Religious education in schools: the 1954 report

In response to what the Research Committee called ‘an excess of views and opinions based on inadequate knowledge of actual practice within the schools’, they set out to provide ‘an objective, competent and properly co-ordinated survey of the basic facts about religious education in England’.35 They stated that ‘The aim of this inquiry is simple and practical. It is to help teachers and administrators to make the most of the opportunity for developing religious education provided by the Education Act 1944’.36 Further, they emphasized that:

This must be done from inside the teaching profession—in the schools, colleges, departments and institutes of education—and must have as its purpose a clearer understanding of what difficulties teachers are actually encountering, what kind of help they would find most congenial and effective, and how such assistance can best be secured.37

The findings of the project were published in 1954 as Religious Education in Schools: The Report of an Inquiry made by the Research Committee of the Institute of Christian Education into the working of the 1944 Education Act. The authors declared that the timing of the work upon which it was based was significant. Being published in 1954, they argue, ‘most pupils who began their school life in 1944 will only now be finishing it’.38 However, their claims are a little misleading.

Planning for the project began in 1947 with the systematic collection of data beginning in 1948, only 3 years after the religious education elements of the Act came into force.39 The claim that the research would be undertaken ‘within the teaching profession’ also appears to be disingenuous. The agreed syllabuses, both in terms of their current deployment and LEA’s plans for revision, rather than classroom practice per se, was the focus of the bulk of the work.

The initial plan of a ‘nation-wide’ survey was soon abandoned, due primarily to insufficient resources, so a regionally based study was undertaken.40 During the academic year 1948-49, questionnaires were sent to about 3000 schools in the Birmingham region (Catholic institutions were excluded) by the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Education. Preliminary results were published by Jean Bowden in early 1951, with coverage of the organization of teaching, withdrawal, teachers, examinations, equipment available, the use of‘practical methods’, relationship of RI to other subjects, and the daily act of worship.41 Neither the content of lessons, nor the aim of the teaching, was reported on.

A similar questionnaire was circulated to 570 schools (this time including Catholic schools) in Norwich and rural areas of Norfolk during the following academic year.42 Another questionnaire, ‘which was in fact almost as comprehensive as those of Birmingham or Norwich’, was deployed during 1950 to 1519 grammar schools by The Joint Four Secondary Association.43 Alongside all of these studies, in 1951, the Research Committee undertook a survey of ‘what agreed syllabuses Authorities in England and Wales were using, or had in preparation’, repeating this in 1953.44 In addition, they ‘invited information from LEAs as to what they had done or proposed to do in the matter of appointing Advisory Councils on Religious Education as suggested by the Education Act of 1944’.45

Shifting attention away from the agreed syllabus, The Institute of Education (University of Leeds) concentrated on the issue of knowledge retention in religious knowledge, using a questionnaire survey distributed to 1500 students between the ages of 16 and 19.46 Elsewhere, under the direction of the Institute of Education (University of Hull), personal visits were made to 16 secondary modern schools, with further information being gathered from teachers and heads through two conferences held in 1950.47 The Institute of Education (University of London), in collaboration with ICE, LCC, NUT representatives, and ‘an assessor from the Ministry [of Education]’, approached head teachers in selected boroughs and subsequently issued a ‘preliminary questionnaire’ which yielded 94 responses and led to an unspecified number of follow-up visits to schools.48

Bearing in mind the concern over ‘an excess of views and opinions based on inadequate knowledge of actual practice within the schools’, and the desire to offer support to teachers, one might expect the report to include some recommendations.49 None, however, were made; the Committee asserted:

that the most fruitful and practical discussion of what can and should be done to improve and develop still further the work of religious education is discussion among those actually responsible for that work in given areas - Local Authorities and their advisory councils, teachers and those concerned with the training of teachers, ministers, clergy and parents. ... Clearly, also, I.C.E. associations can do much to bring various interests together for discussion of what may be done further to set forward the common task.50

Authorship and authority of the report

Although the various ‘work packages’ which contributed to the Report were undertaken by a variety of institutions and individuals, the editing together of their outputs was entrusted to a small group (Dr. Tatlow and Dr. Stopford) with Yeaxlee (who had been Research Officer for the project since 1948) as Secretary.51 This ‘Editorial Committee’ was given responsibility for ‘considering what should be published and in what form’, with a ‘measure of executive freedom, in consultation of course with the Chairman of the Research Committee’.52 Records from the time suggest that Yeaxlee had the final editorial say, being responsible alone for the completion of the final version of the manuscript.53

In his role as editor of Religion in Education, Yeaxlee wrote in glowing terms about the manuscript he had, ultimately, prepared:

The long awaited report of the I.C.E. Research Committee will by now be in the hands of many of our readers. We do not hesitate to say that it should be bought by all of them, studied, and made known by them to all in the circle of their acquaintance who are concerned with this vital business of making the Christian religion a living, potent factor in the upbringing, and in the narrower sense the education, of boys and girls in all our schools.54

In the next edition, Edward Bradby reported that:

The report received wide notice in the daily press and in periodicals, and led to public attention being focused on several matters of general interest, notably the need to improve the provision of Bibles in many parts of the country.

This buoyancy over the publication was slightly more muted in relation to national and local government, about whom Bradby said, ‘Less spectacular but equally important has been the attention given to the report by the Ministry of Education and local education authorities, who arc responsible for so much of the provision for religious teaching in our schools’.55 Yeaxlee shared with the ICE Council, in March 1955, a letter from Sir David Eccles (Minister for Education) in which Eccles wrote, ‘I repeat my thanks to you and the Institute for this Report and I hope that the close contacts which have been established between the Institute and my Department will continue’.56 Regardless of Bradby’s pessimism, this suggests a developing authoritative position of ICE in the eyes of the Ministry of Education.

Sir Phillip Morris (Vice-Chancellor, Bristol University) commended the Report as ‘realistic’ and praised the work of the Committee, also arguing that ‘the final value of religious education can be measured only in the lives of boys and girls at school and of the men and women which they in due course become’.57

Thus, it is clear that the research upon which the ICE report was based— whilst wide-ranging—was fairly disparate, yet still arguably the most extensive research on religious provisions of the 1944 Act undertaken up to that point. This alone perhaps positioned it as authoritative. Added to this, the work was undertaken by an authoritative group (ICE) in partnership with a

Making little Christians 57 variety of other groups each of which had its own authoritative standing— including University Institutes of Education and the Ministry of Education itself, the latter of which had funded the bulk of the research work through a series of grants.58

In summary then, the ICE’s 1954 report was formed in a period of some change both socially and in terms of education. The implementation of the 1944 Education Act had, through a lack of specificity, created circumstances in which the ICE was able to push its own ideology, normalizing the ‘making little Christians’ as a legitimate aim for RE. The fact that ICE was an authoritative body, well regarded by teachers and Government alike, aided their claim that the aim was indeed legitimate; certainly there seem to be few examples that suggest such a claim was ‘unthinkable’ at the time. The role of Basil Yeaxlee in this process is significant; his multiple roles—within and beyond the research project—appear to have allowed him to act as a ‘conduit’ of ideas between and within various different groups.

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