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Religion and belief in public life: responses to Lord Harries’s article

11 December 2015


From Mr David Hampshire

Sir, — In his article, the Rt Revd Lord Harries (Comment, 4 December), a member of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, states that there “are something like 174 different” agreed syllabuses for religious education.

While it is true that there are 150 local authorities in England and 22 in Wales, it does not follow that there are 172 agreed syllabuses. In areas where there were previously large shire counties, such as Devon, from which a number of unitary authorities were created — often with the shire county remaining in part — syllabuses are commonly shared, and the review process is done collaboratively.

For example Devon, Plymouth, and Torbay share a syllabus, as do Somerset, North Somerset, Bath and North East Somerset, and Bristol. In the latter case, this agreed syllabus has been adopted by the Isles of Scilly and Haringey local authorities.

Since 2004, all but two agreed syllabuses have followed the National Framework for RE published by the QCA, and, increasingly, agreed-syllabuses conferences are using the Curriculum Framework for RE published in 2013 by the RE Council. It is my understanding that in Wales one agreed-syllabus framework has been used for some time, and all the authorities have adopted this in the Principality, effectively making one syllabus for 22 authorities.

To claim that there are “about 174” syllabuses for RE in use across England and Wales is simply wrong, and shows a misunderstanding of the processes that have been going on since 1988. It concerns me that those who would seek to pronounce on issues such as agreed syllabuses and religious education appear to have such little understanding of the reality on the ground.

Chair of the National Association of SACREs
28 Trelawney Road, Camborne
Cornwall TR14 7LN


From the Rt Revd Michael Bourke

Sir, — I wonder whether it may be helpful to the debate on the future of RE and faith schools to give serious attention to other European models, and particularly to the situation in Germany, with which I am familiar through my time as Bishop Nick Baines’s predecessor on the Meissen Commission.

German education policy is determined by the Länder, and there have been some recent moves towards an inter-religious ethics-and-philosophy type of syllabus, notably in Berlin-Brandenburg. But the system in most parts of the country is that RE is delivered in state schools by the parish clergy and other faith leaders, according to parental allegiance and choice.

Thus, Protestant pastors and Roman Catholic priests, imams, and other accredited faith teachers visit the schools each week to educate “their” young people to examination level, and the faith communities are responsible (within national and regional guidelines) for the syllabus.

Our two nations have, of course, very different educational histories, and it is natural for us to defend our own church-school system and promote its merits. But the general level of religious literacy is now so low that I have often wondered whether, in the long term, the Churches would not do better to contribute their considerable educational resources towards a really first-class religious education in all schools rather than maintain separate schools with their inevitably controversial admissions criteria.

No doubt the German system has its weaknesses, but we should consider some of its merits.

First, young people are brought up together without segregation into separate faith schools, thus avoiding (at least educationally) the danger of ghettoisation.

Second, while RE is delivered separately, the school is responsible for ensuring mutual respect, toleration, open debate, and common values.

Third, the content of RE reflects the actual faith of the Churches and other communities, and not some watered-down version, and it is delivered by people who are theologically educated to a high level.

Fourth, the clergy are trained (and partly paid) as teachers, and are required to have regular, intensive, and supervised contact with large numbers of young people.

As we debate faith schools and RE over the coming months, I hope that we can avoid identifying the future of Christianity with the survival of the present English and Welsh system, and at least give serious consideration to these other alternatives, which, as far as I know, have not so far been mentioned.

The Maltings, Little Stretton
Shropshire SY6 6AP

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