Guest post: "Religion is an inescapable part of school life - is this right in modern Britain?"
A new report recommends scrapping compulsory worship in schools. Here, Charles Clarke - co-author of the report and former Education Secretary - explains why
Former Home Secretary and former Education Secretary
Posted on: Tue 16-Jun-15 17:13:33
(50 comments )
Religion is woven into the fabric of our lives. Each family has its own attitude to it, whether through attending regular acts of worship, participating in religious rites of passage, rejecting organised religion altogether or following a completely different system of belief.
Likewise, religion is an inescapable part of the school day, from morning assembly to R.E. classes and school trips to local places of worship.
Is this right in twenty-first century Britain?
Our current system was established in 1944, when the Christian churches dominated national life far more than they do today. The agreement between Church and state established a structure of church schools, stated that religious instruction would be a legally required part of the curriculum – and decreed that there should be a daily act of collective worship which should be "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character".
It's not just changes in the social and cultural make-up of Britain that mean this 70-year-old system no longer makes sense. Over that time, the way we use schools has changed, too. The school leaving age has risen steadily, the role of local education authorities has declined and schools have become the venues of an enormous range of ‘pre-school’ and ‘after school’ activity.
For well over a decade Ofsted has chronicled the generally unsatisfactory nature of religious education, with increased confusion on the part of many teachers about its purpose and ambition, and reduced commitment by government to include R.E. as a central part of the school curriculum.
Assemblies are really valuable, but it is not necessary for them to be tied into a legal straitjacket, with an act of Christian worship at their core.
At the same time religion has become more significant amongst young people themselves. This has partly been stimulated by the enormous range of controversies around religion which dominate the news, whether about IS in Syria or the Church's attitude to women bishops and gay marriage. Young people are now more likely to have an opinion on a particular faith or practice, and this is reflected in their GCSE choices – examination entries for R.E. have increased year on year since 2006.
Clearly, the system needs to be updated – which is why I have co-authored a pamphlet with Linda Woodhead urging the government to renew the legal framework regarding religion in schools.
Assemblies are really valuable and important. However it is not necessary for them to be tied into a legal straitjacket, flouted by many schools, with an act of Christian worship at its core. Teachers and school governors – within clear Ofsted guidelines - should be able to decide the best form of assembly for that school and its community.
The R.E. system should be changed to respect and honour all belief systems, including those, like humanism, which are not religious in any way. It should ensure that every child leaves school understanding clearly what each religion is, and is not.
R.E. lessons should also provide time in which young people can work out their own resilient beliefs, in a safe space which allows values to be interrogated and well understood.
Some people argue for the abolition of faith schools. However such an approach would eliminate an important right of school choice and in practice would be horribly disruptive and impossible to deliver. So we concluded that the right should remain but that admissions procedures have to be tightened to eliminate abuse and ensure that the right is properly exercised.
The greatest gift of education is to give children and young people the equipment to fully understand the world in which they are growing up, the self-confidence to form their own attitudes and beliefs and the ability to use their knowledge and understanding to change the world for the better. That is why we must bring the legal framework for religion in schools up-to-date, and make it fit for modern times.
By Charles Clarke
I think state schools should be secular. I went to one and we learned about all the major religions with no dominant doctrine. It was great and I think I am sensitive and tolerant of others faith and certainly not a militant atheist
Don't RE lessons teach about a variety of religions already? My local school certainly does.
I agree with wotsit There should be a complete separation of church and state, and all state schools should be secular. There is no place for religious instruction/observance in state schools.
RE is already purely about education AFAIK but I do agree its remit should be expanded to other belief systems other than the major world religions eg humanism, atheism, wicca,
scientology cults etc.
Agree strongly, schools should be secular. I'm very annoyed with the lack of non-church schools here.
Never worked in a religious school as I'm an atheist and wouldn't feel comfortable doing so, but in all of the non-religious affiliated schools I've worked in there hasn't been any daily act of worship. It's just quietly ignored. Assemblies take place, but they don't have a religious context unless there is a major festival/event taking place (eid, easter, passover etc). Legislation just needs to catch up with the reality of what is happening in most schools already.
I agree. I am religious, but it is really important to me that my children get to explore religion for themselves. Well taught RE is a great subject, but in some schools it is used as s vehicle of indoctrination rather than questioning values.
I strongly believe that RE should be a taught in an unbiased, educational way - covering all religions, so children leave school with an understanding, insight and tolerance to others beliefs, this must include atheists.
My teen feels awkward as a non believer that her belief is not taught in class, so those that are religious understand this too. Reform is totally necessary.
This is long overdue and to be welcomed.
