Religious education in a secular age

Sunday 23 October, 12.00 - 13.00 , Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle for Education

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Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

Schooling in Britain has always had a strong religious element. Whereas in some countries religion is deliberately excluded from publicly-funded schools, the Church of England and other denominations control a significant proportion of state schools in Britain. Religious education is also mandatory and schools are officially required to carry out daily acts of worship, at least 51 percent of which must be Christian. Yet, in wider society attitudes have changed. Religious faith has ebbed and society is no longer governed by religious values, traditions and rituals. This has led some to question the place of religious education in schools. In a report published last year, former education secretary Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University argued that the 1944 Education Act requiring all schools to hold daily acts of worship is inappropriate to our multi-cultural, multi-faith society. Many schools already flout this law.

The teaching of Religious Studies has itself changed too. Some schools have re-named it ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ or ‘Beliefs and Values’, suggesting an unease about discussing religion as such. Last November a High Court judgement ruled that schools should teach atheism as part of Religious Studies (this was later contradicted by the Department for Education). So is the point of Religious Studies to represent all viewpoints, even non-religious ones? Schools are also in the position of having to communicate with pupils about religious debates and events and to manage pupils with who have their own religious identities and rituals. Again, there is no clear consensus on how schools should organise their calendar or the examination timetable to accommodate acts of worship, how they should respond to pupils who want to dress differently for religious reasons, or indeed to those who support extremist religious viewpoints.

Should teachers be teaching that Britain is a traditionally Christian country or a multicultural one in which all faiths are represented? How does the government’s Prevent Strategy change the nature of classroom debates about religion? Do political sensitivities impede pupils’ ability to express their opinions? It is clear that despite the rise of secularism, schools are in a difficult position in having to navigate questions of religion for which there is little consensus in society. So how should schools handle religion?