Stephen Lloyd MP writes… Can good Religious Education build better communities?

lessons from quran, drasIn the UK we benefit from a truly diverse and multi-cultural society, yet we continue to be bombarded with distorted images of nationality, customs, faith and belief in the mainstream media and the internet.

Sadly some of these myths and stereotypes have become embedded in the national psyche, making it harder for our young people to make important ‘informed’ decisions around faith and belief and distorting perceptions of some minority groups.

So it’s ironic that, at a time when the Government should be doing everything possible to promote better communities, the subject that can support this – Religious Education (RE) – is under threat in our schools.

This is why the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education decided to address the contribution that RE can make to good community relations at local, national and global levels through trained RE teachers educating factually about all the world’s main religions, and indeed atheism.

Our inquiry heard expert evidence from school leaders, academics and other practitioners and our new report, RE and Good Community Relations, outlines the three main ways in which RE can help promote good community relations.

A locally determined subject

RE stands outside the national curriculum and is locally determined, so when you look at this from a community perspective you see the range of faith and belief interest groups involved in agreeing local syllabuses. This role extends to supporting and monitoring their implementation in schools.

These communities include not only faith and belief groups but also the local authority and representatives from teacher organisations. At their best, Standing Advisory Councils on RE are models of community involvement and local democracy in action.

Hard hitting relevant subject content

RE, through its most basic subject content – religions and worldviews – can help young people explore the lives and beliefs of others, develop a discerning respect for diversity and a recognition of the commonalities that exist. Through that process, they are able to give deep consideration to their own lives, values and attitudes.

Taken to a higher level, RE also tackles some highly contentious issues, including religiously-inspired extremism. School is an important and safe environment for the exploration of some of the fundamental questions that need to be addressed: religious authority, revelation, interpretation of texts, power, media portrayal, human rights and the socio-political dimensions of religions.

Opening up experiences

Studying RE can open up a range of experiences that challenge young people to think about their vision of future society and relationships within it. The report strongly supports learning outside the classroom, giving first-hand experience of communities that are different from students’ own through visiting a range of places of worship and other sacred spaces. It also recommends linking between schools, in Britain and beyond, to develop dialogue and intercultural understanding. The development of such skills and the nurturing of attitudes such as open-mindedness can make a significant contribution to challenging negative stereotypes and enabling a critical but empathetic engagement with others.

However, these three areas can only be addressed effectively by confident and competent teachers who have been trained, and are supported, to facilitate such important learning in their classrooms. The first APPG on RE inquiry highlighted some very serious gaps in the supply and training of teachers.

Good RE teachers are putting their subject at the centre of bigger desires for ‘good community’ relations. Schools can build on young people’s subject knowledge and an understanding of the complexities of the world of religions and beliefs. This in turn will contribute to the broader community: religiously literate young people who are informed, sensitive, responsible and active citizens of our future communities.

* Stephen Lloyd was MP for Eastbourne and Willingdon until 2015. He was chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education. In March 2013 the Group published a report called ‘RE: the truth unmasked’ on the supply of and support for RE teachers. In June 2013 Stephen tabled an Early Day Motion on RE’s role in tackling extremism.

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31 Comments

  • Matt (Bristol) 16th Apr '14 - 12:49pm

    I am trying to bite down on the biased and illiberal comment that if Gove can’t get a Telegraph headline out of it, it won’t get in the curriculum.

  • In the far south of Thailand with its conflict between Malay Muslims and Thais it’s the schools that get burned down and the teachers murdered..

  • Kay Kirkham 16th Apr '14 - 2:25pm

    I wish we could find a better phrase than ‘ religious education’ which more obviously encompasses humanism, atheism and secularism. All these should be included in the curriculum but labelling them under ‘ religion’ is unhelpful.

  • Paul Reynolds 16th Apr '14 - 2:30pm

    Thank you Stephen for this pertinent, succinct and well-reasoned article. My own experience is also that extreme and ‘exclusive’ religious beliefs most often begin in childhood, and with family-supported indoctrination – especially in religiously orthodox cultures where families are hierarchical and obedience is valued above all else; via Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism. With young children my sense is that in all religions, ‘literalism’ rather than extremism is at the root of many problems…..taking everything in religious texts as completely literal rather than moral and metaphorical as mostly they were originally intended (NB> this is a separate issue to that of whether religious texts are literally the word of God or not). Here is the key to the role of education in religious (or moral non-religious) teaching & learning, perhaps. Understanding the moral teachings and historical context of each religion, and main non-religious moral teachings, is a good aim in education. Done professionally and diligently, I believe this is socially beneficial with respect to the problems of ‘exclusiveness’ in religion, and excessive literalism. This raises difficult questions over schools which aim to exclude all but a specific religion or ideology, for example Buddhist schools or even Marxist schools !

