Should Religious Education Still Be Taught in Schools?

The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) has released a report concerning the teaching of Religious Education in British high schools and primary schools. Ofsted found that, “the potential of Religious Education was not being realised fully in the majority of schools surveyed for this report.”

But is the teaching of Religious Education still appropriate in our increasingly atheistic society? In the 2011 census, over a third of Scotland’s population identified as having ‘no religion’, with over a quarter of the total population of England and Wales sharing this belief. The 2011 census was carried out during the British Humanist Association (BHA) Census Campaign: “If you’re not religious, then for God’s sake say so!”

The BHA concluded that the growing amount of non-religious British people suggested that Christians would become a minority group in the September 2018 census. Furthermore, Andrew Copson- Chief Executive of the BHA- stated:

“It is time that public policy caught up with this mass turning away from religious identities and stopped privileging religious bodies with ever increasing numbers of state-funded religious schools and other faith-based initiatives. They are decreasingly relevant to British life and identity and governments should catch up and accept that fact.”

Conversely, the BHA of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips has previously said, “Good learning about religious and non-religious beliefs is essential. However, if schools and teachers are not enthused by the local syllabuses they are presented with then they may not wish to teach it, and the real danger is that in the schools where it is taught, the subject will be confessional rather than balanced.”

Ofsted’s October 2013 report reflects Phillips’ worry in that ‘weaknesses in teachers’ understanding of the subject’ was highlighted as a cause for concern in Religious Education classes. The National Secular Society in England also released a study showing that, due to a lack of teacher training in Religious Education, some head teachers have been allowing particularly evangelical Christian societies to promote their religion in schools. One child from the West Midlands was told that the ‘Creation story’ from Genesis was “factual.”

Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers commented: “Religious Education must be clearly delineated as such. A line is crossed when religious positions such as creationism are taught as scientific theories for example.”

Hobby’s statement, coupled with Ofsted’s observation teachers’ lack of understanding of their subject, suggests a great need for schools and government to re-think their approach to the teaching of Religious Education.

There appears to be two extreme sides to those passionate about Religious Education. One equates children and teenagers being actively encouraged to follow specific religious beliefs to Religious Education; the other labels any notion of the teaching of religion or faith as irrelevant.

To help solve both these extreme perspectives, we should look at the title of the subject: Religious Education. Weak education causes ignorance: in 2012, the Guardian published an article showing that 64% of those surveyed thought that religious ignorance was a problem in Britain, and 7 out of 10 believed that children should be taught about different faiths in schools. The teaching of Religious Education should not, therefore, be concerned with endorsing one religion over the other, convincing pupils to follow a set way of thinking. Rather, the focus should be on raising awareness of the cultural variety in the UK and how all have different beliefs on religion.

Ofsted’s significantly titled their report ‘Realising the potential’, a concept which state schools and teachers seem to be struggling to grasp. Perhaps Religious Education is often brushed under the carpet in comparison to ‘more common exam subjects’ such as English or Maths, where pass rates are scrutinised. Possibly some perspective is needed. As Ofsted says: “[Religious Education] helps young people develop beliefs and values, and promotes the virtues of respect and empathy, which are important in our diverse society. It fosters civilised debate and reasoned argument, and helps pupils to understand the place of religion and belief in the modern world.”

Regardless of our religious or non-religious views, something aimed to promote fairness, equality and tolerance can hardly be criticised. And that, if anything, should be Britain’s stance on Religious Education.

[Jenna Burns]

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