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To improve Religious Education, we need to revitalise the local approach

To improve Religious Education, we need to revitalise the local approach

Reflecting on our recent blog series on the future of Religious Education, Guy Hordern, the Chair of the 2017 Birmingham Agreed Syllabus Conference, argues that RE can be bolstered if the existing legal structures are strengthened. Guy writes in a personal capacity.

Check out our full blog series on the future of RE. In Part 1, Simon Perfect outlines the main challenges facing RE today.

RE in England and Wales is not part of the National Curriculum, but instead RE syllabuses are determined locally. In each local authority a syllabus for RE is set by an Agreed Syllabus Conference (ASC), supported by a Standing Advisory Council on RE (SACRE) consisting of representatives of different faith groups. Recently there have been a number of reports calling attention to some of the major challenges facing RE. In my view, the future flourishing of the subject will best be promoted by strengthening the existing legal arrangements for ASCs and SACREs.

There are a growing number of children, particularly in urban areas, who come from a family background where ‘faith’ plays a significant part in their family life. It is important for these children that the faith they learn at home and in their local religious community is complemented by the RE they receive in their schools. This is most likely to happen when the syllabus they are taught in schools has been agreed by representatives of their teachers and faith communities. In addition, there are also a growing number of children who are members of families who do not belong or identify with any particular organised religion but, at the same time, do not reject all that religions contain. A Locally Agreed Syllabus will benefit both groups of children by providing them with locally recognisable examples of those who lives are influenced by faith, so that children from faith family backgrounds and those who are not from faith family backgrounds can mutually understand each other and learn the same values which contribute to both a flourishing personal life and a flourishing community life.

The challenges facing locally determined RE

This local model of RE comes with a number of challenges. Religious Education is about religions as they understand themselves. Therefore one of the challenges facing RE is the need for the subject to be continually refreshed and underpinned by Theology, itself accountable to religious communities as they understand themselves. Another difficulty is ensuring that the Locally Agreed Syllabus can be easily understood by teachers of RE, many of whom are not specialists and yet have the demanding task of teaching ideas about religions and beliefs to children.

Both national and local government should do more to appeal to faith communities to be involved in the development of RE syllabuses. Faith communities are not always aware of the opportunities which the existing legal structures provide for them to contribute to the Religious Education of their children through their membership of SACREs and ASCs. ASCs need to attract faith leaders of the highest calibre, and syllabuses need to present religions in a way that encourages children to open the ‘treasure chest of faith’ and explore its contents for themselves. 

Many SACREs / ASCs also suffer from a shortage of money, despite the statutory duty local authorities have to fund them. This means the quality of RE in these areas can suffer. Yet the money needed to fund a SACRE / ASC is only a tiny percentage of the overall budge of an authority, which is able to draw upon many hours of time given for free by volunteer members of these groups. Local authorities need to invest in their SACREs / ASCs to ensure the local RE remains of a high standard. There are also other avenues of funding that authorities should explore. For example the initiative ‘Near Neighbours’, which provide small grants to faith groups working on social action projects, provides a successful model which could be applied to SACREs / ASCs by the joint agreement of the Department for Education and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (formerly DCLG). The Church of England, which is a member of every SACRE / ASC and which already provides significant support to them, has recently produced some excellent new RE for teaching in its own schools and could, perhaps in partnership with the Department for Education, help to ensure a consistency among locally agreed syllabuses.

There are also inconsistencies in government policy which need to be rectified. On the one hand the government rightly recognises the important contribution that faith has made to the formation of our shared values (as set out in its Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper, p. 60) but on the other hand it wrongly disincentives the teaching of RE in schools by not including the subject in the English Baccalaureate.

Some ASCs for understandable reasons choose to agree existing syllabuses which they have not subjected to their own robust and rigorous process and therefore are less likely to be fully owned by their local teachers and faith communities. This should be discouraged as it undermines and weakens the essence of an ASC, which is reaching negotiated agreement on RE between faith communities, teachers and the local authority.

Making the local system work

Recent reports on RE have stressed the need for structural reform. Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead’s A New Settlement Revised: Religion and Belief in Schools (2018) proposes a National Curriculum for RE in place of Locally Agreed Syllabuses, while the Commission on Religious Education’s interim report (2017) calls for a ‘National Entitlement’ statement that would set out what RE aims to do and would be a minimum framework for the development of syllabuses. Such a statement would augment or replace the existing requirement as set out in the 1988 Education Reform Act which reads: “Agreed Syllabuses must reflect the fact that religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, whilst taking account of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain”. It has also been suggested that the role of SACREs should be expanded to include contributing to community cohesion and building resilience against extremist views.

In part these proposals aim to combat the fact that many schools do not provide RE for all pupils, despite this being required by law. Local authorities need to be much more proactive in insisting that the law is upheld in all its schools, and the Central Funding Authority needs to do the same in academies and free schools.

Yet one of the main drawbacks and dangers of abolishing Agreed Syllabus Conferences and creating a National Curriculum for RE is that the guaranteed contribution and ownership by local faith leaders in local RE would cease. As the law stands, any religious group can approach the local authority and ask for membership of the SACRE / ASC. There is great merit in offering religious groups an official place at the table rather than running the risk of any religious group operating unofficially. In Birmingham, where I chair the ASC, the teachings of the 9 faiths present in the city are in the syllabus and members of those faiths have worked together to agree the contents of that syllabus. It is the guaranteed and decisive presence of the religious groups on ASCs / SACREs which ensures that children will be taught RE which accurately conveys information about religions as they understand themselves.

Following the so–called Trojan Horse events in 2014, Birmingham City Council invited its SACRE to undertake a monitoring and evaluation survey of all schools in the authority. The Council’s ongoing financial support, £73,000 for the 2017/19 Review of the Agreed Syllabus, flows from the value it places on the contribution that RE is making to education in Birmingham. The strong local support for and commitment to work voluntarily for the benefit of the children has created a significant lobby in support of RE from groups in Birmingham such as the Faith Leader’s Group. The success of locally determined RE in Birmingham can be replicated elsewhere. SACREs, ASCs and locally determined RE can flourish when there is determination from local faith groups and the local authority to make the existing legislation work. But the effectiveness and cohesiveness of SACREs will be weakened if the members of SACREs, who are usually also members of the ASC, are no longer able to have decisive influence on what is taught in RE lessons.

Religion, for many children, is more than a subject to be taught; it is a faith to live by. Children coming from families of different faiths and of no faith are more likely to be able to understand and respect in each other’s perspectives when they are taught about religions and beliefs through a local lens. This is best captured in an Agreed Syllabus to which all faiths can contribute in partnership with teachers and the local authority. 

 Image by Areipa.It from available under licence

Guy Hordern

Guy Hordern

Guy Hordern MBE is the chair of the 2017 Birmingham Agreed Syllabus Conference and Vice Chair of the Birmingham Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education.

Watch, listen to or read more from Guy Hordern

Posted 28 August 2018

Education, Religious Education


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