Contextualizing English religious education

RE occupies a distinctive and complex position in the English school system. A number of issues combine to make this so. First, between 1944 and the introduction of the National Curriculum following the Education Reform Act, 1988, RE was the only compulsory subject in English schools. By law, it still has to be provided for each pupil (except those who are withdrawn by their parents) in every state-maintained school that does not have a specific religious character. Second, since 1870, RE in such schools has been non-dcnominational. Third, RE has been the only school subject from which parents are afforded the right to withdraw their child(ren); this will change in September 2020 when the same right will exist in relation to statutory Sex and Relationship Education (SRE).57 Finally, RE is the only curriculum area to have locally determined content. Since 1944 each LEA has been required to produce or adopt an Agreed Syllabus for RE through an Agreed Syllabus Conference (ASC), supported (if desired) by a Standing Advisory Committee for Religious Education (SACRE). The ASC comprises representatives from four groups, identified as:

  • (a) Such religious denominations as, in the opinion of the authority, ought, having regard to the circumstances of the area, to be represented;
  • (b) Except in the case of Wales or Monmouthshire, the Church of England;
  • (c) Such associations representing teachers as, in the opinion of the authority; ought, having regard to the circumstances of the area, to be represented; and
  • (d) The [Local Education] authority.58

In order for a Syllabus to be accepted, it has to be supported by all four groupings, each of which has one vote. The Education Reform Act, 1988, strengthened the legislative framework within which these Committees would work, requiring each LEA to establish a SACRE.59 Thus, the local determination is maintained under current legislation, despite the introduction of the National Curriculum under the Education Reform Act 1988.

Before discussing the introduction and maintenance of the compulsory provision of RE in England and some of the current debates that centre on it, we must first set some parameters around our focus, and clarify some key terms.

This book’s focus is exclusively on the classroom subject of RE within English state-maintained schools that do not have a religious character. It is important to be precise about these terms from the outset, for failing to do so can (and indeed has) led to contusions, misunderstandings, and misconstructions of the present and of possible futures. Firstly, in focusing on the classroom subject of RE, we do not deal with the issue of Collective Worship. Secondly, whilst various terms have been used to categorize English schools funded by the state, ‘maintained school’ is the current legal term for such schools funded through the Local Education Authority (LEA) system. Thirdly, the coverage of the book is restricted to the majority of maintained schools that do not have a religious character. Various terms have been used to classify such schools, both in the legislation and in the scholarly literature. There has been a developing complexity of the legislative terminology relating to such schools, compounded by the expansion of Academies and Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), yet the legal framework relating to Religious

Education has not kept pace. Here the distinction between those schools with a religious affiliation or foundation and those without will follow the structure used in the current legal framework (Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998, §58); this refers to schools with or without ‘a religious character’. As approximately two-thirds of maintained schools in England fit into this category, it seems appropriate for this book to focus on that majority.

Next, it is important to understand the significant differences between England and other areas of Great Britain. Scottish education, including RE, is legislated for separately from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland; in addition, the church context in Scotland is significantly different from England, following a Presbyterian structure as a result of a church history that was strongly influenced by the Calvinist Reformation.60 Welsh education is covered by the same legislation as England and, whilst Wales has a broadly similar church history to England, the Church of'Walcs was disestablished in 1920, meaning that the current relationship between Church and State is significantly different in nature from the English context.61 Again, this affects the understandings of RE. Education in Northern Ireland is subject to separate legislation and different structures of local management to England, Wales, and Scotland.62

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