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Posted on Tue 30 January 2024

Religion in schools is too important to marginalise

This article was published in “The Times” in the credo section on Saturday 27 January 2024 and is being reproduced with the permission of The Times.

The recent debate over Michaela School’s ban on prayer raises profound questions about spiritual education.

Much ink has already been spilt about the decision by Michaela School in northwest London to ban Muslim pupils from praying during school hours. I agree that the school authorities are within their rights to disallow any activity that disrupts the delivery of education and separates one religious or racial group from others in ways that jeopardise the ethos of the school.

There are some, however, who are using this situation to marginalise religion in schools altogether. As it was put to me, “Let’s kick religion out of schools!”. This would be unfortunate because, for better or worse, religion plays a huge role for many in terms of their personal identity. 

It is also a significant force in world affairs, which cannot be understood without reference to it, and many humanitarian, peacemaking and developmental charities have a religious basis to them.

Successive Education Acts have required the teaching of religious education in our schools. Such teaching is not propaganda, as some claim, but the acquiring of necessary knowledge by pupils. At present in state schools without a religious foundation the syllabus is locally agreed, keeping in mind the religious make-up of a particular community and with the advice of multi-faith Sacres (Standing Advisory Committees on Religious Education).

There is, at present, a campaign to replace religious education (RE) with teaching on “religion and world views”. The content for this would be nationally, rather than locally, determined. The adoption and observance of religion is not just about having a “world view”. It has to do with every aspect of a believer’s life; rites of passage at birth, marriage and death, the celebration of festivals, rituals of worship and prayer are all involved.It is very important for pupils to learn about their own faiths and those of their neighbours if they are to develop a rounded view of the communities in which they live. This is also true of the world in which they will have to live and which they need to understand.

For these reasons, the law in this country requires that the teaching of RE should have Christianity as a main focus, because of its influence over the centuries on our institutions, the law, literature, art and architecture and much else.At the same time, it also provides for the teaching of other religions in proportion to their presence here or their importance globally. For these reasons, the involvement of local faith communities is vital in delivering an effective RE syllabus but national, and indeed global, input is also necessary. It is good for pupils to learn about “world views”, such as Marxism or humanism, but this can be done, for example, in the course of teaching history, social studies or philosophy, and is a world away from the teaching of religion. 

The law also provides for the holding of assemblies in schools for the spiritual formation of pupils. Given the history of these islands, they are to be of a wholly or mainly Christian character, while taking account of other faiths that may be present in the school and the local community.  Some feel that this is a circle that cannot be squared, and lack of resources and commitment mean that the law is honoured more in the breach than in the observance. This is tragic because it means that the spirituality of pupils is left undeveloped and unchallenged.
Every school needs to find a way of delivering assemblies that honour the law, as well as being sensitive to the make-up of the local community. Churches, faith communities and voluntary organisations should stand ready to provide the expertise and resources schools sometimes lack. A third of Britain’s schools have a religious foundation, mainly Church of England or Roman Catholic. Many of these are oversubscribed and deliver excellent results. Their faith ethos does not interfere with excellence but, rather, contributes to it. Where the church schools are concerned, they are open to the wider community, in which they are set, and often have many children belonging to other faith traditions, as their parents and guardians prefer their children to go to a faith school, even one different from their own tradition. Pupils of all faiths, at these schools, are generally well catered for in terms of their spiritual and religious needs.

Having a particular religious foundation does not mean that a school cannot be inclusive in its intake and treatment of pupils from a variety of backgrounds. A secular school, similarly, must provide what the law requires in terms of RE and assemblies and for the all-round development of its pupils, including their spiritual formation and maturing. The situation at Michaela School has raised profound questions for the place of religion in schools. They should be addressed by the Department of Education and the schools themselves in ways that avoid conflict and ideological extremism, and ensure the effective delivery of education.

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