Category Archives: Comment

THE ARCHBISHOPS’ LETTER TO PARISHES

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written a letter to parishes, challenging the thinking of Christians about the upcoming election.

Education features throughout their letter, acknowledging its significance in nurturing a strong, stable society and raising some relevant questions about our education service. They state: ‘If our shared British values are to carry the weight of where we now stand and the challenges ahead of us, they must have at their core, cohesion, courage and stability. Cohesion is what holds us together’. Education can be a powerful force for nurturing cohesion, but it shouldn’t be used as a tool of force. Instead of seeking to impose further centralised control over curriculum content, the government should be acknowledging and celebrating the diversity of our education service, the role that the Church has played in its formation over centuries, and the right of parents to choose the education which most closely matches their parenting values. Cohesion is not uniformity – cohesion is living at peace with difference and showing respect for fellow humanity. These should be the British values which we share in a pluralist society.

The letter calls for ‘education for all’. For this to be effective, it requires us to acknowledge that we are all uniquely created in the image of God, with different gifts, skills and aspirations. To achieve meaningful education for all which nurtures individuals and promotes human flourishing, we must stop the current ‘one size fits all’ approach to education. We should create an environment in which schools of all types, including Christian schools, can thrive without fear.

We are called to act with courage, which ‘also demands a radical approach to education, so that the historic failures of technical training and the over-emphasis on purely academic subjects are rebalanced’. It is time to reverse an education culture of constant high stakes measurement, which values nothing but results and predictions of future economic prosperity. We need to develop an education service which focuses on the holistic development of people. Careers education, for example, should be about reflecting on individual identity, values, interests, aspirations and ambitions, rather than measuring the effectiveness of careers education purely on consideration of maximising income.

The Archbishops further write: ‘To our concern for housing, health and education as foundations for a good society, we add marriage, the family and the household as foundational communities, which should be nurtured and supported as such, not just for the benefit of their members, but as a blessing for the whole of society’. Yet the new Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) requirements, made statutory in the Children and Social Work Bill that received royal assent this week, require schools to teach all relationships as being equal.

There is a growing body of evidence that children raised in stable families with two parents who are committed to each other in marriage are much more likely to achieve their potential academically, socially and personally. Yet despite highlighting the importance of marriage and family in the past, the government does not privilege them in any of the new policy proposals. Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, recently called for faith schools to reach ‘common ground’ with the LGBT community on sex education. Why? Faith schools should be allowed to genuinely teach according to the tenets of their faith. Further, the right of parental opt out should be extended across the whole of the RSE and Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) policies. To do otherwise is to open the door to state indoctrination on matters of morality and ethics.

Regarding the issue of assumptions of secularism, which now inform all education policy formation, the Archbishops state: ‘Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief. The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works, nor will they enable us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives’. This is nowhere more evident than in the teaching of science. Government advice states that ‘Any explanation or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution cannot be permitted in science classes’. This limits open consideration of a range of theories about our origins, including creation.

Finally, the letter raises the issue of religious freedom, positing that, ‘The new Parliament, if it is to take religious freedom seriously, must treat as an essential task the improvement of religious literacy’. The RE Commission, a non-statutory body, is currently gathering evidence with a remit to make recommendations designed to improve the quality and rigour of religious education and its capacity to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain. Any changes to the framework or policy must acknowledge the religious diversity of Britain, the distinctiveness of each faith, the right of parents to make decisions about their child’s involvement in religious education and the right of schools to determine curriculum in a local context. We must avoid the imposition of a centralised curriculum, which is the route to totalitarian control. It is also time to put an end to the practice of safe spaces and no-platforming in further education institutions which limit the rights of Christians to express their views openly in the public square.

 

 

RE IN THE 21ST CENTURY

The RE Commission is currently in the process of gathering evidence as part of a significant review of the legal, education and policy frameworks for RE teaching. Below is my presentation to the Birmingham session.

Should we still be teaching RE in the 21st century? In a recent ComRes survey, conducted just last month, 46% of those asked said they believe in life after death, 46% did not and 8% didn’t know. Surprisingly, 25% of people identifying as Christians did not believe in the resurrection of Christ, but 9% of non-religious people said they did. In 2015, a YouGov survey showed that 65% of British adults believe in God or some form of higher power.

