A leading educationalist with a specialist interest in RE says that Prime Minister David Cameron needs to recognise the importance of religion and belief education in building a truly multicultural society.
Responding on the website of beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia to the recent debate provoked by Mr Cameron's speech in Munich last month (February 2011), Robert Jackson, Professor of Education at the University of Warwick and Director of Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit, writes: "Few would disagree with the idea that the state should not give resources to separate, homogeneous cultural groups living within a society who reject the democratic values that are fundamental to the society itself.
"But this is politicians’ construction of multiculturalism. Research shows a much more complex picture of the ‘multicultural’ nature of society and of cultural relations, with constantly changing, complex and heterogeneous cultural groupings exhibiting much diversity and some tension over issues such as identity."
He adds that ‘cultures’, and indeed ‘religions’ understood in this way "cannot be portrayed as isolated, and there are many examples of overlap with values and practices of other groups within society... Mr Cameron recognises this himself to some extent, [but] what is not clear is the extent to which he recognises that individuals, and religious and cultural groups to which they relate, may themselves have something very positive to offer about citizenship."
Professor Jackson cites European research – notably the European Commission Project on Religion, Education, Dialogue and Conflict (REDCo) among 14-16 year olds in eight countries, with which he was involved – as demonstrating the desire of young people for a 'safe space' within the school curriculum to explore different beliefs in a thoughtful way.
He declares: "Mr Cameron might give some careful attention to their views. First, the majority of students surveyed wish for peaceful coexistence across differences, and believe this to be possible. Second, they believe that peaceful coexistence depends on knowledge about each other’s religions and worldviews and sharing common interests as well as doing things together."
The research also shows that "students who learn about religious diversity in school are more willing to have conversations about religions/beliefs with students of other backgrounds than those who do not... They want learning to take place in a ‘safe’ classroom environment ... They want teachers to combine expertise in the study of religions and social and cultural issues with expertise as facilitators of discussion and exchange."
"Students do not want to be told what to believe," stresses Professor Jackson, "but would like the state-funded school to be a place for learning about different religions, and for clarifying their own views."
Professor Jackson says that the government is not demonstrating serious intent in this area. Teacher training numbers for religious education have been reduced by 50 per cent for 2012, training courses are closing, and RE is not being considered as an exam subject in relation to the proposed English baccalaureate – downgrading the intellectual rigour required.
Dr Jackson is also Professor of Religious Diversity and Education at the Council of Europe-related European Wergeland Centre, based in Oslo, concerned with human rights, citizenship and intercultural education across Europe (http://www.theewc.org/). He led the Warwick team involved in the REDCo Project.
Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia, commented: “Literacy in the religious and non-religious worldviews shaping our world, and influencing the relations between people and culture, is crucial to promoting peaceful co-existence in a mixed society – not least among the young. Bigotry and violent extremism breed on isolation and ignorance.”
He added: “Tub-thumping about ‘British values’ is not the way forward. We need practical steps to ensure that a dialogical, critical approach to religion and belief becomes a properly resourced and scrutinised part of the national curriculum – as educationists from a variety of backgrounds have been arguing for some time.”
The full article, "Cameron, 'multiculturalism' and education about religions and beliefs", by Professor Robert Jackson, can be read here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14271