Over a decade or so on Mumsnet, I've seen innumerable threads in which parents are astonished by the non-secularity of non-faith schools because of the imposition of collective worship and dismayed by the disproportionate number of faith schools in some areas which result in no realistic 'choice' for those who do not want it. The general view is that teaching about religions is good, making kids participate in worship or be told as fact that one particular version of religion is factually true and superior isn't.
So - scrapping the requirement for collective worship is good. If it exists in any school it should be as an optional opt-in activity rather than the current exclusionary system.
Overhauling RE and introducing a national curriculum is also good. I'm not sure Religion and Morals hits exactly the right spot for the 21st century - Philosophy, Ethics and Religion might be better ( in particular for older pupils)
As to faith schools - sadly it does seem to be an intractable anachronism. The proliferation of new faith schools and the fact that it seems quite easy for a secular school to be converted into a faith school but the reverse is well-nigh impossible is worrying. Sectarian schooling, which is what is increasingly happening in some areas cannot possibly be a good thing.
The 'right' to a state funded faith school place would seem quite odd in many other western democracies - it really should be labelled as a privilege. The admissions system which give priority on the basis of parental faith (or willingness to warm a pew for a few years) disadvantages those who would simply like to be able to choose to send their child to their village school.
On that last point, ErrolTheDragon, you'll see that the report of which the OP is a summary considers it in detail.
The authors condemn the attendance at worship as a way of assessing adherence to a faith, and say that it leads to abuses. They also note that this criterion is also only ever used in a minority of faith schools. Nevertheless they say that admissions to faith schools needs to be reformed. That seems to me reasonable and unarguable.
As a Pagan, I have had a few unpleasant experiences in school with religion. I was told when I was 12 that I wasn't allowed to mention it in school, I was told that little could be done when I was being bullied because I was asking for it by being Pagan and I was told that I wouldn't get into uni because of it. It isn't even a Christian school. Apparently by being open about it and answering questions when asked I was "burning bridges".
When my mother phoned to complain about my treatment she mentioned accidentally that picking on me was totally unfair because there was a child who came from a pagan family. Cue hurried panic from head of year trying to find out from my mother who this other child was. I think religion in schools is fine as long as it doesn't result in what happened to me (and there's a heck of a lot more like it I could dredge up)
Ours isn't a faith school but it might as well be . I would love to see the back of collective worship - even the name makes me shudder - but unless schools are explicitly told they CANNOT have prayers etc in assembly, there are a lot of head teachers with their own agenda who would find a way to shoehorn in a few hymns and prayers. It is totally inappropriate IMO and divisive.
niminy - indeed. However it isn't entirely clear what would be a better alternative if any priority is to be given at all. I thought the use of attendance as a criterion was introduced because it was an objective measure.
I believe that just as being secular has a place in education, so does being non-secular.
If parents and children have the choice to choose a school based on the different levels of quality of education, they should also have the choice to choose a faith inspired or non faith based education. The key is that parents should have the choice to choose one over the other.
He's not saying he wants to ban faith schools though olive - just to keep collective worship out of secular schools.
I agree with him - much as it might make sense for religious families to follow their religious practices and educate their kids about them on their own time, in practice the state couldn't afford to buy the land church schools are built on.
I would like to see an assessment of demand for religious vs secular school in each area, and maybe enable non-religious families to be prioritised by secular schools in the same way as religious families are, to avoid the situation in some cities where religious families have choice and others in practice don't.
I would love to see the end of collective worship in schools. It just makes kids feel guilty if they don't believe.
notcitrus - the same lack of choice occurs in some rural areas where nearly all the village schools are CofE ( and VA at that ) with the odd RC for variety. Choosing a nonfaith school can be impossible.
France have got it right.
State schools are secukar and no student or teacher can show sogns of their religion when on school property.
They learn about religion though. That is important. But there is no worship or anything else.
When they set up their new rules I was a tad because of the discrimination against people wearing kippahs or headscarves.
But in practice, in most cases, they just slip them off and pop them on again at the end of the school day.
For children I think that is fair.
I have to say that France isn't really a model of emulate. Secularisation there really hasn't led to a promised land of understanding and tolerance.
More than any other part of the UK we need secular education in Northern Ireland ! We need to take religion out of schools and stop the ridiculous separation of our children. If parents wish to teach their religious views they are welcome to on their own time !
Regarding the non-abolition of faith schools because of the 'important right of choice', the only people who have the choice are religious e.g. They can state their preference for the local Catholic high school (if it's doing well) or the community school if that's doing better. Non-religious folk generally have a choice of one. And if that happens to be a 'sink' school, well, tough.
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