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Legal requirements for RE and worship in schools questioned

19 June 2015


THE 1944 settlement, the basis for governing religious education, school worship, and denominational schools for the past seven decades, should be replaced with an agreement in tune with modern reality, a former Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, said this week.

Mr Clarke calls for the change in a pamphlet, A New Settlement: Religion and belief in schools, cowritten with Professor Linda Woodhead, a colleague at Lancaster University, where he is a visiting professor in politics and religion.

"It is clear to us", they say, "that the educational settlement between Church and State formalised in the 1944 Education Act, and reflected a different era, no longer serves its purpose."

Their argument is driven by their conviction that greater diversity has increased the importance of religion rather than diminished it. On Mr Clarke's part, that conviction is reinforced by his subsequent experience as Home Secretary. Knowledge of what religions are, and what they are not, as part of a general public understanding, would counter extremism and contribute to cohesion, he said on Monday.

The pamphlet's recommendation that the legal requirement for a daily act of collective worship in schools should be scrapped, because it is more often honoured in form than substance, captured the headlines when the pamphlet - which is almost a template for the future of faith schools and religious education - was published on Monday.

But Mr Clarke's and Professor Woodhead's objective, based on their belief in the critical part played by religious education, is a root-and-branch overhaul of the system that delivers it.

They argue for an end to the current system, under which RE is taught according to a multitude of local agreed syllabuses drawn up by committees of teachers and religious representatives.

Mr Clarke and Professor Woodhead say that it has undermined standards and confidence in the subject, and should be replaced by a national syllabus for the subject, possibly renamed religious and moral education, and determined by the Secretary of State in consultation with a National Standing Advisory Council on RE. The syllabus should be entirely educational, and free of any confessional content.

With the agreement of the Churches and other faith-school providers, the Government should consider legislating to require all schools to adopt the syllabus they propose, the pamphlet says. "If these changes are agreed, the right of parents to withdraw their children from the religious education part of the curriculum should be withdrawn."

The current legal requirement for RE to be part of the post-16 curriculum should be removed, and should be modified at Key Stage 4 (ages 14 to 16) "to a wider study of religious, ethical, and cultural values". OFSTED should revive a stronger attitude to the inspection of RE and assemblies, the pamphlet recommends.

Mr Clarke knows from his experience as Education Secretary from 2002 to 2004, when he encouraged the development of a national framework for RE, that the proposed change to a legally backed national syllabus will be welcomed by modernisers, but resisted by diehard "localists".

His sympathisers in the RE world, however, convinced that improved standards in RE depend on its being treated on the same basis as other subjects, are now in a stronger position.

The pamphlet has been generally welcomed by RE professionals. Mark Chater, director of the Oxford-based Culham St Gabriel's institute, which supports church schools and religious education, said that, if implemented, the "bold and thoughtful" proposal would "give RE teachers a clear minimum statutory entitlement, and allow curriculum freedom at local level".

But criticism of the recommendation to end the requirement for post-16 RE, and change the focus of RE on the Key Stage 4 curriculum, has already begun. It was challenged at Monday's launch by the Church of England's chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders.

Later, Mr Genders said that the proposal would result in "a further watering-down of RE, and a lack of the rigour which the report so eloquently demands". The proposal seemed at odds with Mr Clarke's and Professor Woodhead's objective of school leavers' achieving deeper religious literacy, he argued.

Furthermore, the C of E supported the continuation of collective worship in all schools, Mr Genders said. "There is flexibility in the provision to enable all children to benefit without compromising their faith or lack of it." Changing its statutory status would leave little opportunity for children to engage in reflection during the school day, he said.


'Keep faith schools, but make admissions fairer'

CHURCH schools, and others with a religious designation, should remain part of the national schools system, the Clarke-Woodhead manifesto argues, writes Margaret Holness. "Children of families of faith should, where possible, be able to attend schools of that faith and . . . their current right to be given priority in the admissions process should not be removed."

Moreover, the authors suggest that faith schools need to employ staff who are able to carry out the mission of the school "which may, exceptionally, require the ability to discriminate, which the law now grants them".

While disappointing secularists and pleasing the providers of church and other faith schools, the Clarke-Woodhead support for faith schools is not unqualified. Their pamphlet refers to legitimate concerns about fairness in admissions and staff employment.

Their principal criticism of admissions criteria is the use of attendance at worship as a requirement. On the employment of teachers, their view is that "in general . . . the requirement that a teacher or headteacher be in sympathy with the aims of the school and its faith, and willing to uphold and promote them, is sufficient."

The authors single out the Church of England Education Office for its progress on admissions procedures to its 1600 voluntary aided schools, where governors are responsible for criteria. They say, however, that: "The Churches need to make strong and continued progress in addressing the very real concerns about fairness. . . Changes in the legal position should be considered as an urgent matter if faith bodies fail to make progress."

In a comment on the pamphlet, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, the chairman of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns against religious discrimination in state-funded schools, said that a 50-per-cent limit on faith places imposed on academies and free schools should be extended to voluntary and foundation schools.


'More and better religion, not less'  -  Schools need to teach about the real thing now more than ever, says Paul Vallely

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