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Education: Behind the Pagan headlines

13 June 2012

David Hampshire tells the true story about the RE syllabus in which Cornwall was sensationalised by parts of the media

Syllabus shocker: how the Mail on Sunday reported Cornwall’s RE Curriculum

Syllabus shocker: how the Mail on Sunday reported Cornwall’s RE Curriculum

IN APRIL, Cornwall found itself at the middle of a small storm, which rumbled on for some weeks. Not the usual ones we get from the Atlantic, but one created by a news­paper that had sent out a “fishing” Freedom of Informa­tion re­quest to all local authorities in Eng­land.

The story concerned teaching about Paganism in Cornish schools, and readers could have been fooled into thinking we were bringing back human sacrifice — if we had ever had it.

Starting in the Mail on Sunday with the headline “And after double maths it will be . . . paganism: Schools told to put witchcraft and druids on RE syllabus”, the story was picked up by a number of journalists, not least Cristina Odone in The Daily Telegraph. This was followed by ripostes from writers such as Liz Williams in The Guardian.

What is interesting is that the story itself, and responses to it, have revealed a faultline in how we think about RE nationally. In 1988, the Education Reform Act restated the decision in the 1944 Education Act that local authorities had to have a locally agreed syllabus for their community (then county) and controlled schools.

In response to the development of the National Curriculum, at­tempts were made in 1994 and 2004 to have national documents drawn up to inform syllabus design. Both attempts failed to address an im­portant question: what makes a locally agreed syllabus local? This was the question that Cornwall’s agreed-syllabus conference (ASC) tried to answer in 2009.

From research done in Cornwall, it was evident that, for many pupils, RE was about “faraway people in faraway places”, and this was to the detriment of pupils’ religious edu­cation. Identifying a lack, though, is not the same as supplying a need.

So, after much discussion and consultation, the ASC decided to develop a specific section, which pointed teachers and pupils to religion in Cornwall, both past and present. This was based around three concepts: Cornwall as a place of spiritual enquiry; as a place of Chris­tianity; and as a place of other religious traditions. It was named Curriculum Kerne­wek — the Cornish Curriculum.

Curriculum Kernewek enables schools to look at the rich religious heritage of Cornwall, from neolithic times (about 4000 BC) to the present day, and allows schools to look at how both established and new religious traditions are making a difference to people’s lives, here and now.

When the news media focused on the Pagan content of the curriculum, it ignored the material about the Celtic saints, such as Petroc (d. 564), and Piran, the sixth-century patron saint of tin miners, whose feast is celebrated in Corn­wall on 5 March each year.

There are other treasures, too: the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, when the Crown forced the liturgy in English on to Cornish churches at a time when Cornish was still in frequent use; and how the language has been reintroduced into some Anglican church services in the 21st century.

Similarly, pupils in Cornwall need to know about John Wesley and the events at Gwennap Pit, and about his preaching in many Cornish towns and villages. And, surely, every student should know about the significance of street pastors in towns such as Redruth, St Austell, and Falmouth, as well as the food banks, found in places such as Camborne, which are supported by Anglican, Elim, and Metho­dist churches.

And what child would not be curious about the standing stones at the edge of their school’s field?

What is important for Cornwall Council is that the introduction of the Curriculum Kernewek appears to be working and making an impact. Recent research among 38 schools (a mixture of primary and secondary) showed that all thought that this section helped them to focus more on their locality. Eighty-one per cent found the section easy to use, and 71 per cent said that this section had added some­thing valuable to RE in their school. Teachers interviewed also reported a rise in pupil en­gagement with RE.

Despite the sensationalism in the media, what Cornwall has done by focusing on the local has had a positive impact on the reli­gious education of pupils and its pro­vision in our schools. Perhaps more ASCs need to ask: “What would it mean for a pupil to be reli­giously educated here?”

David Hampshire is county RE adviser for Cornwall.

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