Lessons of Praise

OFSTED has raised concerns about the teaching of religious education in schools. In response – perhaps inevitably – the Church of England has expressed “concern”, the National Secular Society has suggested RE should become optional.

My memories of RE at school – comprehensive school, how out-of-date a phrase does that sound in this age of Academies – are faded muddles of textbook copying and asking the only Muslim child in the class to write our names in Urdu on the blackboard. The compulsory element of RE was ditched for the final two years, and on the whole we all downed the subject faster than the shared bottle of 20/20 in Gateway’s carpark.

As I get older, my attitude towards the teaching of religion in non-faith schools grows less certain. I used to be pretty ambivalent on the matter, coming to this point via total disagreement – “Parents chose a non-faith school for a reason!”, that sort of thing – to lukewarm support – “If it helps increase understanding between faiths in this difficult time”.

I am not surprised by OFSTED’s observation that teachers aren’t entirely sure what their lessons are supposed to create. My memories include heated discussions on morality and sexuality, far removed from the Year 7 days of copying out from a textbook the basic layout of an Anglican Church. I understand that RE has been diluted into something resembling a high school version of A-Level General Studies, an hour-long free for all where both teachers and pupils are perilously close to crossing into forming their own opinions on political and cultural topics of the day, and I suspect the Department for Education is still uneasy about that.

It is clear in my mind that unease about Islam and other faiths in young people comes from both front-room and class-room. If structured lessons can help explain the basic elements of all faiths, to root out the urban myths and misunderstandings, then in the long-term that could be very good for this and future generations. However, schools have had quite enough restructuring under the previous government, do teachers really need to become ‘citizenship’ lecturers on top of everything else?

The National Secular Society is quoted suggesting that, like the teaching of foreign languages, religious education should be optional. Let’s face the truth on this; pur national reputation for languages is dire. Since becoming an optional subject, the learning of French, German, and Spanish in High Schools has plummeted. The long-term consequences for our economic well being may yet to be fully realised; could the same be said for taking away religion from the timetable?

Could the rise of the English Defence League and such Facebook groups as “Our flag offends you but your benefits don’t!” be linked to a lack of multi-faith understanding at primary and high school levels?

The NSS is right, in my opinion, to cast doubt on the right of the State to decide if doctrine should form a part of the school timetable. The problem clearly is that nobody quite knows what to do with religion now, especially in a nation which will never be as Christian as it once was. As someone who believes in the separation of Church and State, I am nevertheless uncertain about how much children should be shielded from religious teaching within school hours. OFSTED have thrown the debate into the air.

I wonder if anything good (or Good) will come from their report…