Informing current debates

Statement Archaeology, as we have seen, unearths important insights into how the present landscape in relation to RE has become possible. Now we are better informed in our explorations, we can consider how these insights might inform future policy direction and potential implementation strategies. In Chapter 1, we considered a number of recent influential reports, including the Religious Education Council’s Commission on Religious Education (published September 2018), promising to return to them here. Looking across these reports, the key debates locate around three issues: i) Should RE remain compulsory?; ii) By whom, and to what ends, should the content of the RE curriculum should be determined? and iii) Should there be a right of withdrawal (and if so, how should it work)?53 It is vital to note that the paragraphs that follow attempt to show how the findings from Statement Archaeology inform or contribute to these debates, rather than endeavour to resolve them.

Should RE remain compulsory?

A number of reports (mentioned in Chapter 1) have argued for a ‘review of the statutory arrangements for RE’, but all of these tall short of suggesting that RE should be made optional.54 The 2018 RE Commission’s Report, for example, articulates its argument for compulsory religious teaching in terms of a ‘National Entitlement’, which would ‘become statutory for all publicly-funded schools’ and would replace the requirement that currently exists ‘under the Education Act 1996 §375’.55 This National Entitlement includes a prescriptive list of what ‘pupils must be taught’ (which will be discussed shortly). The call for such a National Entitlement is predicated on the ‘highly variable quality of RE’; confusion over the purpose of the subject; ‘the lack of adequate training and support for teachers’; and the increasing proportion of schools reported as offering ‘no provision for RE at Key Stages 3 and 4’.56

Firstly, as Statement Archaeology has unearthed, these arc not new questions. Neither is the response novel. The idea of a national entitlement for RE was voiced during the 1940s (most clearly through the issuing of the Archbishops’ Five Points early in 1941, calling for the compulsory provision of Religious Education in state-maintained schools in response particularly to concerns over quality of provision and linked to the lack of adequate training and support for teachers). Section 25 of the Education Act 1944 made this entitlement statutory, with RE being the only subject that had such a position. This legal entitlement was restated under the 1988 Education Reform Act, and subsequent legislation.

The proposed National Entitlement, in terms of statutory provision, therefore already exists in law. However, what is clear from recent work, undertaken by NATRE and included in the Commissions’ report, is that the legal requirement is not being uniformly met. This is reminiscent of the arguments set out by Baroness Cox in support of her amendment to the 1987 Education Bill. Here, as there, it seems that an appropriate response to schools failing to provide RE is to hold them to account for their omission. In tact, the Commission recommend exactly this (Recommendation 9) suggesting that schools’ adherence to the suggested National Entitlement should be monitored by the School Inspection system; however, there is no suggestion made that Inspection should monitor compliance with the current legal framework.57

More broadly, the current question of whether RE should remain compulsory has to be considered against the narrative of how its current position has become possible. In short, the introduction and maintenance of statutory provision of the subject has been justified primarily on ideological and instrumental grounds; educational justifications have been somewhat lacking. Further, the reluctance of successive governments, since at least 1987, to reopen negotiations over statutory provision suggests that this is unlikely to change. Specifically, the pattern of instrumental use of RE by consecutive Governments has, arguably, become established since 1944. Any debates, therefore, about whether RE should remain compulsory have to pay attention to this context.

By whom, and to what ends, should the content of the RE curriculum should be determined?

Before engaging with this question, we need to consider which groups have exercized significant influence over the content of RE up to this point. Firstly, it is important to note that the introduction of the machinery of Agreed Syllabus Conferences in the 1944 Act to determine, on a local basis, the RE syllabuses, was not an entirely new idea; they had been used in a number of areas prior to this. Jack Priestly for example, in his assessment of the history of agreed syllabuses, asserts that the first such document was produced in 1923 for the West Riding of Yorkshire with Cambridgeshire following in 1924 (under the leadership of Sir William Spens, chair of the committee that produced the Spens Report of 1938). Committees that produced these documents in the pre-1944 period tended to be dominated by scholars and clergy. The Cambridgeshire committee, for example, comprised five heads of Cambridge Colleges, ‘seven university professors of theology and heads of theology and teacher training colleges’, Basil Ycaxlee, and a number of head teachers.58

The 1944 Act established machinery by which various groups (being i) the Church of England; ii) other religious denominations; iii) the Local Authority, and iv) teachers) were represented, together with a compulsion for them to agree unanimously before a syllabus could be accepted.59 Whilst including teachers specifically, this arrangement effectively gave representatives of the Church of England and other denominations (being other Christian denominations for the most part, especially prior to 1975) power to further their own objectives for the syllabus within their area. Priestley suggests that in the period until 1966, locally agreed syllabuses tended to be ‘Bible based’, perhaps demonstrating the extent to which these groups shaped the content of such documents.

