By Philip Robinson, Religious Education Adviser to the Catholic Education Service
Religious Education is one of the most contentious subjects in education. So much so, a Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) has been created to look at the future of the subject and how it is taught in schools.
Without a doubt there are issues that need addressing, principally that many schools without a religious character are failing to teach any RE whatsoever, despite their statutory obligation to do so. We have also seen recently that the number of pupils taking GCSE RE across all schools has declined.
But how do we fix these problems without breaking the distinctive character of schools which already teach RE well? On top of that, how do we maintain a broad, inclusive, high quality provision of RE without imposing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach on the variety of contexts in which it is taught?
CoRE is rightly taking evidence from across our commendably pluralistic education landscape and as the second largest provider of education in the country and the single largest entrant of RE GCSE candidates, the Catholic Church is playing a role. And it is important that the Catholic perspective is heard on this, not only because a quarter of all entrants to GCSE RE are from Catholic schools, but because RE is at the core of what our schools are about.
First, it is important to recognise that there are different approaches when delivering RE, each of them have their own benefits and, in different schools could be the preferred method of teaching. That is, there is a pluralism of approaches as well as a pluralism of subject matter.
Religious Education in Catholic schools draws predominantly on the academic discipline of theology, and is essentially a school level version of the theological discipline taught in most universities. In other school contexts the approach to RE is largely sociological.
Theology’s subject matter is God, God’s revelation and humanity’s response to this revelation. It does not require that students believe in God but it does require that they take seriously the commitments of those who do. Theology begins with the presumption that God is real and the purpose of the study is to come to some understanding of the nature and significance of this reality.
Those who take the sociological approach to Religious Education (or Religious Studies as such an approach is called in universities) are methodologically agnostic; they see religion as a human artefact and thus focus on the precepts and practices of different believers.
Whereas this method is interested in the believer, theology is interested in what the believer actually believes, how this influences their behaviour and the legitimacy and coherence of their religious ‘truth claims’. The sociological approach has no interest in questions of this kind.
Moreover, there are those who would claim that because the study of religion and belief in all schools must be objective, critical and pluralistic, the most appropriate method of study is the one that brackets out individual belief and studies religions as purely human phenomena. While not wanting to deny the importance of understanding religions and belief through the lens of the social sciences, eliding out the theological view is to occlude in advance the religious believer’s own self-understanding and to fail to recognise the impossibility of a genuinely neutral standpoint from which to view religion.
But this also does not mean that the theological approach is blinkered to the practices of other world religions nor does it mean Catholic schools don’t teach about other faiths and beliefs. The study of other religions, and the relationship between Christianity and other religions, is an integral part of the Catholic theological tradition. The amount of time Catholic schools dedicate to RE (the minimum requirement the bishops set is 10% of the curriculum) means that pupils in Catholic schools actually get a deeper engagement with other faiths than most pupils at non-denominational schools.
One of the greatest divergences between the sociological and the theological approaches to RE is the way each handles atheism. Whereas theology treats atheism as an important part of challenging the truth claims of religion, the sociological approach merges it into a wider amalgamation of ‘worldviews’, effectively treating it as a non-religious religion.
Whilst this may fit well in the sociological approach, trying to bring together all atheist/agnostic worldviews into a single coherent belief system, raises significant challenges. First, it’s impossible to label everyone who doesn’t subscribe to a religion as part of one specific world view. Secondly, the term ‘worldview’ is so semantically loose, it could widen the subject of RE to the detriment of its academic rigour.
For example, communism, libertarianism, capitalism, nationalism and socialism are just a few non-religious worldviews; should they be taught in RE too? It also seems hugely ironic that the answer to declining religious literacy should be to teach less religion.
Good Religious Education should help students to experience religious belief in both of these senses of ‘looking at’ and ‘looking with’ religion since education is about opening the minds of students to worlds they otherwise could not imagine. Theology and Sociology are both legitimate ways of reading religion, but each presents a conceptually discrete world of understanding the way in which religions have meaning. Both are important. In the future I hope the field of Religious Education is diverse enough that a good student of Religious Education might, in time, become is a first-rate theologian.
