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.
The Commons this week discussed New Clause 15, which will make Relationships Education statutory in all primary schools and RSE statutory in all secondary schools, regardless of their status or designation. Steve McCabe MP accused the government of being well-intentioned, but confused, in its objectives. He was right, for a range of reasons.
The first relates to the rights of parents. It is acknowledged that ‘parents are, of course, the primary educators and guides of their children’, yet no parental opt out will be available for relationships education. It will, however, be protected for sex education at both primary and secondary level. Spotting the false dichotomy, one MP several times sought (and failed to obtain) assurances that Relationships Education in primary school was not just a vehicle to smuggle in sex education under a different label.
There is an underlying assumption here that sex and relationships are separate issues. This is, of course, a convenient assumption, as it allows the government to impose a one-size-fits-all model on the teaching of moral issues, whilst appearing to protect parental rights. But for those who hold a religious belief (and for many more who don’t) this is nonsense. The Bible teaches that sex is designed by God to be enjoyed between one man and one woman, committed to live together in a supportive relationship, as far as is possible, for life. Sex and relationship are mutually inclusive and cannot be artificially separated.
The extent to which the government is going to enforce this separation became apparent when Gerald Howarth MP asked where the ‘moral dimension’ was in the proposals. Edward Timpson gave a curious response: ‘The moral aspect is already covered by British values’. So ‘British values’ is set to become the arbiter of state-imposed moral values, too? And all overseen by Ofsted enforcers – the debate made clear that Ofsted will place delivery of this policy centrally in their judgment of a school. In fact, ‘Ofsted is already seeking to appoint an HMI lead for citizenship and PSHE, whose role will be to keep abreast of developments in this area and oversee the training of inspectors in light of the new expectations on schools’. So Ofsted will be given statutory power to enforce the teaching of moral values, although only those defined by the government and its advisers.
Next is the confusion over protection of religious belief. There is provision for faith schools to teach in accordance with the tenets of their faith, yet Edward Timpson was quite happy to confirm that faith schools cannot avoid providing the required education even if they consider it inappropriate. So in what way is religious belief protected?
The concept of relationships education ‘creating the all-important building blocks’ to ‘make children resilient enough to deal with the pressures and risks that the modern world throws at them’ also reared its head. It’s a point of view which assumes that we can educate our way out of a moral crisis. Children are born or adopted into families. Families, not education policies, are the building blocks of communities and therefore of society. Yet nowhere do the proposals talk about strengthening families and empowering parents to raise strong, independent children. The problems our children and young people face are social, not educational, issues and we are all responsible. The failure to privilege the importance of family is particularly confusing since in other aspects of social policy, governments have acknowledged that strong, stable families not only give children the best possible start in life, but also have a lasting positive impact on life outcomes.
There is, however, some encouragement in the statement that Ofsted will ensure that teaching is religiously diverse. Because that raises a key point – the absence of moral red lights in contemporary society. This new, updated RSE, we are told, is about protecting children by teaching them the dangers inherent in online porn, sexting and risks of STIs. When we teach children road safety, we don’t educate them about the different makes and models of vehicles and then let them play in the traffic. We teach them that society conforms to a rule – vehicles stop at a red light so that they can cross safely. So where are the moral red lights in society? Do we really propose to send children to play in moral traffic on the basis that schools have delivered lessons in how to stay safe?
The concept of religious diversity is welcome, though, because it means that all schools, not just faith schools, will have to teach about fidelity and exclusivity within marriage, and the concept of abstinence. Not to teach it would be to deny diversity of view to children who are not growing up in religious communities.
And finally, there’s the view that it is never right to deny a child their entitlement to vital RSE. In fact, some campaigners believe that it’s a denial of a child’s human rights. There are two points here. One is that Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that: ‘In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.’ The other is the 1996 Education Act which states that: ‘The responsibility for a child’s education rests with their parents/carers’ although provision must be ‘suitable’. The term ‘suitable’ was defined by Mr Justice Woolf in case law in 1985 as being an education that ‘primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole’.
There is a widely held view that parents who want to raise their children with a sexual ethic informed by faith are not only denying their children an essential human right, but also leaving them unprotected in a hazardous modern world. But parents of faith choose to protect their children differently, by teaching them about God’s blue print for humanity and by raising them in families where faithfulness, and mutual love and respect are not only their protection, but their building blocks for a fulfilled life.
Religious Education is a statutory subject which must be taught in all schools. There are constant calls from those embracing the ideology of a secular state for it to be removed from the curriculum. But the vital question is not ‘Should we be teaching RE?’ but, ‘How should we be teaching RE?’ The Commission for Religious Education, the body which is responsible for advising on legal, education and policy frameworks, is currently seeking answers to that question through a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity to think deeply and broadly about the character, significance and role of religious education in our current local, national and global context’.
The importance of religious education and the compelling case for it to remain statutory is well argued by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead in their 2015 document ‘A New Settlement’ They present the case for children to be brought up with an understanding of the historical and social significance of religions, and how they have shaped diverse human behaviours and values. They write persuasively of the need for religious literacy as we navigate a multicultural society in a global context. They want to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach that reduces religion to a sociological phenomenon and they want all schools to follow a common curriculum, regardless of their religious character or ethos. Is that enough?
No, because studying religion as a series of cultural artefacts in order to improve cohesion and global communication is to miss the point altogether. Religions seek to answer the big questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? To deny students the opportunity to consider these questions and to pursue a search for truth is to deny them the path to personal answers.
There is growing pressure from various ideologues for RE to be diluted to the point where it becomes an amalgam of world religions. The result of this approach is people who know a range of facts about religion but have no understanding of individual belief. It is vital that the distinctive nature of each religion is taught: we all believe something and in believing something, we necessarily reject everything else. That is how we develop a personal system of belief and it is an opportunity that high quality RE teaching should provide.
In teaching the distinctive beliefs of each religion, it’s important that Christianity remains the core study. Although we live in a pluralist society, it’s a society founded on Christian values and principles. Many of our great thinkers, scientists and social reformers were motivated by their faith, so Christianity underpins our heritage – it would be quite simple to argue that Christianity is a core British value and as such, should be understood by everyone living in Britain, regardless of their personal worldview.
There are concerns, regularly expressed in the media, about the continued existence of church school RE curricula, which are determined by each diocese, rather than the local authority. Critics argue that church schools are successful because they cherry pick the brightest pupils, even though the evidence clearly shows otherwise. They are successful because their curricula are founded on a Christian worldview which focuses on human flourishing, not on test results. To impose a common RE curriculum on Christian schools is to entirely miss the point – faith is the DNA of each school’s ethos. Diluting RE will not change that, although it will deny pupils the opportunity to understand the Christian faith on which their education is founded and to make up their own minds about what they learn.
The future of RE teaching in our schools is at stake, so it’s important to make your views known. Anyone with an interest in religious education can respond to the call for evidence – simply click on the survey and answer the questions. A list of the questions is also provided so that you can take time to think about your responses in advance. The consultation closes at 9am on Monday morning (13 February) so you don’t have long. But it is vitally important that you log your views and argue the case for religious education to retain Christianity as the core religion for study; for the distinctive theology of each faith to be taught, and for the curriculum to allow time for pupils to evaluate what they hear and to reflect on their personal responses to belief.