Comments on A New Settlement: Religions and Belief in Schools 6-2015

To see two really serious players in politics and religion studies – Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead – promoting the place of Open RE as being central to the growth and stability of an open, liberal and democratic society and not a minor element of educational policy is most encouraging. To see them go further and put the time, effort and research into producing this document is inspiring. It is also necessary as every day since the launch of this document has brought reports of religious and cultural conflicts polarising societies and endangering our own. The Tunisia massacre being the latest. I find this an excellent document for it could trigger much needed social and political change. As someone who spent 25 years teaching RE in schools it has been very encouraging for me to see how close the agreement is between what I have seen as important (as shown in my paper Open RE and its Enemies-which I know is no more than the independently thought out wish list of a retired teacher) and what they promote in this paper .

This comes out clearly if I look at the 17 recommendations I made which are also made orwell addressed in this paper.

  1. Recruit More RE Teachers and Value them More. 6. RE should become part of the National Curriculum. 7. Discourage Single Religion Exam Syllabuses in Schools. (now adopted by the exam boards I think) 9. Licence and Inspect ALL schools. ( A sea change. Vital. Very brave.) 10. Encourage an Open and Tolerant Approach in Faith Based Schools (vital) 11. “Charm” the Catholic Church into accepting and practicing Open RE (what a mountain) 12. Keep RE in the forefront of OFSTED reports. (Vital) 14. End Compulsory Worship in non-faith schools. ( you simply leave it to the schools.) 15. Open RE must allow Controversy, Criticisms of Religion and Expressions of the Secular Option (humanism) (Vital) 16. Provide Open RE in 6th Forms and FE. (complex but very important. See below.)

France and the US The paper also – a bit more politely than mine – makes the case against having no Open RE in schools – as is the case in France and the US.

The Overall Message of The New Settlement This is a strong one. Open RE should become part of the National Curriculum. It should be compulsory in all secondary schools as an examination option of at least E-Bac standard and as part of wider RE PSHE. No opt outs for parents or schools – whatever their nature – primary or secondary, l.e.a, academy, faith or independent.

They argue the case for this new settlement very well, but many will see this as being a revolutionary move despite it being built on present best practice. ( It will also be a unique British first, surely. ) Wisely you cover up your aim with gentle words and talk of co-operation and consultation and bringing about change in stages. They also have a clever and sensible plan for a national SACRE to advise the Secretary of State and stop political interference and a new and useful role for local SACREs to get on with helping local schools and faith communities interact with visits etc.

They recognise that this will be dependent on a greatly strengthened and expanded force of OFSTED inspectors.

They also recognise that the changes you suggest, though they may be accepted on the whole by liberal Anglicans, will be objected to and fought against first by the Catholic Church who consider the Religion curriculum in their schools should be under the control of its Rome appointed hierarchy alone, (an interesting example of foreign interference) then by Orthodox and Haredi Judaism who want no goy interference with what they do or with whom they do it to take place in their state-funded schools. They are also backed by a fearfully powerful lobby no politician can face without trepidation.

Islam is however the biggest problem for Muslim students do or may soon outnumber the total number of practicing members of ALL the other religions in the country put together, ( though probably not the total number of young people who would profess having “no religion”.) Muslim organisations too will find it hard to accept infidels telling them not only what to teach in Religion classes, but how to behave – particularly in this climate of outrage at jihadis.

This is where the points in my paper which are not in the New Settlement paper I think remain important. These are: 1. Explore (and counter) the Wahhabi Saudi Influence on British Islam. 2. Promote and Encourage an Islamic Reformation. 4. Teaching About Islam as part of Open RE needs to be Improved.

  1. Our Universities In my paper I refer to something only touched on as a footnote on p38 of the New Settlement paper which is that this whole issue of teaching religion MUST be co-ordinated with higher and further education. The open academic study of religion in our universities is vitally linked to what happens in our schools, not only because that is where teachers are formed, not only because that is where students come to maturity as regards their own beliefs and values and not only because this influences our whole culture and society as they go out to work, but because it can only be in our universities that the needed study can proceed to develop a self-confident, open Muslim culture, a culture capable of challenging and taking apart Wahhabi fundamentalism and its claim to be the only authentic Islam. (I think you may have an ally here in Louise Richardson the new Vice Chancellor of Oxford. Perhaps you have already been in touch with her. )

Further Education Colleges For the same reasons it strikes me to take all consideration of beliefs, values and PSHE out in FE colleges is dangerous for those who are vulnerable to fall for jihadi fundamentalism are as likely to be in FE as they are to be at University.

Renaming the subject It is suggested the subject be renamed Religious and Moral Education. This is fine but many students might prefer Religion and Ethics for what we do, or Religion Philosophy and Ethics for A level courses. If the Scots have gone for RME that might be good. With regard to RE professor John Hull always argued that education by its very nature has to be both open – in the sense of critical and questioning – and moral – in the sense that respect for the autonomy of the person being educated is crucial. I still feel that this can be very well brought out by prefixing the word “open” whenever possible as it challenges unambiguously those who equate RE with religious instruction. ( I like the way the paper spells out the difference between instruction, formation and Open RE, but getting this accepted will remain a battle)

The Real Jihadi Danger Could Precipitate Real Change If we intend and hope to facilitate a deeper sense of belonging and participation in our society by British Muslims, they have to see that the way their religion is treated is the same way Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, Judaism and other religions and world-views are treated and taught. The growth of jihadi fundamentalism threatens us all and if Open RE is the best way to handle it, it must be seen as the way forward in ALL schools, Jewish, Catholic and Muslim alike – not to mention those of other faith groups and those who see themselves as being humanists “without religion.”

Increasing an awareness of this may be the best way to encourage both the Catholic hierarchy and the Jewish establishment to accept the need for truly open RE to be practiced in their schools as Muslim schools and pupils also learn that Open RE (and with it a fair understanding of Judaism, Christianity and Humanism) is a pre-condition for ANY school being in receipt of state funding and ANY private school that is to be licensed.

John Baxter. 30th-6-2015