Saturday, 7 November 2015

Catholic Schools & Islam at GCSE

Schools Week (6/11/15) covered a story on P4 of this week's paper by Sophie Scott. It's worth reading it in full in the print edition (a seemingly edited version appears <here>), before reading the rest of my blog which addresses some of the information in the article. At the heart of the article, was a decision by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to collectively decide Catholic schools should study Judaism as their second religion at GCSE.

On a personal level, I found the tone somewhat inflammatory, but as a practising Catholic, I am used to dealing with criticism of the Church and in particular Catholic schools and education. I absolutely understand some of the issues that people have with the Church and Catholic schools. Yet I am also reminded of the quote by Archbishop Fulton Sheen, "There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate The Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”

As such, it is best in such circumstances to focus on the facts:
  • The letter came from the Bishops and was their decision. It was simply communicated by the CES, as is their role; the article does not make this clear. The CES offered advice to the Bishops, but they make their own decisions (Perhaps worth noting that some CES staff worked on the AQA GCSE spec which included options to teach both Islam and Judaism). The CES has certainly not "decreed" or ordered anything. In any Diocese, it is the individual Bishop's responsibility to make his own decision; many go with the decision of the collective conference.
  • The article begins "Catholic schools will no longer teach Islam as part of GCSE RS". It is worth noting that many did not anyway. The majority of schools teach Catholic Christianity. Any that did teach Catholic Christianity and Islam previously would have done so without formal permission of Bishop's Conference BUT presumably with their own Bishop's knowledge and approval (through Diocese / Section 48 inspection). It is possible that if the Bishop allowed it previously, he will do so again.
  • The article says each religion must be "equally weighted". This is absolutely not the requirement of the new GCSE; it requires a minimum of 25% coverage of a second religion. Some specs will provide a 50:50 split, but this is a choice not a requirement.
  • The article says, "regardless of whether they are trained to teach other religions, such as Islam.". I don't know of many RE teachers that are trained so specifically for teaching Islam in any schools, let alone Catholic schools? Teachers in Catholic schools are employed primarily to teach Catholic Christianity; that is their job. It would be reasonable to expect their training and expertise would be in this. Their expertise in other faiths is, however, also vital and would be used as KS3, possibly KS5 (in general RE type lessons) and equally still at GCSE! This is a misleading comment.
  • It is claimed by an anonymous Catholic RE teacher that this decision was made for "purely academic reasons", as if this is a bad thing. What other reasons would there be? A desire to fit the Community Cohesion agenda? To "fight terrorism"? These responsibilities do not belong to RE alone; they are whole school issues, just like SMSC. Surely RE, particularly in the Catholic school, should be an academic subject? It should have its own integrity and its own measures of success irrespective of the context and "current climate". Do other academic subjects "sway with the times"?
  • The choice of studying Islam in Catholic schools previously was not one based on academic rigour, not to help Promote Cohesion arguably.  Schools more likely picked it as they thought they would get higher grades with their particular intake. Is this a reason to be defended and upheld? 
  • Catholic schools do, and will continue to teach Islam; the article implies this is not the case. It will feature in Key Stage 1 to 3, as it always has done.
  • What has a primary school with 90% Muslim pupils got to do with GCSE RS? These pupils will learn about Islam alongside Catholic Christianity just like all pupils in Catholic primary schools.
  • It is not true that pupils in Catholic schools "must be religious" (this 'fact' features in the print edition - no longer online?). This is only the case in over-subscription, and even then, the parents of a student with a statement of SEND could request, and be granted, a place in a Catholic school (as well as other situations such as LA students etc). This reinforces the idea of proselytising and forced religion in Catholic schools; something which I absolutely do not believe to be true.
  • The anonymous teacher claimed "all lesson material would need to be rewritten". I cannot see why this would be the case? The majority of the GCSE remains Catholic Christianty, as has been taught previously. Indeed much lesson material will need reworking, but this is due to the more rigorous GCSE course rather than the inclusion or exclusion of Islam. 
This is my personal response to the article, and the inaccuracies within it. I feel that schools with a religious character and those without should be trying to work closer together, reducing the 'them vs us' mentality, especially within RE. There is common ground. However articles such as this are not helpful. The story could have been reported very differently, and more accurately, but that wouldn't have been as exciting as an 'exclusive' for Schools Week. 

NOTE - Since publishing this, Schools Week editor Laura McInery has been in touch to let me know the online version is a corrected version. She also let me know the CES have been given the opportunity to write their own article for next week. Thanks to Laura for this, a sign of good journalism for me! However my concerns remain that often the media, in general, are very quick to report inaccuracies about Catholic education.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph

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