Why the government’s proposed consultation on changes to religious studies GCSE matters

First published by the HuffPost on 17 November 2014.

In October, the Japanese Central Council for Education, which advises the education minister, reported that Japanese schools should offer ‘moral education’ as an official school subject. Subsequently, this report was accepted and schools in Japan are going to have to teach moral education alongside mathematics, social studies, science and Japanese as a core subject at both primary and secondary level.

In a similar vein, the British government announced in November that pupils in England will have to study at least two faiths under proposals for a new “academically rigorous” Religious Studies GCSE, which is often compulsory in schools due to a legal requirement that all state schools teach Religious Education (RE) across all key stages. According to the government, the aim of the GCSE is to ensure pupils have a strong understanding of the importance of religion on British culture and this, no doubt, builds on the current government’s view that ‘Britishness’ or ‘British values’ should be promoted by schools. This would also suggest that RE in England is not solely about ‘comparative religion’, but also enhancing pupils’ awareness of social norms and moral values.

This announcement reflects the initial rationale for the inclusion of religion in the English and Welsh curriculum in the 1944 Education Act. Policy makers felt that Bible-based instruction would better prepare future generations for a more peaceful world after the horrors of two world wars. Then, in 1988, the Education Reform Act stated that the other principal religions in the UK should be included in RE as demographics changed. The Act has resulted in many pupils learning about beliefs and cultures other than their own and arguably reflects the moral values of community cohesion, respect and tolerance amongst people of different faiths and cultures.

Be that as it may, treating moral and/or religious education (if we accept that they have similarities in this context) as a core or central curriculum subject will always create controversy as well as various philosophical and ethical dilemmas on what should be taught. For example, Caroline Meggit, a writer on child development, states that between 12 and 16 years children start to think beyond themselves and begin to understand others’ perspectives; they are developing their own moral values that often challenge those of home and their own community. However, despite this, the danger of the state directing what values should be prioritised cannot be ignored.

The proposed changes to the Religious Studies GCSE syllabuses (there will be variants) in England have already, therefore, fallen foul of the British Humanist Association who are unhappy that humanism cannot be taught as one of “two religions” at GCSE level despite the increasing secularization of British society. Even Dr Joyce Miller, chairwoman of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, has said that the council had “agreed unanimously that the optional systematic study of a non-religious worldview should be introduced at GCSE level”. It could be argued here that the moral values implicitly taught by the proposed GCSE syllabuses will not only bypass humanism, but a large swath of the population who identify themselves as ‘non-religious’.

Moreover, in an excellent blog on teaching moral values, Andreas Kappes writessome philosophers would question whether we can teach moral values at all. For instance, many philosophers are wary about how moral values would be taught and what subjects or issues would be included. Kappes cites Jesse Prinz who has argued that teaching moral values can have few beneficial effects at best, but more often have no effect at all.

With these objections in mind, it is important to note that unlike Japan, the changes to the syllabuses in England are still going through a consultation. This will allow people to debate these changes and question whether they are reflective of our religious make-up today as well as the implicit moral values associated with religious belief.

As a teacher of Religious Studies, I feel that teaching comparative religion is important; especially if we are to educate ‘global citizens’ that understand the religious diversity of the rest of the world, but I would prefer an option to allow schools to include a more secular element to the teaching of moral values. I would also argue that humanism or a secular ethics needs to be included as a comparative framework in the new GCSE syllabuses.

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