Tuesday, 16 June 2015

BlogSyncRE Special: A New Settlement? A RC View

Image courtesy of @FaithDebates

This blog is part of a #BlogSyncRE special in response to the document "A New Settlement: Religious and Belief in Schools". See more <here>

I write this as a Catholic, teaching RE in a Catholic school. Often when I have blogged about my support of Catholic Education or faith schools, I have received a fair bit of trolling online (both religious and non-religious people can be mean, amazingly enough!). Rarely do I quote scripture, but I always find it important to remember: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first." (John 15:18) - always good to remember that JC got his share of trolling too! 

It's also important to remember that I do spend a lot of time in discussion and communication with the non-Catholic RE world and some of my very good friends would absolutely disagree with me on the issues of faith schools and Catholic RE. Also recently, I have presented twice about The Future of RE (<here> and <here>) and have written about it for the July 2015 issues of UKEdMag. The themes I discussed were very much in keeping with the suggestions put forward in this pamphlet. I am still working out my own personal position on it all.

The official CES Statement:

"The Catholic Education Service welcomes the Westminster Faith Debates report A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools as an important contribution to the debate on the place of religion in schools. The report acknowledges the important role which Church schools play in the public sector and supports Catholic parents' right to send their children to Catholic schools.

We welcome the report's support for the admission and employment criteria in Catholic schools. Catholic schools serve first and foremost the Catholic community, reflecting the vast contribution that the community makes in terms of their provision and ownership of the land and school buildings, financial contributions and support given by parents and governors.

The purpose of Religious Education (RE) in Catholic schools differs from that of community schools. RE is at the core of a Catholic school and must make up 10% of curriculum time. Catholic RE equips students with the skills to discern and deepen their faith and teach them about the faiths of other religious communities in order to respect and understand them. Regular Diocesan inspections of this curriculum holds Catholic schools publicly accountable.

Given the distinctive nature of RE in Catholic schools, any national RE curriculum would not fulfil the purposes of RE in both Catholic and community schools. Catholic schools will continue to follow the RE curriculum as set out by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales." (<source>)

In this post, I'd like to focus on what I believe (personal views, not with any authority), the CES and Catholic schools would, or could, not agree with. I will be referring to the numbers found in the final summary of the pamphlet, but also found <here>.

The autonomy of schools with a religious character

5. The government discusses with the faith school providers, including academies and free schools, the merits of voluntary-aided and foundation faith schools adopting this nationally-agreed syllabus and, on the basis of such discussions, considers legislating to require all maintained schools to adopt this syllabus.

6. The government also discusses with faith school providers including academies and free schools, the importance of making a distinction within schools between religious instruction, formation and education, including agreement that religious instruction (even of a kind which does not include coercion, or distortion of other religions or beliefs) does not take place within the school day.

7. In addition, the government discusses with independent schools whether they should adopt this nationally-agreed syllabus and, on the basis of such discussions, considers legislating to require all schools to adopt this syllabus.

16. The ability of faith schools to retain their own inspection process for the content of collective worship and religious formation should be reconsidered within the context of the overall changes we propose.

These recommendations set out here, clearly seek to remove the autonomy of schools with a religious character in terms of curriculum content and inspection. These are two of the foundation stones of Catholic education and were original conditions of the Church agreeing to enter into partnership with the state in the first place. When the Church agreed to help provide free education with land and buildings, often built by parishes or religious communities, there were conditions put in place which this proposal seems to be trying to remove. Without such autonomy, what would make these schools of 'religious character'? Some have suggested these proposals contain suggestions that would see the end of faith schools, despite some very positive things said about them in other parts of the report.

Definitions of RE

Religious Instruction is defined as:
that which takes place from a faith standpoint, and its purpose is to instruct in that standpoint. it does not involve critical questioning or consideration of alternative religious or non-religious options.

Religious Education is defined as:
to understand the importance of religions; to appreciate their history and social significance; to be familiar with their beliefs, customs and practices; to be aware of the ways in which they have shaped the world and human lives; to be able to understand the meaning of religious language and symbols; to be able to form and articulate their own values and beliefs in relation to such understanding.

Some would suggest that their definition of RE is more like RS and the definition of RI is deliberately phrased in such a way as to suggest confessional study cannot be critical and consider alternative points of view.

In Catholic schools, we analyse Catholicism from within, not as a curiosity from the outside (and I have taught in schools where they didn't believe Catholics actually existed... a mix of aliens and Victorians!). We do not assume pupils are beginning with an agnostic starting point; however those who are naturally questioning their faith or have lost their faith are of course not ostracised.