  • A timely article from Stephen Lloyd. His foreword to the report encapsulates the importance of the issues well:

    “Good community relations are at the heart of a society where people can live together harmoniously as neighbours, work colleagues and fellow citizens, even if they may disagree over some of their fundamental religious beliefs or worldviews. Religious education is uniquely placed to help children and young people develop the knowledge and skills they need to play their part in today’s society and tomorrow’s world.

    There are many elements to RE. The focus of this summary report is RE’s role in promoting good community relations. It shows the strengths which already exist in many schools and colleges; we in the All Party Parliamentary Group on RE would like to see them become universal so that both young people and society in general reap the benefit. The debate around religion is often misinformed and even, frankly, inaccurate.

    Good RE teaching in schools by properly trained RE teachers is all about educating young people in the different tenets of the world’s religions, and those with none. I believe this is particularly important today when there is so much inaccuracy in our mainstream media and the internet or from our own peer groups. High quality RE teaching allows children to make ‘informed’ decisions around religion, and when we are better informed we are wiser, and make wiser decisions! Our children are literally our nation’s future, so it is both our responsibility and our duty to prepare them properly for the multi-faceted, diverse and complicated world they will inherit, and one day lead.”

  • Graham Martin-Royle 16th Apr '14 - 3:16pm

    If you are serious about good community relations, about building a cohesive society, then why do you support divisive schooling? Segregating children along religious grounds does not support your aims.

  • Richard Dean 16th Apr '14 - 9:39pm

    It seems to me that there are inherent potential conflicts between section headings, particularly between

    > “Hard hitting relevant subject control”: a desire (of liberals?) for RE to “help young people explore the lives and beliefs of others, … respect for diversity”
    > “A locally determined subject”, an apparent freedom for local community groups to choose not to do that, or to use RE classes to promote a particular religion or view, and
    > “Opening up experiences”, something that is not necessarily welcome in all faiths

    These conflicts may be particularly likely to surface where a catchment area catches pupils whose community leaders are mainly of one strong faith. What are the LibDem recommendations for the detection and management of these potential conflicts?

  • Richard Church 16th Apr '14 - 10:47pm

    @ Helen Tedcastle. No, Humanists are not included in SACRE’s. Sometimes they are invited to participate as observers, but the 25% of the population who said they had ‘no religion’ at the last census have no right of representation for the non religious viewpoint on SACRE’s.

    Stephen Lloyd says “At their best, Standing Advisory Councils on RE are models of community involvement and local democracy in action.” This best is not just yet to come, it is a long, long way off. I see little evidence of community involvement, and absolutlely no democracy in action on Sacre’s

    SACRE’s comment on schools carrying out their legal requirement to conduct a compulsory act of religious worship. Many schools fortunately ignore this arcane piece of legislation, others abide by it to the letter, but it is time Liberals ensured it was scrapped.

    SACREs should be abolished. The comparative teaching of religions and the non-religious is a good thing, but there is no reason why religious studies should be set aside from any other aspect of a schools curriculum and be governed by a group of people selected purely on the basis of their religious faith.

  • A Social Liberal 16th Apr '14 - 11:42pm

    It all depends on what you teach. If you teach the bits that concern Jesus and his works then fine, I’m all for it. But bring in the bigoted ranting of Paul and you have the dangers of propagating the mistakes of past years, with the danger of mysogony and homophobia.

    If you then throw the idiocy of evangelical, fundementalist christianity into the mix and you sow the seeds of moving the country back to the literal belief in the old testament – just look at certain ‘academy’ faith schools.

  • Paul Reynolds 17th Apr '14 - 3:50am

    Helen. Please re-read my comments carefully and you will observe that I do not make the sweeping conclusions you allege. Nowhere do I imply that families teaching religion to their children is always indoctrination.

  • Better a proper separation of Church and state. The disestablishment of the Church of England is long overdue. We don’t need bishops in the House of Lords. The question of community relations is better dealt with in a more wide ranging way as part of social and moral education.
    The remarks about Buddhism reflect a lack of knowledge, in the past in high schools in Thailand there were lessons in Moral Education but not today.There are a lot of Christian schools in Thailand but none of them seek to indoctrinate their mostly Buddhist pupils.

