Religion has always been a feature of schooling in England. The Education Act of 1944 made the study of Religion the only compulsory subject in school and it was to be accompanied by a “daily act of worship” for all pupils. Back then religion was largely synonymous with Christianity.
But a recent survey from the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education shows there appears to be a growing problem with parents taking their children out of school RE lessons. The findings show that parents are withdrawing children from lessons on Islam, or visits to the Mosque, calling into question their preparation for life in modern Britain.
Recently published research suggests that “withdrawal” has been requested in almost three quarters of schools. More than 10% of those withdrawing are open about the fact that they are doing so for racist or Islamophobic reasons.
In 2017, the RE Council set up an independent commission to review RE. This Commission on RE has heard much anecdotal evidence of Islamophobically-inspired withdrawal. Teachers up and down the country have stories of parents not wishing their children to learn about “that terrorist religion”. This conflicts with the duty of schools to promote “British Values” of tolerance and respect and to challenge extremism.
Recently, the teaching union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturer, passed a motion condemning “racist” parents who pull their children out of RE lessons. The union has urged the government to put a stop to it.
The law on withdrawal
Parents are able to pull their children out of RE lessons by drawing on the 1996 Education Act, which states that a parent can request that for their child to be wholly or partly excused from religious education and religious worship in the school.
A voluntary “conscience clause” existed in some church schools since the 1820s and became part of the 1870 and 1944 education acts. Put simply, if the only school in the village was a Roman Catholic school, and Anglican and nonconformist parents did not want their children indoctrinated into Catholicism (and vice-versa) they could be excused from the religious instruction offered there. They could then provide their own denominationally suitable religious instruction either at school or elsewhere.
For decades this clause appeared to cause few problems. Indeed research I carried out suggests that there was little to be worried about. In a handful of schools, occasional families with a particular background – often Jehovah’s Witnesses – would not take part in assemblies or RE lessons and would instead, work quietly on their own materials. But it seems now, times are changing.
RE has changed
Unsurprisingly, the study of religion in schools has changed dramatically since a Bible Studies syllabus was envisioned in 1944. The subject must still be provided for all pupils in school, but now the RE Council states that:
Religious education contributes dynamically to children and young people’s education in schools by provoking challenging questions about meaning and purpose in life, beliefs about God, ultimate reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human.
In RE they learn about and from religions and worldviews in local, national and global contexts, to discover, explore and consider different answers to these questions. They learn to weigh up the value of wisdom from different sources, to develop and express their insights in response, and to agree or disagree respectfully.
These are essential skills and knowledge that all pupils need to be able to develop in order to play a full part in modern multicultural Britain.
Time for a rethink?
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers are not the first to call for an end to withdrawal. In 2015 the former secretary of state for education and home secretary, Charles Clarke, and religious studies academic, Linda Woodhead, proposed a “new settlement” in which they claimed there was “no case for a right to withdraw a child from ‘religious education’”.
They pointed out that the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child mean that a child should be free to express his or her religious beliefs – rather than those of their parents. The Commission on RE’s Interim Report found a significant majority of stakeholders advocating the removal of the right to withdrawal.
Humanists UK are one of the few voices who defend the right to withdraw claiming that withdrawal protects pupils from what they still claim can be indoctrinating teaching – particularly in faith based schools.
Despite these conversations, too often politicians have shied away from difficult decisions on religion and education. But pressure is mounting on them to act. And this is important, because as things stand, children who are removed from RE lessons are not going to be prepared for life in modern Britain.