The rise and fall of proselytizational RE?

In reviewing our findings from this Statement Archaeology, we must take care to apply them appropriately. We cannot, for example, claim that the teaching of RE in all schools between 1944 and the late 1950s was of a proselytizational form. The focus here has been on agreed syllabus documents and their aim. (It is instructive to note here that the legislative framework focuses on the construction of agreed syllabuses and not what was taught in classrooms; this is a theme we will revisit in Chapter 5). The deployment of Statement Archaeology in relation to the specific question how did it become possible for “making little Christians” to be a legitimate aim for RE in the period after the 1944 Education Act?’ reveals that there were certain groups, most notably ICE and BCCED, who were attempting to normalize, or make legitimate, such an aim for agreed syllabus documents. They seem to have overstated their evidence, and arguably exploited the support they received from the Ministry of Education (both reputationally and financially) and the wide circulation of their work (particularly the 1958 pamphlet, positioned as the authoritative guide on agreed syllabuses) in propagating a distinctive interpretation of the 1944 Act which suited their ideology.

Certain conditions combined to make this possible (in no particular order): the lack of specificity over legitimate aims for the 1944 Act; the relatively greater power of the clergy in relation to teachers; the role of one particular actor, Yeaxlee, whose responsibilities crossed many networks and lines of influence; the ICE study being the first research-based assessment of the 1944 Act’s implementation, and—particularly—the eliding within ICE of a particular ideology, power dynamic (run for teachers but by non-teachcrs) and an increased influence in the period immediately prior to the war, beingthe only professional body for RE teachers at the very point that the 1944 Act needed to be operationalized.

During the period up to the mid-1960s, these circumstances of possibility changed. The proselytizational aim for RE became the focus of dissatisfaction within the discourse during the later 1950s, not on the basis of the prohibition of such an aim (propagated at the Bossey Conference), but on the basis that such an approach was not successful in achieving its aims. The role of teachers became more prominent in discussions, together with (or leading to) an apparent releasing of the ‘clergy grip’ on RE, perhaps allowing teachers to be driven by the educational (rather than other) agendas that increasingly featured in the professional and academic literature. Power dynamics within ICE changed too; key personnel at the editorial helm of what was by now Learning for Living changed; the relationship with the government department responsible for education, now the Department for Education, also changed.

More widely, there were global changes that affected education; increasingly it became positioned as an issue of‘social policy’ leading to an increase in state intervention in national systems of education during this period. This was perhaps seen most clearly in England through the expansion of the Ministry of Education to the Department of Education and Science and the establishment of the Schools Council. This general expansion of education, together with wider social, economic, and political changes of the time, all put pressure on the Churches, who became increasingly concerned that, in some way, this diminished their role.135 Yet the response to all these changed circumstances was not to call for the ending of the compulsory provision of religious education, but to fundamentally change its aim. The de-legitmization process outlined here related to the aim of RE not whether it should continue as a compulsory provision.

Thus, we see the same groupings that had normalized proselytizational RE engendering support for non-proselytizational RE. The power dynamics, as we have seen, were changing. But in response to their diminishing role in RE, groups like BCCED and CEM, who had—especially when acting together—been a major influence on the Ministry of Education, attempted to maintain a dominant position as gatekeepers of the discourse by positioning themselves as the only legitimate body that could realistically sanction a move away from a proselytizational aim for RE.136 This then, is what they did, taking Alves’ work and repeating to various audiences, including the DES. Thus these groups remained involved in the development of the compulsory provision of RE in new directions that might—at first sight—seem opposed to their ideological positioning, rather than calling for the provision to be ended.

The rejection of a proselytizing aim for RE unearthed by this examination of Statement Two, created circumstances in which another significant move in English RE could take place, one in which the role of the churches was once again significant. We turn to that next in Chapter 4.

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