This report seems to indicate that schools with a religious character are intent on proselytising, indoctrinating and 'switching off' student's critical faculties. This is something that I personally, as a Catholic RE teacher, find very hard to accept. It is a caricature of RI of the past, something that I have never experienced in a modern RC school (although I not naive to claim it never happens, as it probably does in a number of faith schools and non-faith schools). 

A significant number of theologians at university level are professing members of particular faiths and would suggest that faith is best analysed within the context of a lived tradition which understands the significance of that tradition. Some would suggest this results in a higher level of religious literacy (see <here>).

In my first reactions, when some were surprised that Catholics may not support this pamphlet in it's entirety, I hastily typed this:

Why would faith schools actively support something that:
A) Suggests changing collective worship that they would ignore and keep doing anyway
B) Suggests removing legal obligation for KS4 RE when they would probably keep compulsory GCSE anyway
C) Suggests a national curriculum for RE which they wouldn't follow anyway
D) Suggests changing SACREs which they don't use anyway

Some will argue that faith schools and faith groups should be behind the the report in order to improve RE for all in England. I am quite sure that there will be other faith groups who have hesitation too. 

The recommendations in the report are largely considered opinion, currently without more in-depth research. There are some key questions to look at:
  • Would the removal of compulsory RE (particularly at KS4) lead to an improvement in standards? (Or just a drop in numbers as some have suggested?)
  • Would a national curriculum (or similar) have the desired uptake to raise standards? (Give the current % of schools who could choose to not follow it without drastic law changes)
  • Does the academies / free schools programme that continues to grow, lessen the effect of such recommendations even if implemented? 
  • Is collective worship a priority? (It was number 1 on the list of recommendations and made most of the headlines)
  • Would that particular name change (to Religion and Moral Education) solve problems or create more? (We are already a very divided community over our name!)
  • Are SACREs and LASs as ineffective as some would suggest?
  • Why have previous proposals and documents failed to have widespread impact? (And what would be different with this one?)
One things I would be interested in, as a Catholic RE teacher, is what a national curriculum document should or could include. One aspect which has interested me personally is the idea of a set of core knowledge, as is set out in the new GCSE Appendices. I would find it useful to see what such a document would set out as the 'core knowledge' for Key Stage 3. It would also be helpful to planning for the new GCSE examinations. 

I look forward to reading a wide range of reflections from the RE Community and beyond via www.BlogSyncRE.org.uk 


  1. Great work Andy - really helpful summary of the proposals and clear, important questions.

    My feeling is that the focus on Collective Worship has been deliberately designed to grab the headlines and distract faith-communities from considering the effects of other proposals, buried deeper in the report.

    While I have concerns about a lot of the proposals, the most worrying is, I think, that a new RE National Curriculum could become mandatory for ALL SCHOOLS, including Faith Schools, Academies, Free Schools, even Independent Schools and that there would be no parental opt out. While I see where the authors of the report might have been coming from, this would represent a huge, centralizing power-grab and would be a dangerous precedent indeed. Whereas this country has always respected the right of parents to choose how to educate their own children (even, if at least if they are willing/able to pay, when it comes to following the National Curriculum and entering national public exams at all, think Summerhills, Steiner etc.) this would effectively remove parents' rights and subject young people to a government-designed program of instruction... not in something uncontroversial like English or Maths, but in something inherently controversial even political... world-view and morality. While most people would go along, this is undeniably a major question of civil liberties. Further, given the proposed 5-7 year review of the content of this mandatory government-designed program, wouldn't such a proposal, if passed, lay children (and the country as a whole) open to political manipulation on a grand scale? What is to stop some future populist government stacking the NASACRE and producing a revised National RME Curriculum which suggests (however subtly) that all/some religions are bad news and, in effect, that it would be morally right to vote for them? It is not as if that sort of thing has not happened before... a lot.

    1. Thanks for this Charlotte.

      I wonder if you are right to suggest it was deliberate ploy to get headlines with Collective Worship? It was certainly the angle most of the press took.

      If I am honest, I can't see a climate to make anything mandatory for all schools. This is quite simply not what the Tory education policy has done, indeed the absolute opposite.

      My worry is at the moment, there is too much freedom (see: http://tdreboss.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/making-it-up-as-you-go-along-in-re.html) and potentially the only way to sort that is with a form of core curriculum.

      However, it is a great concern... who will write this? The DfE? Faith Communities? Culham St Gabriel's? HEIs? NATRE? There is always a big question about who decides the knowledge.

