The Accord Coalition for inclusive schooling has backed the renewed proposal that Religious Education should become a National Curriculum subject, as raised in a recent television programme.
Religious Education is currently in the anomalous position of being the only compulsory subject in state maintained schools that is not part of the National Curriculum.
The case for reform was raised again in a More 4 television documentary ‘Faith Schools Menace?’, fronted by scientist Richard Dawkins, which questioned the impact of publicly-funded religious foundation schools.
Accord, which brings together both religious and non-religious organisations and individuals, does not take a 'pro' or 'anti' position on faith schools per se, but works for reform to ensure that all schools have open admissions and employment policy, a balanced curriculum, and positive, civically-oriented assemblies.
In the More4 programme, Dr Dawkins met pupils at one faith school who all rejected evolutionary biology because of what they had been taught about their religion.
Critics of the present RE arrangments, many of whom reject the anti-religious stance for which Dr Dawkins has become well known since leaving his post promoting the public understanding of science at Oxford University, nevertheless agree that taxpayer-funded schools should be properly accountable and inspected for what they teach concerning religion and belief, as for other subjects.
Teaching unions, including the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, one of Accord's member organisations, are among those who have made this point.
Representatives from Accord raised the issue with Nick Gibb, now education minister, prior to the General Election in May 2010.
The chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, commented: "The current arrangements for RE are very worrying. In faith schools the RE taught can be very narrow in its scope, while in other schools the quality of RE can also be of a poor quality, which only helps prevent children from developing their understanding of people with different beliefs."
He continued: "The Government must reassess the current arrangements of RE as part of their curriculum review taking place this autumn. A flexible National Curriculum RE syllabus would have many advantages.
"Firstly, it could help ensure that the RE taught in schools is broad and balanced and of a sufficient quality, helping to ensure that children are better prepared for life in our increasingly diverse society.
"Secondly, the current local arrangements for RE are very bureaucratic and expensive and by bringing them to an end the Government will save local authorities around the county many hundreds of thousands of pounds a year at a time when they are under extreme budgetary pressures."
Most schools follow a locally agreed syllabus, which is produced by their local authority responsible for education. Earlier this year, Ofsted released its report, Transforming religious education, which found that the teaching of RE was inadequate in 1/5 of secondary schools in England and urged the Government to reconsider the subject’s current local arrangements.
Meanwhile, in faith schools the RE syllabus taught is determined by the school itself. The RE in these schools is not inspected by the government and can be overtly instructional and fail to expose pupils to other world views than that of the school.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, said: "Good teaching about the variety of beliefs that shape our world, religious and non-religious, is vital in our schools, and all pupils should have access to a wide and informative curriculum in this area, not one limited to the horizons of the school's sponsors, whoever they may be."
He added: "Whatever you think of Richard Dawkins - and we are critical of many of his more extreme and superficial views abut religion - the points raised in this week's More4 television documentary on faith schools remain important. All schools funded by the taxpayer should be building bridges not erecting barriers.
"In the area of science teaching, more evidence of the application of anti-evolutionary creationist ideology, which is theologically as well as scientifically untenable, is a matter of serious concern, and something educationists will want to act on."
Two years ago, Ekklesia and the British Humanist Association jointly pressed for clear guidelines on science teaching, in order to stress that the issue was not one where religious and non-religious parents and teachers needed to divide.
In response, the government stressed that creationism and its close relation Intelligent Design, were not appropriate topics for the science classroom, having no scientific foundation.
Now the BHA is calling on the government to re-iterate its commitment to high quality science teaching, and wants it to investigate the charge that a number of faith schools are propagating creationism.
In the More4 film, Dr Dawkins discovered that RE lessons in some such schools present creationism as scientific fact, directly contradicting the evolution components of the national curriculum. In one case, he found that all 60 Year 10 science students at a Muslim secondary school reject the theory of evolution - which is the basis for all the major progress in the biological sciences in the past hundred years.
BHA chief executive Andrew Copson said: "‘This programme highlights why we urgently need a tightening up of the legal requirements. If, as this film seems to suggest, creationism is already being taught as fact in conventional faith schools, then how does the government propose to keep it out of religious ‘free’ schools, which will not have to follow the National Curriculum and are outside local authority control?’
He added: "We are calling on the newly-formed education select committee to conduct a full inquiry into faith schools, looking particularly at their impact on community cohesion, their effect on pupils’ rights, their effect on a balanced curriculum of objective teaching about religious and non-religious beliefs, and the extent to which science teaching may be undermined."
Ekklesia is a founding member of the Accord Coalition. http://accordcoalition.org.uk/