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A majority of people think schools are increasingly restricted in what they can say about religion

A majority of people think schools are increasingly restricted in what they can say about religion

Simon Perfect examines new polling conducted for Theos about attitudes to Religious Education in schools. 05/12/18

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59% of adults in Britain think “schools are increasingly restricted in what they can say about religion”, according to a ComRes poll commissioned by Theos in late October.

The poll doesn’t tell us why so many people feel this way. Some may think that teachers can’t be as critical as they want to be (or as the respondent thinks they should be) about religion. Others may think that schools are facing unfair pressures to keep discussion about religion to a minimum, or to avoid promoting a particular faith ethos. Either way, evidently many people feel discussion about religion and belief in schools is limited.

Those people who think that some teachers are not, or cannot be, as critical as needed about religion are right to be concerned. While RE is a rigorous, critical academic subject in many schools, in many others it is seriously struggling. Last year Theos hosted a series of roundtable discussions bringing together RE experts, policymakers and key stakeholders to discuss the many challenges facing the subject (see our recent briefing paper summarising these challenges and the recommendations from major initiatives to resolve them). We heard that some RE teachers avoid tackling particularly difficult subjects such as religion and violence, or issues of gender and sexuality within religions. For some teachers, this is due to an impulse to provide a positive account of religions and beliefs in order to correct pupils’ misconceptions and prejudices, particularly about Islam. That may be well–intended, but without a critical examination of the hard issues the subject risks becoming cuddly, safe and disingenuous.

Other teachers avoid controversial matters due to their own lack of subject knowledge and expertise. In an alarmingly high proportion of schools the subject is taught by teachers without appropriate qualifications, and in many primary schools it is delegated to teaching assistants. This is due both to a recruitment shortage and to the failure of some headteachers to value RE, and is simply unacceptable. Young people are faced with media stories about controversies and conflicts to do with religious people every day. They need teachers who have the knowledge to tackle their difficult questions and provide a holistic, critical account of how religions and beliefs shape people’s lives; warts and all.

Despite the concerns about restrictions in what schools can say about religion, the new polling shows that most people recognise the value good RE can have for society. Over half of people think that better RE would help avoid prejudices towards religious people, and two thirds think it is important that children learn about Britain’s different religions and beliefs. Almost half (45%) agree RE should be compulsory for all children in school and 26% are undecided. No doubt they would be shocked to know the huge variance in RE provision depending on your postcode. Although all state–funded schools in England and Wales are required by law to provide RE for all pupils, in 28% of secondary schools RE is non–existent. Those schools are breaking the law and denying their pupils the opportunity to learn about the values and beliefs shaping the world around them. 

It’s also worrying that, as the poll shows, over a tenth of people don’t think it is important that children learn about different religions and beliefs, and nearly a quarter neither agree nor disagree that it is important. Our society is becoming increasingly diverse and multifaith, and religion is back as a driver of politics and conflicts globally. If young people leave school without learning about these issues, how are they going to understand the forces shaping the world around them? How are they going to learn how to live alongside people with very different beliefs to them, and to distinguish between truth and lies about religious people put forth by media pundits and politicians? It’s naïve to think this learning is unnecessary.

The RE community recognises the urgent challenges facing the subject and is making loud calls for the Department for Education to take action, as we have explained elsewhere. It’s essential that the Department listens. We need policymakers to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn from a well–qualified and properly supported RE teacher – one who has the confidence to teach about the bad and the ugly in religion as well as the good.

 Image by Monkey Business Images from available under licence

Simon Perfect

Simon Perfect

Simon is a Researcher at Theos. He is also a researcher and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings. He is co–author of the book ‘Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter–terrorism’ (Routledge, 2021).

Watch, listen to or read more from Simon Perfect

Posted 5 December 2018

Education, Religious Education


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