A New Settlement for Faith Schools

By Virginia Moffatt
June 16, 2015

Yesterday (15 June 2015) saw the launch of an important new report on faith and education - A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools.

The document, which was written by the former Education Secretary Charles Clarke, and Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, was presented to a packed Terraced Room at the House of Lords, demonstrating the importance of the topic.

Introducing the report, Linda Woodhead noted that the legal framework for religious education in the UK had been developed at the time of the 1944 Education Act, when the context was quite different. Since then we have seen a decline in the numbers of people affiliating with mainstream churches, an increase in the numbers of different religions being practised and a hollowing out of the liberal middle allowing the promotion of extremist views at either end of the spectrum. Furthermore, the downgrading of religious education as an important academic subject means that many young people do not have the language or understanding to engage in important debates about religion. She suggested the time had come to make some fundamental changes to reflect the reality of twenty first century Britain.

Charles Clarke continued by outlining the key recommendations of their authors. Their first headline grabbing suggestion was to abolish the statute that compels schools to hold daily assemblies for Christian worship. This was wrongly reported as a recommendation to abolish assemblies, but as the writers make clear, they are instead proposing that governing bodies and head teachers should decide the format and content of morning gatherings.

The second area the researchers considered is the teaching of religious education, which has come in for considerable criticism in recent years. The authors argue that this is because the subject has been excluded from the national curriculum and this has weakened it. They propose restoring it to the national curriculum, broadening the content to embrace a wide variety of beliefs, and renaming it Religious and Moral Education.

They also helpfully distinguish between ‘education’, the teaching of an academic subject, ‘formation’, the framework to encourage development of belief, and ‘instruction’, the passing on of the essentials of a particular faith. They argue that including a broad curriculum of religious education in schools will enable young people to be literate about moral and spiritual matters which will help them understand the world they live in better.

Formation is helpful in schools, since it helps children develop an awareness of ethics and morality, but only so long as there is room for question and discussions in assemblies and informal settings don’t distort or caricature other forms of belief. Instruction, however, should not occur at school, as it is best offered at home or in a place of worship.

Finally, the report tackles the role of faith schools. It recognises there is a legitimate question of whether such schools should be publicly funded, balancing it against the equally legitimate question of the rights of parents to choose a school that reflects their faith values. The authors conclude that there is a strong public desire for faith schools which means abolition is not an option, however they could be better.

The report recommends that faith schools improve their admissions policies to ensure they are fairer, whilst also reviewing recruitment practices. Again, helpfully, it notes, secular schools usually have a very strong value base and it would make sense for all schools to make this public as an aid to prospective parents.

Though the authors did not specify exactly how schools could have fairer admission policies, they did note when questioned that policies based on church attendance reflected a narrow view of Christian practice and should be abandoned. They also acknowledged that the Accord Coalition proposal to reduce the numbers to 50 per cent faith and 50 per cent non-faith was a sensible aim.

The debate on faith schools and the role of religious education is too often a divisive one. 'A New Settlement for Religion and Belief in Schools' is a thoughtful and measured response to the discussion. Whilst not everyone will agree with every aspect of it, there is enough common ground for all sides to work together to ensure better practice in religious education in the future.

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© Virginia Moffatt

Virginia Moffatt is the Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia.

Ekklesia is a founder member of the Accord Coalition and supports the reform of faith schools.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.