The former Labour education secretary Charles Clarke has called for the abolition of Christian assemblies in British schools as part of a radical reform of the relationship between schools and religion. He would also like to see religious education replaced by lessons on religion and morality.
In a pamphlet published by the Westminster Faith Debates, Clarke and his co-author Linda Woodhead, a Professor of The Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, argue that current laws stipulating that schools hold a daily act of communal worship are outdated and should therefore be scrapped in favour of secular assemblies which embrace all faiths and none.
“There can be a ‘nod and wink’ culture around the nature of the act of collective worship in school,” Clarke and Woodhead write. “The requirement that the act should be predominantly Christian, and possibly even promote a sense of ‘awe and wonder’, is sometimes honoured in form rather than substance.
“More generally, energy is constantly being diverted from serious thought about the values and qualities which education should be fostering in citizens, and how best to proceed in that respect as society changes.”
Clarke and Woodhead view the widespread practice of ignoring the 1944 Education Act, which defines the current educational settlement between church and state, as grounds to ditch it in favour of a new settlement “which can better foster genuine understanding of modern religion and belief, and allow young people better to explore their own and other peoples’ religious and non-religious beliefs and come to their own conclusions.”
They have stopped short of recommending an abolition of faith schools and the whole-sale stripping of religion from public life, but continue: “we believe that secular humanism and other non-religious philosophies, ‘life stances’ and forms of belief and commitment are entirely legitimate, and should be respected and treated in the same way as religion within the education system.”
Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association has praised the report, saying: “Every area of our education system that intersects with questions of religion or belief needs urgent review and that is what this pamphlet does systematically and with acuity. No one will agree with all of it, but it is an informed and valuable contribution to what should be one of the biggest education debates of our time.”
But Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute told Breibart London that Copson’s praise is unsurprising: “This agenda is being driven by the Humanist Association. It’s all about teaching athieism, watering down religious education, and making everything centrally controlled,” he said.
Indeed, Copson receives a mention in the preface to the report and has appeared alongside both Clarke and Woodhead on panels held by the Westminster Faith Debates forum on this topic, most recently in February of this year.
Hart continued: “Most religious education teachers have been heavily groomed in the multi-faith approach to teaching religion by now, such as the five before five [an Islamic hadith on living life well], but law does say that focus must be in the main on Christianity. That makes sense, culturally.”
The Christian Institute would like to see the 1944 Act retained, as it allows the content of the religious education syllabus to be locally determined, something that Clarke and Woodhead are determined to see swept away in favour of a nationally set syllabus created by a panel made up of religious and humanist representatives.
Hart said: “We would like to keep the 1944 idea that religious education is locally determined as it means that in the parts of London or so on where there is a sizable Sikhs or Jewish population, lessons would reflect that. Clarke is proposing a centralised scheme, which from his perspective makes sense as it allows him to standardise the format, but it’s quite authoritarian. The only victors in Clarke’s position are humanists.”
Other Christian representatives have also stepped forward to defend the rights of schools and parents to determine their own teaching on religious matters. Peter D. Williams, a spokesman for Catholicism told Breitbart London:
“The idea of imposing a one-size-fits-all religious education syllabus for every school not only flies in the face of school independence and parental choice, but would compromise the ability of religious schools to fulfil the service to the communities they serve of passing on to children the beliefs and moral teachings of their particular faith.
“Adherence to a religion is not a part-time affair that can be compartmentalised to certain activities or certain times of the week. It is an holistic commitment of the whole person, and faith schools should continue to be given the freedom to shape their RE curriculum in keeping with their avowed principles.”
Other proposals put forward by the report include banning “religious instruction” from taking place within the school day; replacing religious worship in assembly with “a strategy for promoting Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education” supervised by Ofsted; legislating to ensure that all schools, including independent schools, follow the centrally agreed syllabus on religious education, and abolishing the rights of parents to withdraw their children from religious education as a result.
The report addresses faith schools separately, recommending that the ability of faith schools to determine their own policies on collective worship and religious formation be “reconsidered” in light of their recommendations on a national syllabus.
But Hart countered that doing so would mean losing the unique characteristics of faith schools, which would be “a disaster”, as church run schools are “incredibly popular” with parents. “One third of pupils in England attend either a Church of England or Catholic school, as they tend to do incredibly well in terms of attainment.
“However, it is important to maintain their distinctiveness. If you turn them into secular schools, they’ll be the same as every other, which would be a disaster.
“Parents are voting with their feet. The surplus school places aren’t within faith schools.”
Commenting on the pamphlet, Rev Nigel Genders, the Church of England education chief, said:
“The Church continues to be committed to the provision of high quality RE in schools which is vital for a balanced understanding of the world today where more than 80 per cent of the population are people of faith.
“The Church strongly supports the statutory requirement for collective worship in all schools and there is plenty of flexibility in the provision to enable all pupils to benefit without compromising their faith or lack of it.
“Where there are real objections it is a parent’s right to withdraw their child from worship, and the very few who take up that right demonstrates that schools have found exciting and creative ways of using collective worship to further children’s spiritual and moral development. There is no expectation of commitment and the exposure to the range of religious traditions encourages community cohesion.”
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