First published by the Guardian on Tuesday 6 September 2011.
The coming school year holds uncertainties for the role of religious education in schools in England and Wales. In July the Department for Education announced that RE will definitely be left out of the English baccalaureate (EBacc), despite concern from the education select committee, the National Association of Teachers of RE (Natre) and organisations such as the Catholic church and Christian Premier Radio.
The EBacc will be awarded to pupils who complete GCSEs in English, maths, a language and a humanities subject, which can include history and geography but not RE. This has left many RE teachers questioning the relevance and acceptance of their subject, especially as Michael Gove, the education secretary, has cited the subject’s lack of credibility among Russell Group universities as justification for its exclusion. However, to dismiss the subject because of its current shortcomings ignores the role RE has played and can continue to play in preparing young people for an increasingly diverse and globalised society. It also bypasses the academic foundations of the subject, which has a long history of improving our knowledge of humanity’s beliefs, cultures and traditions.
In the past 10 years the numbers of pupils taking the GCSE full course in RE have risen as the importance of religion in current and world affairs has become more obvious to children of both faith and no faith alike. This rise reflects the initial rationale for the inclusion of religion in the curriculum via the 1944 Education Act, which envisaged a need for Bible-based instruction to prepare future generations for a more peaceful postwar world. As demographics changed and society became more diverse, the 1988 Education Reform Act emphasised the need for RE to encompass the other principal religions in the UK, which has resulted in many pupils learning about beliefs and cultures other than their own. These developments underpin the importance of RE in enhancing community cohesion, respect and tolerance among people of different faiths and cultures, especially as the subject’s intent has been the fostering of peaceful coexistence.
However, RE is more than a curriculum add-on designed to improve empathy and understanding, especially as academic studies centred on religion arguably stretch back to Hecataeus of Miletus’s sceptical musings on mythical beliefs in the 4th century BC. Moreover, not only is the history of many of the world’s leading universities intertwined with theology and religious controversies, but the contemporary academic credibility of RE as a humanities subject was clearly established when Friedrich Max Müller was appointed as the first professor of comparative religion at Oxford University in 1868. Müller’s appointment represented the perceived need by some to better understand and respect the world’s religions, cultures and traditions at a time of global expansion and colonial domination.
Today an estimated 56% of the world’s population believe in an Abrahamic god and another 21% follow another of the world’s major religions, which suggests we still have a duty to educate children about humanity’s beliefs. As we live in a world where politics, culture and religion are often fused together, and even those societies that separate church and state often have God embedded in their cultural politics, would it not be a shame if future generations of British children had little serious interest as to what these beliefs are. Like history and geography, RE is a humanities subject that tells us a lot about the world and its inhabitants at a time of increased globalisation and interdependence.
Although a minimum amount of curriculum time will still be given to RE, citizenship, and personal, health and economic education, excluding RE from the EBacc will deter many pupils from choosing to study the more rigorous GCSE full course. A survey by Natre estimates that next year’s GCSE entries could be down by a third in non-faith schools. This would undoubtedly have an impact on the uptake at A-level and could result in fewer students reading comparative religion, theology or philosophy at university.
It would also undermine the stature and credibility of the subject academically, ultimately denting its ability to be taken seriously over the coming years.
Picture credit: Max Pixel (Creative Commons CC0)