EXTREMISM faces us with a generational and ideological struggle. We have seen the impact of its violence at its very worst. In such a world, is it hopelessly naïve to think that we can live well together? What part does education play in making this possible?
This year, there have already been attempts to begin to answer some of these questions, with solutions that range from possible greater inspection powers for OFSTED to intervention in unregistered schools, and a new government website that gives parents, teachers, and school leaders practical advice on protecting children from extremism and radicalisation.
I strongly endorse the Government’s drive to protect children from harm, and the risk of radicalisation, and acknowledge the need for the Government to act against any institutions that promote violent extremism. In this context, however, it is tempting to embrace the renewed interest in religion, and see religious education as being essential because it is primarily about answering those concerns.
But, although it is true that good religious education will contribute in these areas, looking solely for RE to provide answers is to accept a simplistic narrative that says that religion is the cause of most of the problems in the world. It is not. Seeing religion as the driver of extremist behaviour, or as being the presenting issue on which communities are divided is a mistake.
Dr Anne Aly, the author of Terrorism and Global Security: Historical and contemporary perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), states that there is “no empirical evidence to support the claim that religion (any religion) and ideology are the primary motivators of violent extremism. . . The world’s most renowned scholars of terrorism agree that other factors play a much larger part.
“Factors such as anger at injustice, moral superiority, a sense of identity and purpose, the promise of adventure, and becoming a hero have all been implicated in case-studies of radicalisation. Religion and ideology serve as vehicles for an ‘Us versus them’ mentality, and as the justification for violence against those who represent ‘the enemy’, but they are not the drivers of radicalisation.”
RELIGION is not the problem, but RE is part of the solution, because it is about giving people the critical skills they need to question and engage with their own and other traditions, and to do so in a way that grows in depth and maturity of understanding and expression. This is just one of the ways in which our schools and colleges can help communities to live well together.
At one of our recent conferences, it became clear to me that emerging from the experiences of young people are the answers to how our society can live well together. The advice given that day by sixth formers to teachers, school and faith leaders, academics, and Department for Education ministers and officials centred on the importance of knowing in depth the different faiths; that this is taught across the curriculum; and that schools have a responsibility to educate whole families, as well as the pupils in their care.
Theological literacy is a key building-block to developing pupils’ own voices, delegates agreed. They included representatives from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Muslim Youth Foundation, Church of England schools, the Catholic Education Service, the Madani Schools Federation (a Muslim secondary school in Leicester), and the Methodist Church.
LIVING well together is born out of the moral, cultural, and spiritual formation of the individual, and many of our church schools, which have developed their own models to suit their distinct communities, are becoming beacons to others.
St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, a C of E secondary school serving a diverse urban population in Bristol, has developed three core qualities, which are integrated into the whole life of the school, from weekly worship themes to the school-development plan, and everyday conversations in lessons.
At Bishop Bridgeman C of E Primary School, in Bolton, 80 per cent of the pupils are from non-Christian faiths, including Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism.
For five years, the school has had an ethos group, consisting of more than 60 pupils, which develops and delivers collective worship, conducts learning walks, and runs “super learning” days for the whole school. The children have also written a booklet for pupils about the values of the school.
The impact on learning attainment has been significant: parents have expressed their great appreciation, and the open and inclusive approach to faith which is present between the teachers is reflected in relationships across the school.
We can and we must learn from these examples. We will counter the extremists’ propaganda only when living well together is not an agenda item to be taught from a piece of directive legislation, but becomes simply a way of life that imbues the classroom and homes of our villages, towns, and cities.
The Revd Nigel Genders is the C of E’s Chief Education Officer.