Many argue that the purpose of RE is to assist in creating a cohesive and tolerant society. RE plays its part in this, but I would argue this is the responsibility of the whole school, and indeed, the wider community. It may be true that well taught RE leads to greater tolerance, but it is not the raison d’être of the subject, nor the reason why it holds its rightful place at the heart of Catholic schools. Religious Education in Catholic schools is theology. It leads pupils to an in-depth knowledge of their own and other faiths but, more crucially, gives them a critical understanding of what faith itself is.
The Catholic Church has condemned the Clarke and Woodhead report on Religious Education claiming the Catholic community would find their recommendations ‘unacceptable’.
Commenting on today’s report, the Right Reverend Marcus Stock, Bishop of Leeds and lead bishop for Religious Education commented:
“Today’s report by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead appears to have little regard to the approach taken by the Catholic Church to the teaching of RE. Not only are their recommendations largely incompatible within our sector, they were compiled with the knowledge that the Catholic community would find them unacceptable; this was explicitly stated in their report.
“The recommendations in the report are unacceptable for two reasons. Firstly, that the State can impose a national RE curriculum, which would dictate what the Church is required to teach in Catholic schools. Secondly, the curriculum they suggest contains no theological content, which is at the core of Catholic RE.
“We accept there is a need to improve RE in all schools and Catholic teachers and academics have been actively contributing to this discussion, producing suggestions that would work within the plurality in our country’s schools sector, allowing for all schools to choose between RE as a theological discipline and Religious Studies as a sociological discipline.
“Catholic schools are the most successful providers of Religious Education in the country. This is because we take it seriously as a rigorous, theological academic subject. However, rather than look at the sector that does it the best they have opted for a reductionist approach which is exclusively sociological and has no consensus amongst RE professionals.”
Notes for Editors
There are more than 2200 Catholic schools in England and Wales
Catholic Religious Education is central to what makes Catholic schools uniquely Catholic. All Catholic schools are required to allocate 10% of all curriculum time to Religious Education.
There are two approaches to the teaching RE, the sociological Religious Studies approach which sees religious as a social construct and the Theological approach which studies the human response to the divine. Catholic schools study the latter.
20% of all entrants to RE GCSE come from the Catholic sector. That’s one tenth of school provision in the country providing a fifth of all the RE GCSE entrants.
Year after year Catholic schools out-perform the national average for RE GCSE by at least three percentage points.
Religious Education in Catholic schools whilst being predominantly theological covers all major world religions as well as the atheist critiques of religion.
By Catherine Bryan, Assistant Director, Catholic Education Service
It isn’t easy being a young person in 2018. What with social media, mobile phones with unlimited access to the internet and the 24-hour celebrity news cycle, young people are faced with challenges even their slightly older contemporaries didn’t have to comprehend.
The question facing the Catholic Church now, is how we respond to and protect our young people from the potentially dangerous effects of these facts of modern life? Do we bury our heads in the sand, or do we tackle the issue head on? We must do the latter.
What’s more, this is an issue that will not go away. The Department for Education and the Welsh Assembly have set a clear direction of travel, that this is an area which is going to receive more attention. Indeed, we have seen recently, a clear commitment to compulsory Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in Wales and we await the outcome of the DfE’s consultation response to their RSE agenda.
Throughout its long history, the Church, whilst always remaining true to the teachings of Christ, has also adapted its pastoral response to the needs of its flock. Now, in the internet age, it needs to do so especially with regards to Relationship and Sex Education and our Catholic schools are best placed to support parents with this incredibly important task.
For those not involved in education, attention-grabbing headlines about RSE can lead to a false impression of what the subject is actually about. Therefore, we need to set the record straight and debunk the myths around it, because ultimately, in an increasingly dangerous world, RSE is about keeping young people safe.
