Unearthing religious pluralism in RE


Writing in 1968, teacher Teresina Havens asked, ‘How long must religions be boxes which keep children in separate rooms during the very time set apart for the whole school to relate to the Eternal?’1 In many respects, Havens’ question was representative of a change in thought amongst many who taught RE in England during the 1960s. In an effort to answer her own question. Havens described some of the changes in teaching practice that were already taking place from the perspective of the individual teacher. Citing the example of Mrs. Angadi, teaching in a London primary school, Havens wrote:

enriched by her own special resources in Asian literature and drama ... Mrs. Angadi’s class of eight-year-olds mimed the temptations of Jesus and Gotama the Buddha; this past winter they gave a play entitled: ‘The Buddha Tames a Bandit’, Mrs. Angadi has found that children arc usually not confused by these comparisons, but come joyfully and naturally to understanding how the Founders of all great religions have wrestled with temptation and opposition. Whether the children be Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or Christian, their understanding of their own faith and its Founders can be deepened by a sense of its relationship with others.2

Havens was not alone in pondering a significant change that had been taking place in English schools. The Schools Council’s 1971 publication, Working Paper 36—Religious Education and the Secondary School (hereafter WP36) includes a statement that highlights such changes in the teaching of RE: ‘Where appropriate [the pupil] will study other [non-Christian] religions and belief systems’.3 This chapter will analyze the circumstances under which this statement (hereafter Statement Three) was produced, and its consequences. Specifically, it will ask how the study of non-Christian religions and belief systems became possible at that particular moment in time. Were there constraints that had previously prevented the study of non-Christian religions and belief systems from developing which—by being lifted—created new ‘historic circumstances of possibility’, in which the previously impossible became possible?4

Historically, WP36 has been positioned as an initiatory document that expanded the teaching of non-Christian religion in English schools.5 For example, Philip Barnes claims that the document ‘is commonly regarded as initiating a shift from a confessional model of religious education, which aims to nurture Christian faith, to a non-confessional “open” model which aims to impart knowledge and understanding of religion’.6 Terence Copley also describes WP36 as initiatory in some respects, highlighting particularly the ways in which it ‘sought to break with the past’.7 Further, WP36 has been constructed as ‘significant’ in the history of RE. Barnes, for example, claims it to be ‘one of the most important working papers produced by the Council’.8 Imbued with this significance, WP36 is often cited, commonly being used as a convenient ‘shorthand’ for the changes that took place in English RE in the 1960s and 1970s. This repetition, through frequent citation of WP36 and the statements within it, without a critical engagement with the nature, origin, context, and authorship of those statements, has led to the document being attributed a certain authoritative status.

Because of this status, WP36 is taken as a starting point for Statement Archaeology, using Statement Three above as a point of departure to examine parallel developments of thought that supported the teaching of non-Christian religion in English schools. This critical engagement with the Statement Three, and several related statements on the topic of teaching non-Christian religions, is used as a means to construct a more detailed and nuanced picture of changes that took place in RE during the 1960s and 1970s.

The criteria of formation of Statement Three

Following the guidance set out in Chapter 1, this section will explore the origin and production of Statement Three.

The context in which WP36 was produced

In October 1963, the recently elected leader of the Labour Party, Harold Wilson, delivered a speech at the Party Conference in Scarborough under the title ‘The White Heat of Revolution’.'’ He focused on the need to respond to rapid and far-reaching changes which were permeating the whole of society, accentuating particularly the theme of education. Wilson criticized the state of the education system calling for a ‘revolution in our attitude to education, not only higher education, but at every level’.10

A number of significant policy developments within the sphere of education occurred during this timeframe. Firstly, the establishment of the Department of Education and Science in April 1964; the extension of com-prehensivization (led by the Labour Secretary of State, Anthony Crosland); and a sequence of fourteen influential Governmental reports that together demonstrate an elevation of the importance of education in the work of Government.11 Perhaps this was the beginning of the revolution in attitude towards education at every level that Wilson had called for.

Another critically important example of this changing attitude was the launch of The Schools Curricula and Examination Council (more widely known as the Schools Council) in March 1964. It was formed as a representative body to monitor curriculum and examinations in England, taking over responsibility from the Secondary Schools Examinations Council (SSEC, formed in 1958) and the Curriculum Studies Group (formed in 1962).12 It was composed in such a way that representation would be included from the Ministry of Education, LEAs, and teacher groups, with teachers being assured a majority on the Council.13 In this way, the Schools Council marked a departure from previous practice. The earlier Curriculum Studies group, for example, had been constituted mainly of departmental officials and HMIs with only one ‘outsider’, leaving LEAs and teachers entirely without representation; this left these groups fearing that ‘the Ministry was seeking the control and direction of the curriculum’.14 In contrast, the Schools Council was established as ‘non-directive’. It offered advice not only to the Ministry of Education, but to all member interests, and provided materials and made suggestions, rather than prescribing curriculum content.15

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