Role of religion in education discussed in public debate

February 23, 2012

A high profile debate in Whitehall last night brought together a range of leading public figures and academics concerned with the role of religion in education to discuss “What’s the Place of Faith in Schools?”. Several members of the Accord Coalition were present.

The event was organised by the Religion & Society Programme, which is funded by public research councils to commission and manage research into issues relating to religion and society, and to disseminate them more widely. Taking part in the debate were:

  • Professor James Conroy, Professor of Religious and Philosophical Education (Creativity Culture and Faith) at the University of Glasgow
  • Professor Richard Dawkins, the former Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University and Vice-President of the British Humanist Association
  • The Rt Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Oxford, Chair of the Church of England’s Board of Education and Episcopal spokesperson on education in the House of Lords
  • Professor Robert Jackson, Director of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit

Speaking first, Professor Robert Jackson set out his views on how Religious Education (RE) could be made more effective. He argued that RE needed to take better care over how religion was presented, and often failed to present the intricacies and diversity with individual faiths, leaving many religious pupils unable to properly identity with the portrayal of their religion. He also argued that RE needed to more often explore the geographical and social aspects of belief systems, and provided a very good opportunity to promote dialogue between pupils, which schools did not always take full advantage of.

He noted that there was great diversity within how both faith and non-faith schools operated, with some faith schools being grounded in serving their local community, while others saw their purpose as to transmit their faith to a new generation. Meanwhile, he observed that some non-faith schools were also very accommodating of those of different cultural and religious backgrounds, but that others failed to appreciate the diversity within their school body and provided poor RE.

Professor James Conroy argued that RE needed to help pupils make sense of themselves and the world around them, and provided schools with a serious opportunity to explore topics of meaning. He said that the resourcing of RE in schools was erratic and often depended on the pre-disposition of the head teacher. He also argued that RE was inhibited by a timidly on the part of many teachers to make substantive claims, and that the subject was held back by endemic ambiguity and ambivalence, as demonstrated by the Government leaving RE out of its English Baccalaureate performance indicator.

Professor Richard Dawkins told the audience that there was a dichotomy between learning about and from religion in RE. He said that he favoured pupils learning about RE, as this helped make them become religiously literate, which was vital to ensure they could understand aspects of their and other people’s culture.

However, he opposed schools making pupils learn from religion and registered his displeasure at how through faith schools society helped to support parents try and press upon their children their own beliefs, as well as to divide children on religious lines. He highlighted how society did not do this when it came to parent’s political or philosophical beliefs.

The Rt Rev John Pritchard offered the audience a stark warning about the standing of RE, asserting that it had never been more under threat, and was figuratively “on the edge”. Examples of the subjects current poor position included a reduction of 30% in the amount of teaching times secondary schools allotted to RE since the English Baccalaureate was launched; a reduction in the number of people training to be RE teachers in that time (falling from 655 to 400), and that guidance and support for RE had been taken off central government websites.

The Rt Rev John Pritchard declared that RE was vital for society, as it made children evaluate information and argue points, consider philosophy and ethics, and make moral choices. He saw the bias in RE teaching towards Christianity as important so as to help pupils better understand UK culture, and saw RE as vital in helping children understand modern politics. He also viewed RE as key to helping pupils understand energy that the religious derived from their faith, which he thought would in turn help prevent religion falling into the hands of those who would use it to advance bad intentions.

During a vibrant question and answers sessions the speakers debated issues to do with religious privilege, the balance between parent’s and children’s rights, and also the duty of the community to ensure them both.

A video and podcasts from the event are available at:

One Response to Role of religion in education discussed in public debate

  1. Dr Naznin Hirji on April 16, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I think Professor Jackson makes a crucial point about the way religions may be portrayed in schools, one which also formed part of my own research findings. Not only do children of those religions fail to identify with the way in which their religion is taught, the resultant negative impact on other children who are receiving inaccurate and limited interpretations of other religions is unquestionably detrimental to understanding pluralism and the value of learning from each other’s traditions. The only way to redress this, in my view, is to use authentic sources within each religious tradition, in collaboration with the religious boards of each tradition, and to engage religious educators qualified to disseminate, dialogue and debate comparative religions. This point also ties in with a
    point the Rt Rev Pritchard makes about RE bias towards Christianity being important to help pupils better understand UK culture. Whilst I can understand where the Rt Rev is coming from, and that of course, would have been the recent-past UK culture, and certainly its host religous tradition, is it still true to say that this bias would define today’s ‘UK culture’ – aren’t we now a rich blend of religious traditions, with more in common even within our diversities than we realise? Professor Conroy’s ‘sense-making’ point is spot-on. Therefore, if scriptural reasoning was to be opened up by qualified educators to school discussion groups, guided by discerning teachers, would this not generate a fresh young society of multi-faith individuals, comfortable to be different together?

    RE, as the Rt Rev says, is vital for society and the energy derived from spiritual strength can be rejuvenating, as is evidenced from research studies. Religion, however, is a discipline that belongs to all who need it or want it, the only way it can possibly be used to do wrong is when it is used to cover, or is misunderstood as, a political ideology – and most often through ignorance. Otherwise, the ethical and moral compass that is non-negotiably necessary for sound human development, if given its rightful place in education, can be brought forth from both learning about RE, and from religion also, as that is part of the human condition.

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