The Statement Archaeology of Statement Two demonstrates how, in the immediate aftermath of the 1944 Act, various groups and individuals attempted to exert influence over the content of RE through the imposition of specific interpretations of the Act. Amongst these was the National Basic Outline of Religious Instruction (July 1945), compiled by a Committee of Clergy from across a variety of denominations, together with the Association of Education Committees and the National Union of Teachers. The exploration of Statement Two unearthed the way in which the lack of specificity in the 1944 legislation was capitalized on, allowing the group to attempt to legitimize an indoctrinatory, proselytizational aim for RE. Examining the authorship of Statement Two exposed that whilst ICE had been established for teachers, it was dominated by clergy and theologically trained academics (rather than teachers themselves). This later group was influential through the various activities undertaken by ICE including the Study and Research Committee that commissioned and compiled the work published in 1954. Moreover, the Report exposed a somewhat paternalistic attitude, aiming to ‘help teachers and administrators to make the most of the opportunity for developing religious education provided by the Education Act 1944’.60

The Education Department of the British Council of Churches (BCCED), which was also influential in the examination of agreed syllabuses in this period, had a similar make up, with very little evidence of teacher input. During the 1950s, and into the 1960s, this exclusion began to change, demonstrating a change in the relationship between teachers and clergy more widely, with some arguing for a move towards ‘partnership’, but many simply seeing teachers as being under the authority of the clergy (Chapter 3). During the subsequent shift away from proselytizational objectives for RE, the Christian Education Movement (the successor organization of ICE) and

BCCED combined to issue a statement that categorically rejected proselyt-ization.61 During this period, then, despite growing involvement of teachers, these church-related groups were arguably dominant in determining the nature and purpose of RE.

A more significant change in power is evident during the 1960s-1970s, when practitioners further developed their influence. Chapter 4 shows that by this point it was primarily teachers who were determining the content, nature and purpose of RE. The combined effect of the rejection of proselytization aims for RE and the lifting of constraints on the study of non-Christian religious during the 1960s—as described above—created circumstances in which the development of non-confcssional study of world religions could develop. This move was driven, first and foremost, by practitioners, who shared ideas and practices through conduits such as the professional journal Learning for Living and a variety of professional organizations.62

The requirement of the 1988 Education Reform Act that agreed syllabuses for RE ‘shall 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’ marks a significant point of departure.63 In the context of a government exerting increasingly centralized control over the curriculum (through the introduction of a compulsory and centrally determined National Curriculum and the earlier disbanding of the Schools Council), this departure is not peculiar in and of itself. However, the fact that the content of RE was prescribed by statute rather than by order of the Secretary of State (as for other National Curriculum subjects) is a peculiarity which has potential consequences as a precedent.

Clarification of how a compliant agreed syllabus might be identified was issued, in 1991, by Kenneth Clarke (Secretary of'State for Education), with further advice communicated through Religious Education: A Local Curriculum Framework (1991), produced by The National Curriculum Council (a statutory body responsible for keeping the National Curriculum under review). DES Circular 1/94 (circulated to Heads and Governing bodies of all maintained schools) asserted that, ‘All [Agreed Syllabus] 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’.64 This referred to the two Model Syllabuses for Religious Education produced in 1994 by the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority (and republished by QCA in 1998).65 Two further documents have also become widely used as guidance for RE; both include the term ‘non-statutory’.66 In more recent years, perhaps because of cuts to funding of Agreed Syllabus Conferences (and their supporting SACREs) some local authorities have adopted syllabuses developed by neighbouring authorities (a practice that pre-dates the 1944 Act). Increasing numbers have taken advantage of commercially available agreed syllabuses, whilst others have developed their own, ‘utilising the services of experts from RE Today Services, the commercial arm of NATRE, or other private

Indoctrination, Ideology, and Instrumentalization 141 consultants’.67 In combination, these issues tend towards a homogenization of agreed syllabuses, with less and less differentiation between the syllabuses for specific areas.

