DANIEL’S BLOG Why we need the conscience clause more now than ever

If you are reading this blog you are probably aware that religious education is different from other curriculum subjects.
Perhaps more than any other, it deals with contested issues of ultimate import. Perhaps to a greater degree, it has a diverse community of dedicated professionals and stakeholders who have reshaped its aims, scope and purpose over the years.
A further important difference is RE’s special status in law. Unlike other subjects, syllabuses are to be determined at a local level, and parents have the right to withdraw their children from RE lessons. The former anomaly has long been identified as contributing to RE’s low status, ‘the Cinderella of the curriculum’, and has contributed to the present trend for its disappearance in academies independent of local government.
In the recent responses to this threat to RE, the Commission on Religious Education Report and the New Settlement Revised have suggested that RE’s legislative framework should be revised. Rather than the present system of locally agreed syllabuses, it has been argued a nationally determined curriculum would ensure more compliance, better training of teachers and less misunderstanding of the subject’s aims and purposes.
Yet, alongside this quite sensible suggestion has been a questioning of the present statutory right of parents to withdraw their children from RE. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the conscience clause’ or the ‘Cowper-Temple clause’ after the liberal politician who advanced the private member’s amendment for this right at the inception of state funded schooling in the 1870 Education Act.
It is a relief to know that the Commission has, after due reflection and on expert legal advice, declined to recommend abolition of the right to withdraw. In my view, revoking the conscience clause would be a serious and bizarre step backwards. It would be unlikely to ever happen as fortunately human rights legislation protects the rights of parents to bring their children up freely according to their worldview. But, I am concerned that so many RE teachers and other stakeholders would ever countenance the idea that the conscience clause is anything but a necessary and laudable principle. I say this because the according to the liberal ideals of the primacy of conscience and of religious toleration (which in some respects were one of the triumphs of British social and political culture), the right of parents to withdraw their children from the state’s undue interference in religion must be an unalienable right. It should also be the right of teachers to not teach RE, as is also currently protected by law.
Understanding a little about the original purposes of the law perhaps might begin to persuade those who may disagree with me. It is likely without the conscience clause any educational legislation would have been possible in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, the undenominational principle that was advanced at the same time has been a pivotal foundation for the evolution of the subject as we know it today in non-faith schools.
To make history short, until 1870, schooling had been provided by voluntary religious organisations and was therefore patchy in its provision. The Church of England ran some schools, but Nonconformists (Christian groups outside the Established Church such as Quakers, Unitarians and Methodists) also provided many. In some areas there was no suitable provision. The Nonconformists (who formed a significant element in the new emerging middle class of industrialists and professionals) had recently been enfranchised resulting in increased political clout. They did not want to see the imposition of Anglican catechesis in new state-controlled schools. Many did not wish to see secular education either (although some also did). The result was a compromise. Non-sectarian RE of no particular ‘creedal formulary’ was to be given in new state-funded schools controlled by local boards, while the existing denominational schools of a particular religious character would be state-aided. Yet, to ease sectarian tensions, parents could write to their schools and remove their child from religious education.
We live with this historic decision today. We have state-funded faith schools and schools that teach a kind of RE suitable for those of any faith and none. We also have the right to withdraw our children from RE.
So what makes the difference between then and now? Why would the conscience clause be necessary in the nineteenth century but perceived as an irksome legal anachronism that needs to be removed today? The answer lies in important social and educational changes that have taken place over the last century.
Socially, fewer and fewer RE teachers and stakeholders have a strong religious commitment, so their appreciation of what it is to hold a particular worldview and see that as constituting all that one needs to know is much reduced. Their Victorian counterparts in contrast were well aware of sectarian differences and competition, and the impossibility of an absolutely ‘neutral’ approach to religion. This was an era before the ecumenical movement that gave way to the global pluralism we have today, which has radically altered the way many religious practitioners understand their commitments in a religiously plural society.
Educationally, in the last century, the rationale for RE has mutated from a subject designed to find a broad-based consensus founded upon common normative Christian values, to one that educates about religious diversity. These changes in the aims and purposes of the subject are often said to justify the removal of the conscience clause.
Knowing about the main religions represented in Britain is essential to live well in a multi-faith society. It follows, proponents of reviewing the conscience clause argue, that if you come from a family that does not enthuse about learning about these ‘other’ religions, then you are most likely the kind of student who most needs religiously educating in this sense.
While there could be some kind of aversion, or even hate at play in some parents’ desire to withdraw their children from RE, we can’t always attribute not wanting one’s children to learn about religions simply as racism, xenophobia or extremism. Indeed, the conscience clause is there to protect freedom of belief, not to allow for ignorance or xenophobia.
Racism, prejudice and discrimination are so insidious they need to be addressed in all subjects, and as a whole school issue. But moreover, religions transcend barriers of race and nationality and they therefore need to be understood in terms of their diversity. And really understanding their diversity means recognising their exclusivity. That is, believing in a religion usually means you don’t believe in the other ones (although there are exceptions to this, for example styles of religious belief that endorse pluralism, or religious movements such as the Unitarians or Bahá’í that see their faith as one believed in essence by others).
Moreover, religious disagreement is not misanthropy or prejudice. It’s simply taking one’s religious beliefs to their logical conclusions in the light of contrary views. And while members of all mainstream traditions would concur that theological disagreement can not only be amicable but extremely interesting and stimulating when practised in interreligious dialogue, that doesn’t mean such dialogue can form the basis for the education of one’s children.
Perhaps another important reason why some think the conscience clause should be removed is that RE today is non-confessional as opposed to just undenominational. Therefore, it makes no sense to withdraw a child on account of one’s confession to another faith.
For me, this is perhaps the most worrying of developments. There is no neutral view of religions. There can be no objective curriculum. What we see in RE is not the ‘way religions really are’, but a pedagogically expedient representation of religions as we may be able to make them of interest to students of various ages and policy makers with varying agendas.
Indeed, what we may think of religions is going to be radically altered by our worldview, and the more that may be aligned to a religious tradition, the more likelihood that we will find our own deeply held beliefs skewed by a multi-faith curriculum taught by teachers who could never know enough to teach all religions authentically, and in depth. This is particularly true for religious minorities.
Members of heterodox and close-knit religious communities are unlikely to become religious education professionals, or invest in the project of ‘educating about’ religions as a replacement to their own nurture of faith.
I do not mean to paint a bleak picture. Far from it. Good RE is possible in a diverse setting with students of all faiths and none. I am just arguing that in this situation, you need good RE and a conscience clause. The contested and diverse nature of religion is one of the reasons for RE’s unique legal status. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking we have all the answers.

Daniel Moulin-Stożek writes here in a personal capacity – as a parent and as a firm believer in the principle of religious freedom. He has been inspired by the Christian anarchism of Leo Tolstoy who defended religious minorities from the Russian state. His monograph on Tolstoy’s educational thought is available from Bloomsbury.
To indulge in further personal biography, when he was in Year 7, Daniel’s parents used the conscience clause intermittently to withdraw him from RE on account of their identification with a minority Christian group. One vivid memory of something in which he was relieved not to partake was a homework to make a ‘witchdoctor’s mask’. This was part of series of lessons about how animism, polytheism and monotheism represented stages in the religious development of ‘mankind’ [sic]. While this may be a crass example of a bygone error, how do we know that our own current pedagogical formulations will not be seen in the future as similarly distorting, ethnocentric and historicist?