IT WAS 17-year-old Emma Horne, from Rainham Mark Grammar School, in Kent, who raised the biggest laugh. “If you really want to learn about religion, you can just Google it,” she said, using her 30-second speaking-slot to make the case in favour of the motion “In an increasingly secular society there is no need for RE [religious education]”.
In the end, Miss Horne was on the losing side, as what the chairs, Shazia Anjoom and Taznin Chowdhury, agreed was an “overwhelming majority” voted against the motion in this debate inside the Palace of Westminster on the merits of RE among some 80 Year-12 pupils (aged 16-17) from schools across the country.
And, although there were many arguments against RE — it has no place in society while church attendance is falling; it should be subsumed into cultural studies or “citizenship”; and, even, it is “a remnant of an ancient indoctrination” — the case for teaching about faith prevailed.
RE helps to tackle extremism, most students argued, and, as one pupil pointed out on the question whether the Government “should repeal the right to withdraw”, RE was good for you, whether you liked it or not: like physical education. “Just because you don’t enjoy a subject . . . doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it,” another said. “I hated maths, but where was my right to withdraw?”
The vote on the right to withdraw –— which came into effect with the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 — was initially split down the middle, until those in favour marginally won the day. The third — “You learn more by studying other people’s world-views than you do by studying your own” — passed more comfortably.
The debates, which took place on Monday, were organised jointly by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, and RE Today Services.
A report published jointly by the groups, The State of the Nation: A report on Religious Education provision within secondary schools in England, suggested that 28 per cent of secondary schools had told the Department for Education that they gave no dedicated time to RE.
Academies were the least likely type of school to offer RE. And, although the number of pupils in England and Wales studying RE has risen in recent years — the number taking GCSE religious studies went up in 2015 by 5.3 per cent alongside A Level entries, which were up 6.5 per cent in 2015 — there was a decline of 37,500 between 2017 and 2018 in entries for the GCSE Religious Studies full course, to 260,300 (down 10.5 per cent).
Speaking before the event, Stephen Pound, a Labour MP and a Roman Catholic, said: “Religious education is crucial for two reasons. One is the comparative aspect: knowledge is the antidote to fear, and if you don’t understand about other religions then you can fear other religions.
“I’ve always thought the heart of Christianity is quite simply three words: Love thy neighbour. And I see that in other faiths; I think comparative religion is so useful. But, above all, the reason for it is . . . we need to understand the purpose of life. Only religion, worship, faith can lead you down that path.”
Asked about schools that did not teach RE, Mr Pound said: “I think it’s like a school not teaching survival. If you don’t have that faith component, then what is the point?”
The event was hosted by the Labour MP Liz Twist. She was standing in for the Conservative MP William Wragg, who was unexpectedly absent. Ms Twist praised the pupils’ time-keeping skills, and said that the House of Commons had much to learn from them.