    2. Charlotte, Unconvinced by the idea that RE isn't already centralised. You are worried about a 'government-designed program of instruction'. Bjut they already exist. Local syllabuses are centralised documents - the centre happens to be the LA or the diocese. The RC Curriculum Directory is certainly centralised by a significant authority! The most successful model of RE in recent years was the 2004 Framework - produced by a national body and commanding great respect.

    3. Andy - I struggle to believe that the political animal that is Charles Clarke was unaware of just what the press would do with that sort of recommendation! Looking beyond the rhetoric, I think that Tory education policy has consistently moved towards homogenization, centralized control, reduction of choice. To mix up some more metaphors, they give an inch with one hand while everybody is watching and take back a mile with the other on the QT. Giving pay and conditions freedom to Heads while simultaneously cutting real-terms budgets and introducing masses of new initiatives & regulations. Giving freedom for academies and FS not to follow NC while simultaneously using funding, OfSTED and statistics to force everybody to follow the same narrow curriculum. It is classic politics of distraction, doublespeak if you like. Say one thing loudly and do the opposite - nobody will notice and, if they do, they will sound wrong in that they contradict what is being said loudly by figures in authority. I agree that the existing "settlement" permits a lot of rubbish to be done in the name of RE - but think that is more about recruitment, lack of training, ignorance amongst managers and an inspection regime that is fobbed off with paper and not interested in / able to judge what is really going on in classrooms in the long term than about lack of NC.

      Alan - I say again that RE is really not compulsory or so centralised at the moment. In addition to the parental opt-out, you list Local Syllabuses (there are 10s of these, all different) and Faith documents (there are several of these, including diocesan documents as well as CD and documents emanating from anglicans, methodists, quakers, muslims, sikhs, Jewish groups) etc. I would add to that the several different models used by independent schools and mention the fact that up to 60% of schools by my reckoning ignore LA (even if they actually do RE) because they are free schools or academies... or actually just because they feel like it and nobody is going to do much, if anything, about it. I totally agree about the 2004 Framework - I would like to see something like that resurrected, properly resourced and built into the inspection framework - i.e. you should follow the framework unless you can REALLY convince that you are doing something better for a good reason. Perhaps a new Act could clarify the position on RE, amending the contradictory advice in the 1988, 1944 Acts etc. pointing to the National Framework and requiring OfSTED, ISI etc. to inspect that schools are fulfilling statutory obligation, perhaps under a separate, dedicated heading in reports? I would add that it should oblige inspection teams to collect parental and student opinions about RE and observe actual RE lessons in each key stage and not rely on paper. That would seem to be a sensible way to proceed that would not fall into the pitfall of an actual NC and would not compromise civil liberties to such an extent.

  2. Andy are you suggesting that a settlement (the Dual System) agreed 70+ years ago in a very different social, cultural, religious and educational context cannot be reviewed and reformed today? The report is clear that its focus on the needs of pupils and teachers in the world as we now find it. It is not interested in supporting any existing structure, interest group, or symbolic badge of honour for its own sake. Its proposals for a shared minimum entitlement for all pupils in all schools seems modest and reasonable given the nature of the world in which we now live. Schools can add to that entitlement if they wish. Who will write it? Well, you and me of course!!

    1. I think we are in a chicken-egg situation here.

      The threat is of something new, that no-one has any idea about (and we are unsure about its possible legal status). What will this national / core / minimum entitlement look like?

      There is no way that the RCC are going to give up post-Emancipation concessions based on an possibility or something better. However, if this document existed, then you showed it to the RCC and said, "We really feel this is the very best of what has been written and thought, maybe it would work for you too?", you are far more likely of success (no promises obviously!).

      I would love to know what is the best way / things to teach Judaism, Hinduism and Islam at KS3 and I have the time to deliver it. I would use such a document to help inform my teaching and deliver the Curriculum Directory.

      There are careful battles to be one, and this is a long game. It is impossible to believe that everyone would just say, "Sounds great, I'm in."

      Ha! I love your optimism that everyone would be happy with our co-authorship Alan!

    2. Andy, the danger is that a negative response from the RC and CofE will scupper the impact of the report - which maybe the intention. I am not hearing a message of working together for the good of all pupiils and teachers. Protectionism and self-interest rules again - not engaging with the big picture in the report and focusing on the issues that affect them rather than the analysis. And as for the CofE on CW - barking mad, but not your problem! There is very real danger here that the Dual System is alive and well and could lead to serious fragmentation.

  3. Hi Andy, really interesting. Thought I'd have a go at a blog (first time, maybe last) on this.