For the last few days I’d been trying to work out an op-ed on UK’s fixation with Religious Education as a school requirement, and how it doesn’t work. I have a 5 year old in school, and on occasion he comes home with fantastical tales of this character called Jesus who could apparently walk on water, come back from the dead and do all sorts of other things that would make him a good candidate for an X-Men character. These stories come from the same source he’s meant to rely on to learn maths, spelling and various facts about the natural world. How’s he supposed to be able to tell when the information being passed on is factual, or when the instruction session has deviated into the mythical?
The sticking point is that I can’t can’t seem to find any arguments that haven’t already been made by others, quite possibly better than I’d do myself. So I’m moving on and dumping some things I found here in the o’le blog. For example: Terry Sanderson asked (via the National Secular Society) earlier this year: “How do we keep religious education out of the hands of the evangelists?” The short answer is that you can’t. Slightly contextualized: You can provided you don’t have Religious Education as part of a school curriculum, but leave esoteric matters of a “soul” up to individuals. But this point has been made by others…
As Terry of the first paragraph points out: “Religious education so easily morphs into religious instruction and thence to religious propaganda and evangelising. Enthusiastic believers who are drawn to teaching sometimes cannot stop themselves. This week I was on a radio phone-in show in which parents told horror stories of their own experiences: how a five-year-old had been told by the RE teacher that if she didn’t believe in God she would go to hell, or how a nine-year-old asked in class ‘if God made everything, who made God?’ and was told to shut up.” (bold added by yours truly). “The only way to stop this kind of abuse of a child’s intellect is to abolish the concept of ‘religious education’ entirely.”
Religious Education can’t be reformed. As a member of the Pirate Party UK, I’m happy to be part of one political entity interested in scrapping it. Let’s briefly take a look at the trap and how it’s set: You have UK wide curriculum requirements, then how the different local authorities interpret them and how each school applies them. The requirements fluctuate based on which party is running each government at any particular time.
The Department of Education says Religious Education is compulsory in maintained schools for all students from age 5 to 18 and must include “a daily act of collective worship that should be broadly Christian”… or some other faith (if the school has applied for and received an exception). The caveat here is that it has to be a faith of some sort. The school must prove that there’s a broad interest in some other religion if they’re to substitute one for another. How does one go about determining which faith the majority of a primary school’s population requires in order for their little souls to avoid the alleged fires of hell as mentioned teachers like the one Terry references?
More locally, Lewisham Council muddies the the already swampy waters created by the National Curriculum. Here’s what it says under the heading “Why children have religious education”…
- Religious education encourages pupils to learn about different religions, beliefs, values and traditions while exploring their own beliefs and questions of meaning. (Except that it’s predominantly Christian, with a mostly Christian advisory committee. I haven’t heard any reports about tales of Vishnu’s battles with demons, or the Buddha’s transcendence.)
- It challenges pupils to consider and discuss issues of truth, belief, faith and ethics. (Children at age 5 want to believe that people can be magic and defy death. I don’t get any reports from school that these stories may in fact not be true.)
- Religious education encourages pupils to develop their sense of identity and belonging. It enables them to flourish individually within their communities and as citizens. (Peckham teacher Caitlin Prentice clearly illustrates how this is not the case. Religious Education highlights division and in-group/out-group thinking. Children are taught by their respective faiths that others are going to hell. Invited to talk about this at school, they quickly decide which of their classmates are saved, and which are damned. It’s incredibly distressing to children not yet burdened with this awful, and false, concept.)
- Religious education has an important role in preparing pupils for adult life, employment and lifelong learning. It enables pupils to develop respect for and sensitivity to others, in particular those whose faiths and beliefs are different from their own. It promotes discernment and helps pupils to combat prejudice. (Though, as we can see from Caitlin’s example above, it doesn’t do any of this. More troubling is mentioning the notion that it helps with employment. In a secular society, religion should have no baring on that at all. At some age children should become aware that some people believe things that may or may not be true. If they are to successfully navigate the world it’s in critically thinking about these beliefs and an understanding of how evidence and informed skepticism can help determine what’s real from what’s not.)
Children are defacto atheists until members of the previous generation start informing them they have a non-tangible appendage called a soul, that there is an unseen creator of things, and that unless they pray to this thing, their fragile little soul is in serious peril. How brilliant a time it is until they’re stuck with that kind of conceptual baggage from the past! It’s too much to expect that there would be a lesson that essentially said all that is false, kids, no worries. But it would be great if they just left it out of the classroom, where it has no observable place.
So the case has been made by others. I’m adding my bits to the movement here. This blog isn’t about bitching or pretending things are something other than they are, though. Schools still preach god. How to cope with that fact…
- The direct approach seldom works. Talk about it when your kid brings it up, and be interested. Raise parallel, entertaining comparisons. Point out stories about other gods as well. Thor, for example. The goal is to embed the idea that there have been lots of gods people have believed in over the ages.
- Find others working on creative ways to deal with it.
- Encourage facts. When your kid learns a new neat factual thing, have a natter about it. If it happens to be the case, mention how it’s interesting that people held some other belief until that fact was learned (the earth being flat, etc.). It’s not directly related, but encourages interest in things that are real and observable.
- Know time is on your side. Some schools are upping their RE sessions because Ofsted found the more than 50% of schools aren’t meeting the government’s required regular allowance of holiness. That’s happening because Christianity is declining in UK faster than previously expected and the Church of England is in a snit over that fact. Focusing on RE is an easy win for school’s Ofsted inspections, so when the scores are discussed at school meetings, attend and keep the focus on the non religious parts of Ofsted that actually matter.
- Know what’s in the curriculum, what the law says and follow any campaigns challenging it.
- Support changes to the requirements, such abolishing “collective worship” at schools as mentioned in the Pirate Party UK manifesto.
Always end on a pirate note.