Neil McNicholas: Question of faith for religious education in schools

How should RE be taught in schools?

THE Commission on Religious Education – chaired by the Dean of Westminster no less – has proposed that religious education should be called instead ‘religion and world views’ (and I quote) “in order to incorporate beliefs such as humanism, secularism, atheism and agnosticism”.

Does he of all people not know that you can’t believe in humanism or secularism – they are principles that you can uphold, but they are not religious beliefs? Similarly agnosticism means not knowing what to believe, and atheism is a lack of belief.

The report goes on to say that religious education in too many schools is not good enough to prepare pupils adequately for the diversity of beliefs they will encounter, nor to support them in engaging with the questions raised by the study of world views. The Commission’s concern is based on findings that 40 per cent of primary schools without a religious ethos are not teaching religious education at Key Stage 4 and that the subject may not survive without change.

That may well be a concern, but the answer isn’t to be found in compromise or watering down. It is up to governing bodies to decide whether they want their schools to promote and support a religious ethos, something that should surely never be in question in faith schools.

The latter are already having to fight hard to defend their corner and their rights against the ever-rising tide of political correctness without a group like the CRE making things even more difficult instead of the exact opposite.

I know I’m on dodgy ecumenical ground here, but why does the Church of England always seem to take the easy way out on subjects such as this? Wasn’t it Groucho Marx who said he wouldn’t want to join a club that would have him as a member? Surely if you expect your church-going numbers to increase, you’ve got to be able to demonstrate to enquirers some religious conviction and principle, otherwise what is the point? Similarly, if a faith school shows no more religious belief and conviction than the neighbouring state school, again what is the point?

The trouble is that as soon as something is introduced as part of the national curriculum it becomes carved in stone and to be followed by all schools regardless. If the choice of state schools is not to provide religious education in any form, that’s up to them and supported, presumably, by those parents who send their children to those schools. On the other hand faith schools incorporate into the curriculum the teaching of their particular religious creed and, again, parents don’t have to apply to those schools if that isn’t what they want.

The point that often seems to be conveniently ignored, and I am speaking here of Catholic schools, is that parents contribute to the operational costs of those schools through the financial support they give to their parishes, in addition to the support that they and all parents give to the national education budget through their taxes. These schools aim to establish a Catholic ethos and not, I repeat not, to be discriminatory in any respect whatsoever.

Changing the title of religious education will achieve nothing. The answer is for Ofsted inspectors to determine whether the subject of religion – whether in general or according to a particular creed – is being taught appropriately.

My concern in all of this would be as follows. You can’t teach, let’s say, English by constantly referring to French, or Spanish or German. Pupils might well end up with a working knowledge of several languages, but none at a useful level and certainly their mastery of the English language is unlikely to be satisfactory. And it’s the same with religion. Pupils need a grounding in their own faith first (if it is a faith school) before they move on to gain an appreciation of other denominations and faiths, otherwise they simply receive a mish-mash of religious knowledge.

Let state schools teach a general religious syllabus if that’s their choice and if parents are content with the equally general ethical and moral education that may come with it, but faith schools should be committed to providing an education in the faith which was the reason for their foundation – and then, after that, they can introduce their pupils to other world religions and non-faith principles. And shouldn’t the CRE be defending such a position and not watering it down?

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.

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