Let’s start with the immediate background. The Commission on RE mounted a strong argument for retaining the parental right to withdraw from RE and monitoring it . In their final report, pp63-68, the human rights arguments and precedents are sympathetically and accurately set out. Commissioners called for a code of good practice for managing the situations where parents wish to use their legal right. They report that while a significant minority of respondents wanted the right retained, and would be concerned about any move to abolish it, a majority of those submitting evidence wanted the right to withdraw to go.
Here’s why. Whatever its original intentions, the right to withdraw from RE is now a standing insult to our subject and our teachers. In former times it was referred to as the ‘conscience clause’. That is a kind phrase for what has become a malignant measure. Nowadays, most teachers and advisers know it is a bigot’s charter, a comfort for islamophobes, militant secularists and others with narrow views. The National Association of Teachers of RE sees no good reason for withdrawal to continue, and is particularly concerned about the growing rate of selective withdrawal for racist reasons. To defend the right to withdraw through an appeal to the primacy of conscience is to drape an elegant fig leaf over some very nasty forms of extremism – views which have no pity or interest when it comes to the sensibilities of a liberal democracy.
On this ugly reality, it seems that withdrawal’s apologists would rather not gaze: they give scant acknowledgement to what all teachers and advisers know, because they have seen it up close, to be a symptom of bigotry. While it is true that not all withdrawals are caused by racism, xenophobia or extremism, we have to weigh up the right with the damage it does. Withdrawals, when not racist, are quite often characterised by a fierce but fearfully-held adherence to exclusivist beliefs (they can be religious or secular in content; what they have in common is exclusivism). Such beliefs drive some parents in a desperate urge to protect their young from the theological and social consequences of diversity that lie waiting for them outside the front door, on the street, in the school and community. They make any form of diversity their enemy, and they look to the state to coddle them with the right to withdraw.
Is religion a different and special category of human culture and experience, and is RE an exceptional case? After a lifetime in the subject I think this view, born of a natural and healthy pride, does us more damage than good. In reality RE is unique only in the same sense that all subjects are unique. The distance between us and geography is no greater than that between geography and maths. The wonder of a broad and balanced curriculum is its capacity to induct young minds into the disciplinary worlds of these subjects, each one a door into fascination. For decades, we in RE have claimed that our door is special; we have insisted on special locks and handles. Then we wonder why head teachers and parents sometimes decline to enter. The Commission report is, among many other good things, a call to end our exceptionalism – to come off our high horse, and humbly enter the world of learning.
Too many of us are living in the past. The imagined norms of the 1944 and 1988 era have vanished. Too many of us assume that RE’s status in law, its paraphernalia of agreed syllabuses, is even relevant now. In England, 66% of secondary schools are academies. School autonomy is a cardinal principle of educational reform. We try to stand against it, and guess what, we are swept aside.
Our current challenges are more complexly derived than withdrawal alone. Yet the right to withdraw does, among other things, damage us by introducing a scintilla of epistemological doubt about our legitimacy as a subject. That doubt is real until we agree the epistemological basis of learning about worldviews. Currently, we are far away from being able to do that; we are adrift, clinging to the flotsam of wrecked truth claims.
I look forward to a day when the epistemological basis of teaching about worldviews is clear, that it inducts children into a clear understanding of religious and worldview diversity. Such a subject would promise nothing and threaten nothing to religious stakeholders. For that reason, all pupils must study it, just as they must study maths. That historic circumstance is within our grasp, and as a society we urgently need it.
Mark Chater is a former teacher, trainer, researcher and adviser on RE, and is now Director of Culham St Gabriel’s Trust. He writes here in a personal capacity.