These examples show that initially the content of agreed syllabuses was heavily under the influence of local clergy and theologically trained educationalists and academics.68 It was not until the 1960s that this grip eased significantly, with teachers and practitioners taking greater control of the content of RE, often by subverting the agreed syllabus altogether.69 The prescription of content under the 1988 Education Reform Act shifted the power once again, this time towards central government and its various non-executive agencies. More recently, reduction in funding ofSACREs has created circumstances in which commercially driven providers and charitable organizations have become increasingly influential in the development of agreed syllabuses.

Most of the reports mentioned in Chapter 1 argue for a national syllabus for RE in some form or another. Adam Dinham and Martha Shaw, in RE for Real (2015), concluded that RE should be provided to the age of 16 on the same footing as other National Curriculum subjects, with a mandatory national framework for the curriculum.70 Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead, in A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools (2015) and Revised (2018), also recommended a nationally agreed curriculum, covering pupils to the age of 16 in all ‘state-funded schools’.71

The National Entitlement suggested by the Commission (above) effectively sets out a ‘National Curriculum’ for RE, specifying what must be taught. Other recommendations set out there articulate the processes by which the curriculum would be developed, suggesting a national body, appointed by the DFE, to ‘develop and revise the programmes of study’ that would be non-statutory.72 This relates to the moves towards homogeneity within agreed syllabuses outlined earlier in this chapter. It also resonates with debates over the past few years, which argue for and against the local determination.73 (The issue of the SACRE and its standing in relation to what is taught in RE has a long, rich, and complicated history. From before the 1944 Education Act, and ever since, there have been calls for a nationally agreed syllabus, locally agreed syllabuses, strengthening of provision, weakening of provisions, and entrenched debates about who should be included in SACREs and who should be excluded.)

Many of the structures suggested by the various reports (including the Commission’s) are evocative of the events relating to the exclusion of RE from the National Curriculum. As we saw (in Chapter 5), despite this exclusion, there were attempts—driven by Government—to encourage the adoption of the frameworks used by National Curriculum subjects in RE, through non-statutory model syllabuses and non-statutory guidance. The expansion of the Free Schools and Academies programmes, which (under the Academies Act 2010) are not required to follow the National Curriculum, together with the shift from statutory obligation to contractual obligation to provide RE under the same Act changes the relationship between RE, the National Curriculum and the teaching of a ‘balanced and broadly based curriculum’.74

Further, these moves together suggests that any attempts to situate RE as a National Curriculum subject are now outdated.

Whilst the Commission’s Report recognizes the effects on SACRE structures of reductions in funding, they persist in suggesting (like Clarke and Woodhead) a continuation of a locally based structure.75 These recommendations expose both an unresolved tension between the local and the national and an apparent lack of awareness over the destruction of the Local Education Authority structures. In the context of expanding acadcmization, what would be the purpose of a local group? Academies are not required to use the Locally Agreed Syllabus for their area, thus—effectively—rendering the SACRE obsolete. Whilst, for the moment at least, Local Education Authorities have a statutory duty to convene SACREs (Education Act 1996, Schedule 3), they therefore have a statutory duty to resource these, even if those resources are very limited. Without such a statutory duty, it seems unlikely that local groups would be funded through the educational funding system. Perhaps they would be funded by contributions from Academics, or charities, or perhaps religious groups.

Finally, current discussions about whom, and to what ends, should the content of the RE curriculum should be determined tend to overlook two further, but significant, issues. Firstly, absent from many of these recommendations is an acknowledgement of the wider educational reform that seeks to both centralize school accountability directly to the Secretary of State (with the eventual removal of Local Education Authorities) and the wider marketization of education (whereby syllabuses and supporting resources for different subjects are ‘bought in’.) Secondly, the discussions cannot be allowed to overlook the fact that the content of RE is currently determined—in broad terms—by Parliament; as such it is an educational peculiarity. No other school subject has a curriculum that is prescribed, not by teachers, nor by advisory bodies, not indeed by the Secretary of State, but by statute. This peculiarity means that any attempt to re-orientate the subject, or change its key elements, require an Act of Parliament, a theme to which we will return shortly.

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