Although various interest groups have each made claims for their cause from these statistics, what they prove beyond doubt is a significant interest in spirituality. It is by no means the simple binary issue of religious versus non-religious worldviews that it is often made out to be and we shouldn’t accept without question the assumption that the ‘nones’ are therefore indicative of the replacement of a Christian society with a humanist or secularist one. These, too, are belief choices and it’s a logical fallacy to suggest that ‘don’t know’ means anything more than just, ‘don’t know’ – which in itself is a powerful argument for nurturing religious literacy in our schools.

In the light of this, should Christianity be privileged in a pluralist society? Yes, I think it should. The argument of Christian heritage has been well made elsewhere, so I will just add to the debate a thought from T S Eliot, writing in The Idea of a Christian Society. He posited that, ‘A society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else’. We haven’t yet become that ‘something else’.

And because of that, it makes the question of common entitlement a vital one. I think it would help to build cohesion across our education service, management of which is becoming increasingly diverse and disparate. It would create common ground in the public square. But that, however, is as far as statutory requirement should go. I strongly defend the right of governors, school leaders and managers to determine their own local curriculum content. The imposition of a single, centralised curriculum is many steps too far towards totalitarian control and the possibility of state indoctrination by a government of the day.

Turning to RE teaching and learning in the primary sector, you don’t need me to tell you that the situation in many schools is dire. Not only is it the Cinderella subject of the curriculum, with many teachers lacking training, confidence, interest (or all of the above) in its teaching, it’s also a casualty of the curriculum narrowing which is an inevitable outcome of the prevalent culture of measurement. As heads and governors grapple with funding cuts and as teaching styles move inexorably towards a didactic, transmission model, Cinderella’s neglect is likely to become more entrenched.

So should we let primary RE quietly demise? Absolutely not – we should address the problems and find solutions. Although the role of SACREs is under scrutiny for a raft of reasons, they’re a lifeline to many primary school teachers and with only about 13% of primaries converting to academies, Agreed Syllabus still forms the basis of much primary RE. SACREs also reflect local context and community, which is vital to the teaching of belief in any meaningful way.

While we can request better training and more funding for CPD, it’s unlikely to be substantially forthcoming, so we need to explore other ways to support primary RE, even if that means redefining the structure and role of SACREs, creating a network of outreach schools, and looking to secondary schools for support.

The challenge in primary RE is to ensure that there is rigour in its teaching. It’s not just about stories (although these are a vital ingredient of all good primary phase teaching), or about exploring or creating artefacts. Nor is it only about philosophy (what is believed?) or sociology (what impact does this belief have on community, culture and therefore society?). It must also be about the essence of belief – what does this person believe, why do they believe it and what effect does it have on their personhood? To achieve this, we have to retain the distinctiveness of each belief system we teach and avoid syncretism either as a solution to a shortage of curriculum time or to avert charges of indoctrination.

Let me conclude with a couple of examples of practice which explain what I mean. It’s common for Key Stage 1 pupils to make Diwali lamps; to listen to the story of Lakshmi; to draw rangoli patterns, and to learn about Hindus spring cleaning, wearing new clothes, exchanging gifts and sharing meals in celebration. It may well link with learning about light in science. These are all perfectly valid teaching activities which develop manual dexterity, mathematical skills, language, social interaction and understanding of the physics of light. But they offer no spiritual content. For that, pupils need time to reflect on good and evil; light and darkness; knowledge and ignorance. They need to explore why it’s important to Hindus to celebrate goodness and knowledge with a festival of light and why it might be important to them personally to similarly value goodness and knowledge.

In Key Stage 2, questions about existence start to emerge in discussion. How did I come to be? Where do I belong in the world? What is my potential? Martin Boroson’s book Becoming Me, A Story of Creation, is a powerful resource for considering our origins. Likewise Hello? Is Anybody There? by Norwegian philosopher, Jostein Gaarder for upper Key Stage 2. They don’t proselytise. They don’t indoctrinate. They teach in the best possible way – prompting questions about the meaning of existence, whether we are part of something greater than ourselves, and how we are connected both to things and each other. They allow pupils to reflect and form their own opinions. They’re excellent starting points for considering the Judaeo-Christian understanding of our created world, because they move from the world of the child to the world beyond and back to the world of the child for personal response.