It is also about teaching young people what a healthy relationship looks like so that as they develop and grow they can make the right choices when faced with a range of challenges. What RSE is not about is pushing a particular agenda or promoting secular attitudes over the teachings of the Church. It is about dealing with the real-life issues young people face and providing practical and compassionate pastoral guidance.
Neither is it all about sex.
Sex education does play a role in preparing young people for adult life but unless it is situated within the broader context of relationship education, it is a fruitless exercise. The model Catholic RSE curriculum recognises this and puts the formation of healthy and loving relationships at its core. This has now been more widely recognised and acknowledged as the national focus has shifted from Sex and Relationship Education to Relationship and Sex Education. A subtle difference, reinforcing the importance of healthy relationships in order to protect young people from potentially dangerous relationships.
People are often surprised when they hear that the Catholic school sector is the only one in the country with a comprehensive and age-appropriate RSE curriculum from 3yrs to 19yrs. The reason for this? Catholic education centres around the formation of the whole child, and teaching a young person how to build and maintain healthy relationships is an essential part of forming rounded individuals.
This is why, when the Government announced last year that it intended to make RSE statutory, the Catholic Education Service (CES) publicly welcomed this commitment to improve the quality and provision of RSE in all schools. And we did so, because Catholic schools already recognise the importance of this and teach high quality RSE as part of the holistic education which seeks to form as well as inform young people in preparation for adult life. We also welcomed it because the Government sought to protect parents’ rights, as well as the ability for Catholic schools to approach RSE within the context of Church teaching.
The CES has a strong relationship with the Department for Education and we have been working closely with them to ensure that any statutory requirements are appropriate for Catholic schools. The first and most important being protection of the right of parents to be able to withdraw their child from sex education. Parents have the primary responsibility of teaching their children how to form loving relationships and Catholic schools are there to assist them with this. Therefore, if a parent feels best placed to deliver some of the more sensitive elements of sex education outside the classroom, they have the right to do so and this is something the Government remains committed to.
The reality is, however, that very few parents choose to do this because the vast majority of Catholic schools closely involve parents with the delivery of their RSE programmes. The most recent Catholic schools census found that just 0.01% of parents with children in a Catholic school exercise their right of withdrawal. Of more than 850,000 pupils in Catholic schools, that is the equivalent of just one pupil in every 7,800.
It is also important to note that schools with a religious character will still be able to teach RSE within the tenants and traditions of their respective faiths. For Catholic schools, this means that we can remain faithful to the Church’s vision of human wholeness, whilst at the same time ensuring that young people are given the factual information and equipped to make informed life choices.
And they need to be able to make informed life choices because of the very real dangers out there. Online grooming, inappropriate social media use, sexting and pornography are all examples or products of unhealthy relationships, and, unless we show children how to recognise the above as dangerous, we are failing them in the long term. This must of course be done in an age appropriate way, but it is something which does need to start early on in a young person’s development.
Our Catholic values are grounded in forgiveness, compassion and mercy. To deny young people an education in this area would be to deny these core values rooted in the Gospel and Church teaching, and leave them unprotected in an increasingly dangerous world. This would be the greatest tragedy of all.
The annual CES Census is the source of all school data collected by the CES. No data on individual pupils is collected in the census. The name of the headteacher is collected, also a contact name and email address which are used solely for census communications the following year.
A document that describes the extent to which the CES census falls within the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) can be downloaded below. This document addresses questions that the CES has received from schools that raised concerns about the CES census and privacy of schools data.
“In their General Election manifesto, the Conservative Party made a commitment to the Catholic community that the unfair rule effectively stopping the opening of new Catholic free schools would be lifted. Today the Government has broken this promise, dropped the pledge they made to our country’s six million Catholics and ignored the tens of thousands of Catholics who campaigned on this issue.
“This U-turn disregards the Government’s own data showing the 50% cap doesn’t create diversity, and sides with a vocal minority of campaigners who oppose the existence of Church schools. Catholic schools are popular with parents of all faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds, despite this we will remain barred from participating in the free school programme.
