The Religious education in Secondary Schools Project

Once established, the Schools Council developed a very large and complex structure, including a Religious Education Committee, which began meeting regularly in 1965, focusing initially on RE in primary schools and Sixth Forms.16 In November 1968, this Committee discussed a proposal for a project focusing on RE in secondary schools, submitted by Professor Ninian Smart (previously H. G. Wood Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham) who had established the first Religious Studies department in the UK at Lancaster University in 1967.17 Although the Committee felt that such a project might meet the already identified need for a secondary school project that would complement their existing work, ‘doubts and reservations’ were expressed.18 The issue had earlier been a matter of discussion in Parliament: ‘Mr. Christopher Price asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what steps the Schools Council is taking to improve the religious studies curriculum in the schools.’ Miss Bacon responded, ‘A committee of the Council keeps religious education under review. The Council is mounting a project in primary schools and is considering the possibility of another in the secondary field.’19

This seems to have spurred the RE committee into expanding their work as a matter of urgency. At their next meeting, Smart—by invitation—presented a revised proposal which aimed ‘to evolve research and materials relevant to the construction of a satisfying programme of Religious Education in secondary schools, which would take into account the existence of voluntary schools and the presence of non-Christian populations in this country’.20 This won the Committee’s support, particularly the possibility that the project ‘might clarify the aims of religious education. It was important that pluralism should be recognized not only in our own society but in the world at large and the people should have freedom to explain their own faith or religion’.21 Here we see a movement towards the recognition of religious pluralism within the RE classroom.

Production, authorship, and authoritative status of WP36

Despite this rush by the RE Committee to agree to the project, work began very slowly.22 At the first meeting of the Consultative Committee (eventually held in January 1970) ‘the project team were anxious to write a document which can be published as a Working Paper by the Council’.23 At the following meeting, in June the same year, a more formal discussion took place where it was agreed ‘to produce, for general debate, a Working Paper indicating the major concerns of the project and the lines on which it was developing.’24

This haste to publish is important, conceivably reflecting a wider sense of potential change for RE on the horizon, rooted both in the activities of certain Church, Secularist, and Humanist groups, and in political events.25 During this time, as exemplified by the Parliamentary question raised by Mr. Christopher Price (above), there was a significant increase in the amount of parliamentary time relating to RE.26 There had been significant planning and preparation for a House of Lords debate on RE, beginning as early as November 1966; the debate, however, was delayed a number of times, eventually taking place on 15 November 1967.27 The records suggest that the motivation for the debate was ‘to get an interesting discussion on religious education in the House of Lords, with no particular object in mind beyond that’.28 Civil servants had undertaken extensive work in gathering evidence and contacting other bodies involved in RE, including asking the Schools Council Religious Education Committee to ‘produce some kind of evidence on [their] work’.29

There were also rumours of a new Education Act, announced by Edward Short (Secretary of State for Education) in early 1969. Although the Act never progressed, there was some fear that it would significantly change the place of RE within the education system. A little earlier, in March 1966, whilst serving as Chief Whip and Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, Short had delivered a speech to The College of Preceptors in which he expressed his concerns over the state of RE. He argued there that there was a ‘growing demand that religion, in the sense of religious dogma, however non-denominational, should no longer find a place in the school curriculum as, by law, it does at present’.30 These fears were abated a little through a speech at Alnwick Church of England Junior School, Northumberland in early 1969, where Short stated that he ‘and the government intend to preserve compulsory provision of religious education in county schools and the daily act of worship in the new education act’.31

The way in which the Schools Council had been established, and the role that it fulfilled (briefly summarized above), led to it being seen as being an

Unearthing religious pluralism in RE 79 authoritative body. It was certainly considered authoritative by Government at both local and national levels, as well as by individual teachers. On this authoritative status, Ronald Manzer states that ‘almost everyone admitted that the bulletins and working papers which the Council’s secretariat soon began to produce were useful and even influential documents’.32 This status was not limited to Great Britain; Muriel Stewart highlights the status of Schools Council publications overseas, linking its influence and authoritative standing to its role in regard to examinations.33 Consequently, publications under the Schools Council banner, particularly its series of Working Papers, were considered as having some degree of authority, perhaps even being seen as having ‘official’ sanction.34

The authors ofWP36 were clearly alert to the risk that, by being published under the Schools Council imprint, their document might be positioned in this way. They stated unequivocally: ‘The views expressed in it must not be taken to be those of the Schools Council; they represent the views of this project alone’.35 Further, they make it very clear that the document is not intended to be considered conclusive but rather is presented as a discussion document. In contrast to some other Working Papers, which often (though not always) take the form of project reports, WP36 was produced at the start of the research project and, as such, it does not report on conclusive findings.36 The preface to the document is emphatic on this issue: ‘This is a working paper, not a report. Its intention is to raise questions for public discussion and to invite comments from those concerned with education, and particularly religious education, in schools’.37

But who were the authors? This issue, within more recent discussions of WP36 at least, has generally been overlooked. There has been an unexamined assumption that Ninian Smart, as the project leader, was the report’s overall author.38 However, the primary sources show that the drafting process was shared, with editorial decisions on the full draft (prior to Committee approval) being made by a sub-committec (which included Smart).39 Submission of the full draft to the Religious Education Committee prompted an extended discussion, with Colin Alves stating that the draft was inadequate in a number of respects.40 Ultimately, the Committee agreed to publication, on the proviso that all amendments were to be referred to Alves for approval.41 Consequently, final editorial control of'WP36 did indeed rest in the hands of one man; not Smart, but Alves.42

Considering the circumstances of production of Statement Three, as required by the process of Statement Archaeology, unearths a number of important insights relating to its formation. Firstly, the authorship of WP36 is complex, comprising multiple voices, with overall editorial control being with Colin Alves and not, as has been assumed, the project leader Ninian Smart. This knowledge assists in the task of tracing the origins of Statement Three and the means by which the statement might have found its way into the report. Secondly, WP36 was produced in a hurry, within a context of changing political attitudes towards education and an atmosphere of inconsistent statements about the place of RE within that changing educationalsystem. Thirdly, WP36 is published under a banner that had an acknowledged authoritative status, yet it is emphatically positioned as a document to prompt discussion.

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