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Posted on Tue 29 January 2019

Statement at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education

I Welcome the sustained work done by the REC’s Commission on Religious Education in Schools. In particular, we can welcome the suggestion that there should be an entitlement to religious education for pupils in all schools. Given an increasingly religious world, it is vital for children to be aware of religions, their teachings and practices and what impact these have both on their adherents and on others in society. The content of such an entitlement, however, should take seriously how religions are actually practised, as well as local diversity in such practice, rather than relying on abstractions. Any provision must be child – centred and must take account of how religious belief and practice can contribute to a child’s spiritual, moral, cultural and intellectual development.

We can welcome also the emphasis on the provision of resources both at the initial training stage for teachers and for their continuing professional development. This is especially appropriate because the last Ofsted subject review found standards in this subject to be less than good in half of the schools inspected. This must be set right if children are to be equipped for life in today’s and tomorrow’s world.

We note that the ‘ independent’ commission was appointed by the REC’s Council without consultation, I understand, with the membership of the REC and neither the REC nor its Commission have any official status. Nevertheless, because of its membership and the extent of its work, the Commission’s report needs to be taken seriously.

In spite of this, I welcome the government’s decision not to make any legislative changes as a result of the report.It is important that the consensus around the 1944, 88 and 93 Acts regarding religious education and collective worship should remain determinative for legislation and policy. This means that, given our history, Christianity should continue to receive special attention but that other world faiths should also be studied in ways appropriate to the contexts in which schools find themselves today.

I am very much in favour of non- religious world views being studied in schools but I doubt whether RE is the place for such study. In the nature of the case, RE has been about the beliefs, practices and social forms of religions. If other world views are included, this will, necessarily, reduce the time available for religions. In our day and age, this would be most undesirable. Is it possible to find room for some discussion of these world views in subjects like history, philosophy, politics/ civics or personal, social and health education?

There has been widespread unease with recommendation(4) that the role of Agreed Syllabuses Conferences should cease and be replaced, presumably, by Programmes of Study to be developed nationally by experts appointed by the Department of Education on the recommendation of the REC.There seems to be a democratic deficit here. It has been pointed out that the involvement of faith communities locally is crucial because RE can then reflect the local faith situation more accurately and also because the involvement of local leaders gives confidence to parents and children. As the National Association of Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education state, there is no evidence that ASCs have not done their work properly and centralising it will remove democratic checks and balances, as well as local ownership.

The same can be said about Recommendation 8 which seeks to replace SACREs themselves with something called a Local Advisory Network. Even if some reform is needed in the make up of SACREs, doing away with a well recognised and regarded body to be replaced with a ‘toothless tiger’ is hardly a solution.

What is needed for the future of RE is an approach that takes seriously the lived experience of faith in particular localities, how it affects its adherents and what impact it has on the community as a whole.We need well established and working relationships between schools and local religious groups.In these ways RE will be better able to contribute to understanding amongst different faith groups in the community and thus to integration and cohesion. These things cannot be delivered by fiat from above.

RE is a first step towards a religiously literate society. This is a sine qua non for recognising and combatting extremism and for building good relations between different groups in the community and the nation at large.

One question that has not been dealt with is the relation of RE to subjects like history, English, geography and science. Religious awareness can provide heightened awareness of historical events. The contribution of the Bible’s translation into English to the development of literature in that language is vast and hugely influential.The same can be said of the BCP.Knowledge of the religious background of people living in different parts of the world, enriches our understanding of their culture and way of life.The complementarity of religion and science should be better recognised if we are to avoid both scientistic and religious fundamentalism. Each has a valid field of discourse and while there can be and should be mutual dialogue and critique, unscientific reductionism should be avoided. RE’s emphasis on the transcendent dimension of life, on worship, on value and meaning serve as an important complement to the teaching of empirical science.

Let us then continue with the consensus reaffirmed many times since 1944. Let us give back to RE the status it has lost in recent years and let us resource it generously. The well being of our society depends on it.

+Michael Nazir-Ali 29 January, 2019.

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