The introduction and maintenance of compulsory provision of RE

The provision of RE in English state-maintained schools was made compulsory under the Education Act 1944. This has been seen as a mechanism by which ‘good citizens’ could be prepared, primarily in response to the totalitarian regimes of the time in other parts of Europe.63 At that point, to be a good citizen was to be a Christian citizen; thus the inclusion of teaching about Christianity in state-sponsored schools was considered—on the whole—unproblematic.64 There appears to be a general consensus amongst scholars in the field that, between the post-war introduction of compulsory RE in 1944 and the mid-1960s, most RE in English state-maintained schools was delivered through a confessional pedagogy, whereby children were nurtured in and encouraged to adopt the beliefs and practices characteristic of the Christian faith.65 There is also a pervading view that during the mid-1960s this so-called Christian Confessionalism was swept aside.66 It was allegedly replaced by a ‘post-confessional, multi-faith’, phenomenological, liberal study of World Religions with the aim of enabling pupils to ‘gain an authentic understanding of religion’ and to ‘increase tolerance and understanding, the widening of the pupil’s horizons, as well as deepening his understanding of man [sic] and the world’.67 The existing historiography frequently exemplifies these changes in terms of the influence of the 1975 Birmingham Agreed Syllabus of Religious Instruction (which was greeted as a ‘major breakthrough’ and as bringing about ‘a totally new orthodoxy’) and publication of the Schools Council Working Paper 36—Religious Education in Secondary Schools being seen as a key moment of transformation.68

The 1988 Education Reform Act re-established of the dominance of Christianity in the legislative framework, providing that any new agreed syllabus

An introduction to Statement Archaeology 13 adopted after the Act was passed must ‘reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’.69 More recently still, there has been an emphasis on the role that RE can play in the development of ‘Fundamental British Values’ to combat religious fundamentalism and extremism.

English RE a story of indoctrination, ideology, and instrumentalization?

Considering the brief historical survey above, we might conclude that the story of English RE has, to some extent, been characterized by three notions: Indoctrination, Ideology, and Instrumentalization. The extent to which this is an accurate portrayal is something that we will return to in Chapter 6, but for now we need to consider each of these terms.


Where nation states mandate the compulsory provision of RE in schools, discussions relating both to the policy and to classroom practices purportedly arising from it are often framed in terms of the concept of‘Indoctrination’. Certainly, contemporary discussions about RE in England have often been orientated around the concept; although the term can be understood more widely, the tendency has been to interpret it in narrow terms, focusing on faith-orientated confessional positions. The introduction and maintenance of compulsory RE tends to be discussed in these terms. Initially seen as a way of developing ‘good’ citizens, RE was widely understood as ‘indoctrination’ into Christianity.70 At the time, this was considered wholly appropriate on the basis that, then, to be a good citizen was to be a Christian citizen.71 As the nature of RE changed, towards the academic study of world religions, the focus of‘indoctrination’ arguably changed, towards the development of good citizens who were tolerant of the religious and ethnic ‘other’, a growing social issue in relation to developing mass immigration.72 The reliance solely on an indoctrinatory thesis when tracing the development of English RE is problematic; the notion itself has not hitherto been sufficiently explored nor the constraints that apply to the English school system considered.

The dominance of indoctrination as an orientating concept in discussions risks the creation of a false binary opposition between confessional and non-confcssional approaches to RE.73 Many existing historical narratives of RE generally characterize developments in ‘confessional’ terms. Whilst this existing ‘confessional’ analysis may be revealing in terms of motivation, other issues are overlooked. Such polarized, ‘indoctrinatory’, scrutiny fails to pay attention to deep-seated non-faith-based ideological differences that lie behind current debates. The over-dependence on a singular framework is not sufficient to fully understand and appreciate the rich complexity of RE policy and practice.

By engaging with additional frameworks, the restrictions can be overcome; key developments arc de-marginalized and a more granular engagement with the subject’s history becomes possible. Statement Archaeology , the method exemplified in this book, is uniquely placed to provide an alternative that creates the possibility of unpicking the variety of ideological contributions to debates and exposing the ways in which these approaches become instrumentalized in RE. Such an approach can be used to better understand the adoption of compulsory RE in the 1940s, developments in English RE in the 1960s and 1970s, and the place of RE in the contemporary curriculum.

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