Initial repetition of Statement Four

We turn next to the initial repetition of Statement Four, beginning with DES Circular 3/89, issued in January 1989, which conveys an official interpretation of the 1988 Act. This reminds ‘local education authorities, the governing bodies of schools and head teachers of the main provisions of education law relating to RE and collective worship, and offers guidance on the changes now enacted’.113 Whilst the continued statutory provision of religious education is stressed, the guidance highlights, through reference to Statement Four, that:

The special status of RE as part of the basic but not the National Curriculum is important. It ensures that RE has equal standing in relation to the core and other foundation subjects within a school’s curriculum, but is not subject to nationally prescribed attainment targets, programmes of study, and assessment arrangements.114

The peculiar relationship between RE and the rest of the National Curriculum is not only foregrounded, but the nature of the difference is highlighted. This appears consistent with the arguments rehearsed throughout the parliamentary debates set out earlier; RE does not fit within the National Curriculum, and therefore it is not expected to conform to the expectations of the National Curriculum subjects. However, Circular 3/89 encourages locally agreed syllabus committees to ‘recommend the inclusion of attainment targets, programmes of study and assessment arrangements in locally determined form’.115

This guidance is repeated in The National Curriculum Council’s Religious Education: A Local Curriculum Framework (1991). This set out how curriculum design operated in National Curriculum subjects, offered guidance on ‘Applying the National Curriculum Structure to Religious Education’, and advice on the principles of constructing attainment targets and programmes of study.116 DFE Circular 1/94, which primarily offers an official interpretation of the 1993 Education Act with regard to RE, also repeats statements from Circular 3/89. On the one hand, it affirms that RE ‘is not subject to statutorily prescribed national attainment targets, programmes of study and assessment arrangements’, and on the other that:

the Government believes that a sensible way to help agreed syllabus conferences in their work would be to provide a range of model syllabuses. All conferences should therefore take note of the range of national model syllabuses that the Secretary of State has asked the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) to produce.117

It is noteworthy that, by the early 1990s, the Secretary of State was asking the Governmental body responsible for the National Curriculum (SCAA) to produce materials that local syllabus committees were urged to ‘take note of’. Two Model Syllabuses for Religious Education were produced (published in 1994, republished by QCA in 1998) and two further documents, both of which included the term ‘non-statutory’ in their titles, have become widely used guidance for the subject (the QCA publication ‘Religious Education— The Non-Statutory National Framework' (2004) and the DCSF publication 'Religious Education in English Schools: Non-Statutory Guidance 201(1).

Initial repetition of Statement Five

Initially, response to Statement Five was muted, conceivably because it began ‘any new agreed syllabus for religious education...’118 There was a widespread sense—certainly within the RE community—that ‘nothing needs to change’. Hull, in emphasizing that the specification of Christianity only applies to new agreed syllabuses, concludes that where LEAs continue to use existing agreed syllabuses, ‘the impact of the new Education Act upon the content of religious education will be precisely nil’.119 As if to illustrate the truth of Hull’s claim, some Local Authorities chose to maintain their existing syllabuses. Consequently, the intention of the 1988 Act in terms of stipulation that the agreed syllabuses (and by extension the teaching in classrooms) should ‘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’ was not fulfilled.120

One of the first local authorities who did revise their agreed syllabus under the new legal framework was the London Borough of Ealing.121 Their syllabus included substantial content on Sikhism (reflecting the presence of significant Sikh communities in the Borough) and Hinduism and Islam, as well as Christianity, and complaints were soon levelled at the document on the grounds that it was considered not to be compliant with the new legislation. The main complaint (raised by Christians and Tyneside Schools, a group with ‘close associations with Baroness Cox’) was that the new syllabus in Ealing (and another new syllabus, in Newham) ‘fail to secure the place of Christianity in RE, and are therefore contrary to Section 8(3) of the ERA’.122

The case was not clear cut; legal opinion was sought in January 1990, with a full response being delayed until June that same year. Ultimately, in regard to the complaints about the Ealing and Newham syllabuses, it was determined that there was no ‘grounds for us to intervene on the question of the Christian balance’ (although both were judged non-compliant on the grounds that the content was ‘couched in very general terms’ and that they were thus ‘deficient because they give too little direction to teachers about how the content, balance and mix implied in Section 8(3) is to be achieved’).123 Further advice was sought from the Solicitor General. To the advice already offered, he added that before any further action, the LEAs concerned should be contacted in order to ascertain the nature of religious education with their schools.124

It was perhaps as a result of this that a Circular regarding compliance with ERA Section 8(3) was issued on 18lh March 1991. This incorporated legal advice, received by the then Secretary of State (Kenneth Clarke), that:

An agreed syllabus which meets [the requirements of Section 8(3)] ... must devote a reasonable amount of attention to teaching based on Christian traditions. The fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian would in most cases be properly reflected by devoting most attention to Christian traditions-, however an agreed syllabus which conforms to Section 8(3) cannot confine itself to religious education based on Christian traditions, or exclude from its teaching any of the principle religions represented in Great Britain. ... The precise balance of the content would need to be determined locally in the light of local factors, such as the composition of the local community.125

Correspondence over a further complaint about non-compliance (raised in relation to a school in Manchester, after the circulation of this guidance) reveals a further significant misunderstanding of the law. Here, the advice given ‘seems to assume that ERA requires all Agreed Syllabuses to conform to Section 8(3)’ (rather than applying only to syllabuses produced after the passing of the Act).126 This misunderstanding—in combination with other issues—provoked demands that Circular 3/89 be revised. Resulting consultations repeated the earlier pattern of differential treatment of religious groups; T sec that the churches are to be consulted at an early stage. I take it that consultation with other religious bodies will be included in the later round immediately before issue of the final document’.127 As well as echoing the problematic consultation processes associated with the Bill itself, this also echoes the way in which the Newham and Ealing complaints had been handled. There it was reported that ‘the Minister thought it might be useful to tell the Church of England in advance [of the Local Authorities being informed] what is intended and if possible get their support’.128

The DES were clearly aware of the unsustainability of the situation. They offered a remedy through a 1992 DES White Paper Choice and Diversity: A New Framework for Schools.'19 Alongside the White Paper, a Consultation Paper was issued which ‘outlines and invites comments on the Government’s proposals for legislation relation to religious education’.130 This was circulated in early August 1992 (with responses required by 25lh September) to a much wider constituency than the 1987 National Curriculum consultation, comprising over 60 groups, including a variety of Christian denominational groups, The Buddhist Society, Jewish, Sikh, and Islamic groups, also British Humanist Society and British Humanist Association.

Both the Consultation Paper and the White Paper claimed that ‘since 1988 around a third of local education authorities have adopted a new agreed syllabus or arc in the process of reviewing their agreed syllabus’.131

They also agreed that ‘all LEAs that have not already done so should be required, within a specified period, to review their agreed syllabus in the light of the requirements of the Education Reform Act 1988’.132 The Consultation Paper proposed that any who had not started the process of review must do so within a year of the new legislation.133 The proposal was taken up in the Education Act 1993, thus making revision mandatory with immediate effect, with compulsory review of the agreed syllabus every 5 years.134 So, whilst Statement Four (as ERA, Section 8) had prepared the ground, it was not until the end of 1994 that all agreed syllabuses would have to be compliant.

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