At the NAHT conference last week, heads debated a motion to overturn the parental right of opt-out from RE. The motion was almost unanimously approved, but not surprisingly, it provoked a mini-storm of protest from both sides of the argument, so I know I’m entering the lions’ den by adding my thoughts. I write as a primary school teacher and a Christian parent.
As the latter, I have experience of parental opt-out. It was an obvious, but not easy, decision to make. We live near a Buddhist monastery, visits to which were a regular part of the RE curriculum. One year, a teacher decided to arrange for my daughter’s class to join in a Buddhist meditation service. My daughter refused to take part, so I explained this and tried to opt her out of that section of the trip. Observation was fine: participation was not.
Unfortunately, it was assumed that because we are a Christian family, I was objecting on religious grounds. Actually, I was objecting because my daughter didn’t want to take part in ritual of any sort, and it was a false assumption that because I am a Christian, my child must be, too. A deputy head finally reluctantly agreed to her request on the grounds that no child should be forced to do something which made them uncomfortable, although the school remained convinced that I was staging some sort of Christian protest.
So much for opt-out. I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to use it, and by the time the situation had been resolved, it had become a major source of conflict. Sometimes parents do need the option, and I think it should remain where students are required to participate in religious activity in an RE lesson that presupposes belief, as ritual does. That should not be any part of the RE curriculum, and the opt-out needs to be there because sometimes teachers make mistakes, or even bad decisions.
What I have a problem with is opting out just because you think religion is wrong. I think lots of things are wrong in society – I also think that understanding them puts me in a stronger position to argue against them or try and put them right.
The NAHT argument relates to the need to teach religious literacy and foster a language that allows today’s young people to navigate a multi-cultural and diverse society openly and with empathy. There shouldn’t be any objection to this: sitting in an igloo doesn’t make you Inuit and the same applies to RE – watching a baptism doesn’t make you a Christian. Visiting a synagogue doesn’t make you a Jew. Nobody, as far as I’m aware, has ever converted to a religion because of an RE lesson.
As a primary school teacher, I think good quality compulsory RE teaching is vital for another reason. It’s about exploring answers to the really big questions in life, like Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live? and religious belief plays a part in finding answers for billions of people around the world. Every child, whatever the faith of the parents, should have the opportunity to investigate possible answers to the big questions of life and come to their own conclusions. I say that as a Christian parent, believing that my children should be able to conduct their own search for truth, and in doing so, find their own personal belief.
The National Secular Society has rolled out the tired old argument about confessional teaching and indoctrination. I challenge anyone to make a child or young person believe something that they choose not to believe. If you think you can, then I would suggest you’ve never worked with children. The NSS objection, of course, is to the existence of faith schools and their right to teach from a distinctive faith perspective.
I’ve got mixed feelings on this one, too. I went to a church school and it’s not an experience I would ever want to repeat. I wasn’t taught anything about faith let alone indoctrinated, unless you count reciting my catechism every day for 7 years. It clearly had no effect, because to this day, I can’t remember a word of it. I learnt plenty about organised religion, but nothing about faith in God.
It was in my church that I found a relationship with a living God. And it’s because of that faith that I think it’s so vital that children and young people are allowed to examine what people believe, and what they do in their churches and temples, and how it informs the way they live their lives. Schools are uniquely positioned to do this: parents are not.
Belief is a personal decision, but understanding what people believe and why they choose to believe it is one of the most precious gifts we can give our children and our future society. Opting out removes children from the arena of debate that leads to greater understanding between us all.