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Doubling up in RS

14 November 2014

THE new proposal that the exam syllabus for GCSE and A level should make the study of two religions compulsory is welcome. We understand that elements in the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church were reluctant at first, wishing to be free to teach Christianity alone and in greater depth. This argument is not groundless: university students are permitted to study single-religion theology with only a passing reference to other faiths. Since extremism is an unspoken factor in these reforms, there is nothing that says students are in danger at school, then out of harm's way once they have finished their A levels.

The benefits of studying another religion, however, completely outweigh the advantages of delving deeper into a single one. Visiting Birmingham last weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the Church's work in "places of great diversity, where building cohesion is going to take serious efforts at reconciliation". Part of the work of reconciliation is to explain one's own culture and faith as clearly and honestly as possible. Another part, though, is understanding the faith and culture of those with whom one seeks to cohere. In his address in Birmingham, Archbishop Welby spoke about the compelling need for religious literacy. Its lack is finally being recognised as a key element in the world's most brutal conflicts. In surveys, lists of regrets usually include the failure to learn a foreign language. Children are usually the quickest in their families at learning a new language when they are exposed to it. Thus schools that teach both the familiar religion and the strange can be in the vanguard of community reconciliation.

One caveat. The words "compulsory" and "Christianity" do not sit well together. For this reason, we have sympathy with those who have framed the new Religious Studies requirement without stipulating that one of the religions studied should always be Christianity. But this is a mistake that the Education Secretary should rectify. For one thing, compulsion is already there: the Christian faith must be taught at every Key Stage from the ages of five to 16, and this is not intended to change. It is thus a part of the short-course GCSE in religious education, which has grown in popularity over the past decade (although it is now being starved of resources because the results do not contribute to a school's place on the league tables). It seems an anomaly that pupils who opt to study religion more seriously will no longer be required to study Christianity. This is not a matter of proselytism: the syllabus will demand of the students a dispassionate assessment of the nature and impact of any faith they study. The Christian faith is a central element in the history and culture of this country, and many other parts of the world. It informs much of the philosophy and ethics element in the curriculum. It deserves a special place in schools because it has a special place in society.

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