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.