IN JUNE, Professor Linda Woodhead and I published a proposal, A New Settlement: Religion and belief in schools. It seeks to articulate a growing consensus, and help change the current law. Seventy years after the landmark 1944 Education Act, it urges a comprehensive reassessment of the relationship between religion and schools.
The 18 policy recommendations include a national curriculum for RE, to strengthen its academic position; and a proposal to permit schools to conduct assemblies in ways that reflect their own ethos and values. We are positive about the value of faith schools, and supportive of the fact that Christian schools may choose to have a daily act of Christian worship, but we do not believe that this should any longer be a matter of compulsion in all schools.
Our document was intended to promote discussion, but the case for change is straightforward: society needs to take account of the fact that there have been immense changes in both schools and religion over those 70 years.
THE initial response to our pamphlet was generally sympathetic. There was supportive comment and constructive criticism from a wide range of individuals and organisations. There is a readiness to look for constructive ways forward.
We had a useful discussion with the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, who was open-minded and engaged. In parallel, the Welsh Minister for Education and Skills, Huw Lewis, has told the Welsh Assembly that he wants to see a transformation of the current RE curriculum to help combat extremism.
It is, however, the response from the main Christian churches — the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church — that will be central to future consideration of this issue.
Besides the Free Churches, these Churches were the main participants in the Church-State dialogue that led to the 1944 settlement; between them, they control more than 95 per cent of the more than 5000 faith schools in England today, and represent a strong and influential section of opinion. Without their full engagement, no government is likely to act.
The Catholic Education Service (CES) generally welcomed the report. It emphasised our recommendations about school admissions and employment, but then went on to say: “Given the distinctive nature of RE in [Roman] Catholic schools, any national RE curriculum would not fulfil the purposes of RE in both Catholic and community schools. Catholic schools will continue to follow the RE curriculum as set out by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales.”
This response prompts the question: What would the relationship of the RE curriculum determined by the Roman Catholic bishops be to any national RE curriculum? It also implicitly raises the question why the State should fund what the CES considers to be an essentially private interest.
IN JULY, the General Synod heard from the Bishop of Ely that the Church of England’s National Society would be considering our report at its next meeting in November. Its response will be important, since the duty of the Established Church is to consider the overall interests of society at a time when concern about the place of religion in schools is widespread, and comes from many different directions, including worries about quality, fundamentalism of all kinds, and an increasingly secular society that gives insufficient priority to religion and other belief systems.
The National Society needs to ensure that it does not allow a tail of minority voices to wag the mainstream dog. From the point of view of a sympathetic outsider such as myself, the C of E has allowed this to happen on too many occasions in recent years: for example, on the issues of same-sex marriage, and women priests and then bishops.
Linda and I strongly believe that embracing the changes we propose will help rather than hinder the Churches’ standing in society.
Clinging to every element of the 1944 settlement is no solution: it is demonstrably clear that its provisions — including compulsory Christian worship in schools — have not helped to increase support for the Churches, or stemmed their decline.
OPPONENTS of any kind of change who resort to dishonest abuse show that they are not able to deal with the real issues. The response of some minorities pretended that we wanted to undermine freedom of religious belief and abolish religious education, faith schools, and Christian worship. These are absurd claims, which are simply false.
I hope that the National Society will rise to the challenge and place the Church of England where it should be — at the centre of the national debate about the future relationship between religion and schools. On this matter, it is essential for mainstream church opinion to engage fully, to stand up and be counted, and so to ensure that the debate is not abandoned to the secular and religious extremes.
Charles Clarke was Secretary of State for Education and Skills under Tony Blair, from 2002 to 2004, and then Home Secretary until 2006.