“The Catholic Church has had a long and positive relationship with the State in the provision of education and we see today’s decision as a regressive step in this historic partnership.
“We remain committed to our vision of education which consistently delivers high-quality schooling and contributes to the common good. Therefore we will continue to work with the Department for Education to address the urgent demand for new Catholic schools. This commitment means we will pursue the possibility of new Catholic voluntary aided schools despite the direction of travel for nearly a decade being towards academisation.
“Voluntary aided schools are an important part of the Catholic sector and it is significant that the Government has singled out Catholic education as an area to fund directly. This is rightly in recognition of the importance of Catholic schools to local communities and the contribution they make to the wellbeing of society.”
The Most Rev Malcolm McMahon OP
Archbishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Department for Education & Formation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales
Statement from the Church of England, Catholic Education Service, Methodist Church in Britain & The Board of Deputies of British Jews
We are the organisations that represent 99% of all schools with a religious character in England and our communities’ experience of providing education stretches back centuries.
Our schools embrace both excellence and academic rigour set within the wider framework of the formation of the whole child. This includes spiritual, physical, intellectual, emotional, moral and social development and enables children to flourish.
It is precisely because of our faith ethos that our schools remain exceptionally popular with parents.
Our schools are drivers of community cohesion, whether that is through educating children from all cultures, creeds and communities, or the impressive programmes they run to connect their pupils with children from other religions and beliefs.
As the representatives of the faith communities which actually run the vast majority of these schools, we reject the suggestion that they are divisive and are proud of what they achieve for their pupils and for our country as a whole.
Rev Nigel Genders, Chief Education Officer, Church of England
Paul Barber, Director, Catholic Education Service
Barbara Easton, Director of Education, Methodist Church in Britain
Gillian Merron, Chief Executive, The Board of Deputies of British Jews
St Benedict’s Catholic Primary School in Garforth were very honoured to receive a visit from Theresa May, Prime Minister. The visit took place under high security in February as part of a school INSET day. The Prime Minister had a round the table discussion with senior leaders and teachers from the school. She was keen to understand the positives and challenges of the current primary education agenda. Staff took the opportunity to give examples of the challenges in the current system for all teachers as well as celebrate the strengths of St Benedict’s. The visit was a real recognition of the great community of St Benedict’s in its staff, governors, children, parents and the wider community.
In their November Plenary meeting, the Bishops of England and Wales reaffirmed their opposition to the 50% admissions cap.
Since 2010 the 50% cap has effectively banned the opening of any new Catholic Free Schools. This is because the Bishops couldn’t countenance the opening of Catholic school which turned away Catholic children because they were Catholic.
Their full resolution read:
Further to its resolution of November 2013, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales reiterates its position that the imposition of the 50% cap on the control of admissions is not a secure basis for the provision of Catholic education in England.
The provision of education is fundamental to the mission of the Church in England and Wales and, in line with their canonical responsibilities, Bishops will continue to strive to provide a Catholic school place for every Catholic child in their respective dioceses.
Prior to the June 2017 General Election, the Bishops’ Conference welcomed the Government’s commitment to remove the 50% admissions cap as set out in the Conservative Party manifesto.
The principle of parental choice is fundamental to both Catholic education and the current educational policy in England and Wales, and for more than 150 years Catholic parents have had the opportunity to choose a Catholic education for their children.
Therefor the Bishops’ Conference welcomes the supportive comments made by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education about Catholic schools and their acknowledgement that the admissions cap is an issue which actively targets the Catholic community, as Catholic parents are the principle religious minority adversely affected by the admissions cap.
We therefore call on the Government to honour its Manifesto commitment.
The Bishops are now urging Catholics to write to the Secretary of State for Education urging her to keep the Government’s manifesto commitment.
You can write to the Secretary of State by clicking on this link: http://catholicnews.org.uk/education-cap
Available to download below is a series of documents for Schools Chaplains. These include the CES national standards as well as chaplaincy job descriptions for both primary and secondary phases.