Religious Education in Schools is Failing

From John Baxter, 2 Lifeguard Villas, South St., Wincanton BA9 9DW 8-11-2013

Dear David,

Religious Education in Schools is Failing                                                                  Not my headline. It was depressing to hear in October that the BBC and the major papers reported that RE is failing in many schools because it has been downgraded and because too many teachers are not trained to teach it.  The report could have added that with a situation like this who would choose to train to be a specialist Religious Studies teacher?  What is happening is exactly what I predicted would happen with Gove’s policies in this area.

1. First he refused to allow RS to be regarded as a humanities option in the new Baccalaureate saying only History or Geography could be chosen. This removes RS from being taken as a serious academic subject and destroys its standing.

2. All LEAs, working with all the local churches and other religions (the SACREs) have drawn up with some excellent guidance from central government, open, well planned syllabuses for non-exam RE lower in the schools. Gove has almost destroyed all LEAs and I am sure that when he became Secretary of State for Education it came as a great surprise to find that legally the LEA’s are responsible for RE. His reaction has been to allow all Academies and Free Schools to ignore this guidance and leave them free to teach what they like from whatever biased “faith” point of view their school governors sanction, be it exclusive Catholicism, fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity or rigid and intolerant forms of Islam.  Critical thinking, tolerance and openness will inevitably suffer as more and more young people will learn less and less about the culture and beliefs of those not like themselves and as fewer and fewer have opportunities for examination work in Religious Studies. This is tragic.

All this means that just when RE was showing how important it is to help students/pupils both work out and reflect on their own beliefs and values and to understand and respect something of the religions and cultures both of Christians and those of other religions and the views of those who reject any religion, the place of this vital, important and interesting area of education is being critically downgraded.

We have seen what happens when “faith groups” have control of schools and RE.  Northern Ireland where sectarian schools keep alive sectarian antipathies is a powerful case in point. Being nice to the Catholics here may seem OK, but what happens if we have a proliferation of burka wearing academies and free schools?  The long term effect of undermining good open Religious Education and academic Religious Studies together with more and more divisive “faith” schools could seriously undermine our open and tolerant culture.

Now the RE Council for England and Wales has launched their report.  In it they summarise:

Beyond the need for parity,(with other humanities subjects) a wider set of challenges for RE has arisen in the past three years, mainly as the result of large-scale changes in education made by the Coalition government. These include

the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, towards whose achievement GCSE Religious Studies cannot be counted,

significant reforms of GCSE and A Level qualifications,

the extension of the academies programme and introduction of free schools, all of which have implications for the way in which RE and its curriculum are decided and supported. (a polite way of noting the side-stepping of SACRE and handing RE over to the governors of faith schools , also given its membership the RE Council is hardly likely to complain about the setting up of so many “faith” schools))

Local authority cuts have also led to the reduction of local support for RE, and

the number of new trainee teachers has been slashed. (despite the chronic shortage of RE specialists)

The total number of GCSE Religious Studies entries has started to decline after many years of growth

I find this very sad. It is also catastrophically stupid and short-sighted. Yesterday we had the heads of the security services speaking to the Commons Select Committee pointing out that they consider that there are several thousand young men so infected with the Islamist jihadi ideology that they pose THE major threat to the security of the country.

That this would happen was totally predictable when the Wahabi Sunni Islam funded by the Saudis continues to be promoted as the normative form of Islam in this country. In my paper Religious Fundamentalism, Open Religious Education and the Terrorist Threat, The Open Society and Its Enemies Today ( which I wrote  a year after “9-11” and gave a copy to Nick Clegg which he told me he read saying his brother had made similar points to him) I predicted that would happen and in 2009 when I came and saw you at a meeting in Wells I gave you a list of recommendations for party policy as regards promoting open RE.  They were all ignored by both you and the party. Why? See again

Like the war in Syria, there is no military solution.  The only long term solution is EDUCATION EDUCATION EDUCATION and that means high quality Open RE as part of the curriculum for every pupil and student for that is the only way to corrode the false certainties of fundamentalism and the intolerance of racists and to provide young people with the knowledge and skills to stand up and express their own beliefs and values in a rational manner. Open societies do not just happen.  They have to be actively promoted. These appalling moves which Gove has initiated do not bode well for our society.

So what now? As the days of the Coalition draw to a close you have the opportunity not only to argue as Nick has done  for qualified teachers in all state supported schools, but also

OFSTED inspected RE in all – including “faith” schools and

the placing of RS as an option in the Baccalaureate. Then there needs to be

special incentives for RS graduates to go into teaching and

special incentives for universities to run good courses in Islamic Studies for our future Immams and sheiks.

With best wishes, Sincerely,