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.
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.
The recently published ‘Casey Review: a review into opportunity and integration’, raises some concerning issues, if you are a person of religious conviction. It’s even more concerning if you’re involved in teaching. Here’s why.
The report lays the blame for segregation and inequality at the door of what Casey describes as ‘less progressive religious communities’ who are ‘taking religion backwards and away from 21st century British values and laws’. You may think that doesn’t apply to you, but read on. Because when she was questioned about her report in an appearance before the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, this is how Louise Casey described those communities:
‘I do not really have any view on which religion it is that it is promoting those sorts of views, but they are not okay, in the same way that it is not okay for Catholic schools to be homophobic and anti-gay marriage. That is not okay either—it is not how we bring children up in this country. It is often veiled as religious conservatism, and I have a problem with the expression “religious conservatism”, because often it can be anti-equalities.’
Casey talks about the need to challenge or act on behaviours that fall into ‘grey’ areas ‘where one person’s religious conservatism is another’s homophobia’. She calls for an honest debate about these grey areas, although she simultaneously implies that anyone who disagrees with her is wrong, so clearly her mind is already made up about the purpose of any public discourse.
And this isn’t an incident isolated to someone speaking from personal prejudice – it’s a religiously illiterate view that prevails even at ministerial levels of government. This was an exchange that the Archbishop of Canterbury had with a senior politician recently:
Politician: ‘look at our British values, what have you got against the rule of law as a British value? I mean are you seriously going to tell me that I don’t call someone an extremist if they say that their faith is more important than the rule of law?’
ABC: ‘Well, you’ve got a real problem here because for me personally my faith is more important than the rule of law so you’ve got an extremist sitting in here with you…We do not believe as Christians that the rule of law outweighs everything else, we believe that the kingdom of God outweighs everything else.’
If that is what you believe, you are, by definition, an extremist. You are a religious conservative, so according to the Casey review you are anti-equalities. That means that you are breaking the law by adhering to a worldview at variance with secular liberalism. Again, you may not think it is relevant to you, but if you are a Christian teacher, it may soon become very relevant to you personally. You may be required to swear an oath that puts British values and the rule of law above everything else. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid likes Casey’s idea of a public oath and he plans to say more about it when he responds to her report later this spring.
The crux of the issue isn’t about actively promoting wilfully vague British values. It is whether, or not, you believe that the kingdom of God outweighs the rule of law. If you do, how does that inform your response to the liberal social orthodoxy to which everyone is increasingly required to conform?