a valuable endeavour. What secularists object to is a version of religious education that acts as a promotional tool for religion, or teaches it with a view to proselytisation. The involvement of faith communities, which seek to ensure their own representation in a positive light, inevitably leads to a situation whereby religions are presented in a favourable way. This is far from the ‘warts and all’ approach, recommended by Ofsted more than ten years ago now.
This lack of objectivity also manifests itself in the classroom. A recent survey of 465 RE teachers found that 60% “absolutely agree” that “religion should be taught in a positive way in RE”. Six per cent did not agree, with the remainder “moderately” (16%), “somewhat” (13%) or “slightly” (5%) agreeing. In an accompanying article in the journal Religions, academics warned that knowledge is being distorted and that respect is being given “prominence over understanding”. This is educationally inappropriate and undermines the subject’s credibility in the eyes of parents and pupils alike.
The National Secular Society’s 21st century RE for All campaign set out with the objective of ensuring that all pupils have an equal entitlement to high quality, non-partisan education about religion and belief. To achieve this, we need to take curriculum writing out of the hands of vested interests and put it into the hands of education professionals.
The Commission on Religious Education’s recommendation to remove the requirement agreed syllabus conferences (ASCs) to develop locally agreed syllabuses is therefore to be welcomed. If enacted, it should herald the transformation of an outmoded model of RE into a new national entitlement for religion and belief learning.
Today’s pupils are tomorrow’s global citizens. They’ll need to be informed about the diversity and impact of religious and non-religious worldviews in their local, national and international communities. Assuming inculcation isn’t the aim, ‘local circumstances’ should no longer determine the kind of RE they receive. Neither should the content of the curriculum be determined by the balance of religious enthusiasm or strength of organisation at a local level.
Some may worry that an end to ASCs could produce more rather than less fragmentation, with every school interpreting RE differently, or accelerate the dominance of private curricula providers. Much will depend on the effectiveness of the structures and accountability that comes with any national entitlement.
Significant reforms are necessary to bring religion and belief education into the 21st century. We need an equal inspections system for all schools, a consistent pedagogy and an end to confessionalism once and for all. But by bringing a consistent approach to curriculum writing, and putting it in the hands of education professionals, we can at least start to move forward. The government should stop prevaricating and begin the process of reform.
Chief Executive Officer, National Secular Society