  • Very good article, however I would prefer a school system focused on secular issues (maths, english, etc) and parents would decide to include RE or not.

  • Religion is an immensely powerful influence and in many cases a determinant influence upon human behaviour. It therefore stands to reason that it should be taught in our schools and I agree wholeheartedly with Stephen. However I only agree because of the broadly based and liberal way in which he couches his argument.. As he says it must be “trained RE teachers educating factually about all the world’s main religions, and indeed atheism.”

    This is far from the “divisive schooling, segregating children along religious grounds” feared by Graham Martin-Royle above. If tempted by the quite different appproach of “faith schools” look upon Northern Ireland and beware!

  • Denis
    May as well invent a new religion and be done with it-Cao Dai, Tian Di, Bahai or a bit of Rastafari.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Apr '14 - 4:25pm

    Denis

    This is far from the “divisive schooling, segregating children along religious grounds” feared by Graham Martin-Royle above. If tempted by the quite different approach of “faith schools” look upon Northern Ireland and beware!

    A similar system of Catholic schools exists in England as in Northern Ireland, yet it has not resulted in a disaffected Catholic community inward-looking and full of hatred for those of other religions, which I think is what you are suggesting from the Northern Ireland example. There is also a system of not just religious schools, but many other services provided on a religious basis in the Netherlands, yet there is not the sort of division there which I think you are getting at when you mention Northern Ireland. Opponents of faith schools always raise Northern Ireland and ignore all these other examples.

    My feeling is that if religious education is done openly in state supported schools, it will be done in a better and less divisive way than if it is “left to the parents” as opponents of faith school argue. If it is left to be done privately, it tends to fall into the hands of extremist elements. This is what we see in Islam, where the lack of good rounded education in the religion leaves any of its youth growing up with a skewed idea of it, and easy prey for the extremists.

  • Matt (Bristol) 17th Apr '14 - 4:56pm

    Let’s bring in the historical big guns. Roy Jenkins, not a noted religious bigot, argued that accepting those of other racial and cultural background (including religous backgrounds) was:

    “… not … a flattening process of assimilation but … equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.”

    When people in this thread start arguing that school children should not learn about what religions teach, and go on to pick which of the Christian message(s) they should be exposed to, they are proposing to engage in what Roy Jenkins called a ‘flattening process’ in which a secular culture becomes dominant; they appear to think it wrong that we teach people that we live in a diverse country with diverse religious perspectives and a complex religiuous history and provide detailed information on what those perspectives and that history are, including the bits that may be currently non-popular and controversial.

    This does not appear to be consistent with the traditions of the Liberal Democrat party or very ‘liberal’

    For what it’s worth, my (Anglican) school’s teaching of RE in the 90s was disastrous and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, for these reasons:
    – for much of the time they thought they knew what they believed and weren’t prepared to discuss where it was inconsistent
    – they assumed that as good Anglicans we all believed what our parents pretended to believe and if we didn’t, we just needed to be told what it was
    – other religious perspectives (including Methodism, for example, and anything at all that had happened outside the UK) were a side-show that could be glibly summarised in a patronising fashion (with colouring-in).
    – they occasionally allowed us to discuss our own ideas; this involved being shouted at for not saying anything when usually we were shouted at for wanting to challenge what the teacher said.

    I am surprised I survived all that with my Christian faith alive and well (I think our head of RE was a Labour councillor; I can’t comment on whether this was linked). Contrary to stereotype it seemed to be the doctrinally conservative ,evangelical free churches locally, however, who allowed a greater measure of free debate and thought and questioning in which young people could take ownership of what they were doing and thinking. This was much more attractive.

    I wouldn’t want anyone evetr to experience THAT sought of school RE curriculum, but I think providing good quality, detailed, information about religious, philosophical and cultural practice, belief and history, is surely so key for a modern education, whatever culutural community you belong to.

    Otherwise the only sources of information are self-gleaning via the media, or whatever our parents and other influential adults think they ‘know’. As with any Humanity subject, what is important here is being taught how to frame the questions, rather than the specifcic answers people come up with (Mr Gove might not agree with this, but … well, I give up).

  • Matthew
    The Liberal Party had a strong Free Church element. There were people who were sent to prison because they wouldn’t pay rates that financed Anglican schools, so called National Schools as opposed to the non-denominational British schools.

