Page last updated at 11:07 GMT, Wednesday, 22 February 2006

Viewpoints: Religious teaching

Faith schools are to teach pupils about other religions as well as their own, leaders of the major faiths have said.

Here, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly welcomes the churches' move - while Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association argues faith schools should be phased out and religious education should be more inclusive.


Ruth Kelly
There will be a widespread welcome for today's announcement by the main religious organisations that children in faith schools should, as a matter of course, be taught about all the major faiths.

This confirmation that a broad religious education should take place within all faith schools demonstrates their explicit commitment to promoting inclusion and tolerance which have never been more important in our society.

Recognition and understanding of the major religions should, of course, be an integral part of any pupil's education.

Not just because it promotes understanding of others but also because it enriches pupils' understanding of the world and their own values and beliefs.

This is something that many faith schools are already helping achieve.

Christian school

The Sir John Cass Foundation School in inner London is, for example, a Church of England school with a high Muslim intake.

Its latest Ofsted report praised both the positive attitudes to learning among pupils and how respect for each other was central to its whole ethos and atmosphere.

The in-take of Sir John Cass Foundation School, of course, also helps expose the myth that faith schools encourage segregation among communities.

So, too, does the way that the best faith schools, through their lessons and ethos, promote greater inclusion and better understanding and appreciation of other faiths.

This is part of the vital role that faith schools have played in education in this country.

Deprived communities

Throughout their history, they have helped raise educational standards including in some of our most deprived communities.

Many have outstanding records when it comes to pupil achievement with children from poorer backgrounds, as data analysed by Professor David Jesson has recently shown.

But by promoting core values, they have also strengthened communities and our society.

Tackling the gap between the achievement of less well-off children and their more affluent counterparts is one of the biggest issues we face and one we are committed to addressing through our reforms.

A strong ethos is important to raising standards in any school, regardless of whether that ethos is faith based or not.

That ethos, of course, must reflect the values and goals of their community in which these schools are based.

These clearly should extend to tolerance and respect for other faiths and so I am delighted that faith leaders have made their commitment to these values explicit.


The government's Schools White Paper and impending Education Bill have provoked fresh discussion of the role in our education system of schools operating under the auspices of religious interests.

Concern has been expressed by many (including Parliament's own Joint Committee on Human Rights) that the freedom over the curriculum of the proposed "trust" schools may compromise the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right not to be indoctrinated.

However, concern has also been expressed over the expansion of schools with a religious ethos within the current sector.

Two debates in Parliament this month have demonstrated a wide variety of concerns over such expansion and this has not come only from non-religious campaigners.

As Lord Baker, the former Conservative education secretary, pointed out in the Lords, he spoke as an Anglican in expressing his opposition to an expansion of "faith" schools.

He revealed that during his time in office he had refused all applications for new faith schools, and actually presided over the closing of several church schools.

Call for reform

In 2002, the British Humanist Association produced a report called A Better Way Forward, which highlighted the most pressing issues surrounding religion and schools.

It made recommendations for a system of inclusive and accommodating community schools as an alternative to an education system that would segregate children according to their parents' religion.

As the association prepares to release a revised report, these policies have never seemed so timely.

Evidence supporting the reforms proposed by humanist campaigners has been updated in the light of the changing debate over the last four years, but the recommendations of the report have not changed.

It calls for the reform of the law on collective worship, still required even in community schools to be daily and of a broadly Christian nature; for the reforming of RE to become an inclusive, broad, and balanced education in a range of beliefs and values; for a greater measure of flexibility and accommodation within schools of the diverse needs of children from all backgrounds - religious and non-religious.

Plural society

All these proposals are designed to lessen demand for religious schools by the minority religions, and further the aim of educating all our children together as the best preparation for the shared society they must live in.

They also have, as their corollary, the phasing out of all "faith" schools within the state sector.

Where these policies over the last few years have been most successful is, ironically, in the area that independent trust schools of the future (with their flexibility as to curriculum) most endanger - the teaching of a subject of RE that is inclusive of and appropriate for all children, and that will prepare them for life in a plural society.

In 2004, a new National Framework for Religious Education was produced by the QCA and the DfES and it has gone on to influence the formation of many LEAs' locally agreed syllabuses (the syllabuses that it is statutory for all LEA controlled schools to teach).

It included secular perspectives for the first time, and was a modest step towards a more inclusive subject.

But faith schools are not required to follow the locally agreed syllabus, nor are city academies - will future trust schools be? If we want future generations of citizens that understand diversity and the many beliefs held by members of our open society, they should be.

Faith schools broaden RE teaching
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