So, whatever it takes to achieve it, we must aim for better training, strong subject leadership, a curriculum designed for local context and, above all, the opportunity for pupils to learn about, reflect on, and personally respond to, the distinctive nature of beliefs.

 

BANNING PARENTS FROM RE OPTOUT

RE has hit the headlines again this week, with Derek Holloway, the Church of England’s lead RE officer, stating that parents should be banned from removing their children from RE lessons. A number of reasons are given, which contain some very broad, and false, assumptions.

Parts of the reasoning are, frankly, sinister. There are oblique references to far right political groups, religious fundamentalists and minority faith groups, all lumped together and all creating a ‘dangerous’ precedent. This is exactly the kind of hysterical rhetoric that fans the flames of suspicion, hatred and distrust. If you’re going to make inflammatory accusations, at least have the courage to name these ‘dangerous’ people. Surely the Church, of all institutions, should be engaging in dialogue to promote understanding and trust?

No doubt there are parents who use the opt-out to select and control what their children learn about religion. I don’t think they should, but I defend their right to do so. But it’s also a false assumption that a few hours of RE lessons will reverse the effects of a home culture. The Church assumes too much power to itself if it really thinks that a school curriculum can change society. People change society – children and young people don’t learn to ‘live well together’ because of RE lessons. They learn to live within the communities in which they are raised and they learn to live well when the adults that raise them are compassionate, respectful and empathetic models.

Even more concerning is the quality of the flimsy information on which the call to ban the opt-out is based.  No evidence is provided beyond social media comment and anecdotal feedback from some RE advisers. Since when did social media constitute empirical evidence or valid grounds to change the law?

And last but certainly not least, opt out should be protected for one very simple reason – sometimes, teachers get it wrong. I once had to use the right myself as a parent, in a situation which became unnecessarily distressing.

The school which my children attended included a visit to the local Buddhist monastery as part of the Year 9 RE curriculum – it was a popular visit which was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. However, one year the teacher responsible decided that students would participate in a meditation session in the temple. My child politely asked to be excused from this particular activity as they were unhappy with participating in a religious act, although they were happy to observe. Permission was refused and the result was one very angry fourteen-year-old. I wrote to the teacher concerned, explaining that students had the right not to actively participate in religious observance and I assumed that my letter would conclude the matter. It didn’t.

I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I had provoked this action purely because I am a Christian, and I could hear the word ‘bigoted’ hanging unspoken in the air. In fact, although my child came to church quite happily and enjoyed a busy church-centred social life, there was a clear understanding that active worship wouldn’t be part of the experience. The objection was to being required to participate in any form of religious activity, in any context. It was a step too far.

Eventually the issue reached the Deputy Head and I had to invoke my parental right of withdrawal. But by then the whole trip had been ruined. My child had to publicly defend a principle against a teacher who ridiculed their position (I’m proud of the fact that this was done both respectfully and robustly) and I had to intervene not because of my own belief, but to defend my child’s right to not believe.

So, teachers get it wrong and the opt-out must remain. I was not ‘exploiting’ my right as a parent. I was exercising my duty to defend my child’s views against power-broking adults. I was not ‘breaking the law and seeking to incite religious hatred’ as charged by this article. I was requiring a school to show respect for my child’s wish not to participate in religious observance.

The Church may believe that the right for parents to withdraw children from RE should be repealed. But you cannot remove parental opt-out in one context without removing it in all others. The new Relationships Education curriculum is unlikely to privilege the teaching of marriage and family as the essential building blocks of a strong society. So will the Church, which has welcomed these government proposals, demand that parental rights are removed from RSE, too? You cannot embrace a pick ‘n’ mix approach to opt out. Either parents can exercise their right to remove their children from any or all teaching which conflicts with their religious, philosophical or moral views, or from none of it.

However deplorable the Church of England may find views which are contrary to its own, it is not for the Church, the state, or anyone else, to dictate to parents on matters of belief or conscience.