  • For the sake of my own education I went to the Church of England website, to the page for Good Friday.
    I found this, which I will leave for others to comment on —

    The Book of Common Prayer
    Good Friday
    THE COLLECTS …. ..
    O MERCIFUL God, who hast made all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made, nor wouldest the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live: Have mercy upon all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Hereticks, and take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to thy flock, that they may be saved among the remnant of the true Israelites, and be made one fold under one shepherd, … ..”

  • Martin Gentles 19th Apr '14 - 10:50pm

    Certainly RE should be included in a civic minded curriculum. The question isn’t religious education, the question religious selection in education. This can inculcate social division and, in some circumstances, extremism. I’d like to see more discussion on this, and eventually, I’d like to see this party support the repeal of religious selection in education.

  • daft ha'p'orth 19th Apr '14 - 11:37pm

    @David Pollard
    I’d be all for teaching a little mythology and classical studies. Studying Gilgamesh, Deucalion and Genesis in parallel, for example, is a popular choice… Without wishing to get all J.G. Frazer about it, religious education should draw some inspiration from anthropology. That’s not to say that a radical atheistic viewpoint is required, just that whether or not you are a believer in some religion or another, it’s still useful to have engaged in the exercise of observing religion as a cultural phenomenon and maybe looking a little at less familiar religions too (pre-Christian or culturally very distinct religions). I quite like RE as a concept and enjoyed studying a few of the world’s major religions back in school, but having much later learned more about the study of mythology I would quite like to see it appear on syllabi alongside the ‘[adherents to religion x] have customs [y] and beliefs [z]’ stuff.

    All that said, it disappoints me that RE syllabi may be entirely ‘locally determined’ (why??). It also disappoints me that, as David says, the document linked to here seems to fail to acknowledge that religion does not merely exist as a present tense factor in forming ‘worldviews’ and ‘cultural development’ but is also a subject of study in its own right as something humans have always done, often incomprehensibly and in a manner that successfully baffles archaeologists… That is, I think this document privileges the present religious landscape, whilst I think it would do everybody good to have some exposure to the idea that religion behaves little differently to other aspects of human culture – comparative religion should be taught in its historical and social context, because there is a huge difference between a) learning about today’s religions and b) learning about today’s religions as part of broader study of a socio-cultural phenomenon with an immensely long and rich history. I’d rather kids got access to both a) and b), for perspective.

  • daft.
    Anthropology? E.E. Evans Pritchard. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azade.

  • daft ha'p'orth 22nd Apr '14 - 12:31am

    @Helen Tedcastle
    “The original idea (in 1988) was for SACREs to reflect the communities they serve. For example, it was to ensure that in areas with a predominance of Muslims, that Islam was included in the content of the syllabus and the local community consulted. ”
    Well, sure, but that’s why I said ‘entirely’. I can well understand why there would be a community element. I just don’t understand why the elective element would involve more than an small subset. It’s not like religion doesn’t have a common theoretical core. Regarding ‘liberal’, as far as I’m concerned, after hanging around here for a few years, ‘liberal’ is a word that can mean anything or nothing, so I’m not touching that one with a bargepole.

    As regards religion vs mythology, obviously there isn’t going to be time or depth enough to get into these subjects at great depth, but even so it wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge relevant issues, in broad general terms, perhaps through a few very obvious and accessible examples. The history of religion is one of the more interesting things about it, so it wouldn’t hurt to nod to it as a syllabus point. I mean, when I was a kid we definitely touched on Ancient Egypt and on Native American history, so that’s two areas that are obvious, accessible case studies of which kids (assuming the syllabus isn’t greatly altered) already have experience, so it’s not like RE teachers would be starting from a blank slate.
    While lack of time is an issue in any syllabus, it helps to tie things into known prerequisite syllabi, if there are any. Thinking back, I’m amazed those subjects weren’t linked, and also at the attitudes displayed; essentially, one class taught us about the silly ideas of naive, silly natives (who, it was implied, existed only in the past tense – I have since met some practitioners who would disagree), and the other asked us to respectfully examine the totally worthy, respectable beliefs of fellow citizens with whom we live today. That attitude bothers me now: some sort of special pleading was going on there.

    To me, the difference between the study of religion and the study of locally predominant contemporary sociocultural politics as expressed through clearly signaled religious affiliation is quite an important point. It seems that what the authors of the report mean by religion is ‘predominant/locally visible forms of contemporary religious display’. Speaking solely for myself, I find that a bit… culturally myopic, if not actually a bit misleading. Just my opinion.

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