Religious Education is good for community relations - report


A new report from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Religious Education has concluded that religious education has a positive effect on community harmony and calls on the government to do more to prioritise RE.

Chair of the APPG, Stephen Lloyd MP, said in the report's forward that: "Religious education is uniquely placed to help children and young people develop the knowledge and skills they need to play their part in today's society and tomorrow's world.

"High quality RE teaching allows children to make informed decisions around religion, and when we are better informed we are wiser, and make wiser decisions.

"Our children are literally our nation's future, so it is both our responsibility and our duty to prepare them properly for the multi-faceted, diverse and complicated world they will inherit, and one day lead."

The report said RE was particularly important for community cohesion as the schools inspection body Ofsted is no longer required to rate schools on their efforts to foster good community relations.

Speaking to Christian Today, John Keast of the Religious Education Council said: "We endorse the findings and hope that both government and other parties referred to in the report will do what they can to help promote the outcomes listed."

The report concluded that RE supports communities by also teaching children how to understand religions and worldviews, and articulate their own opinions while still respecting the right of others to differ.

Of particular importance was the way in which good RE helps children to "recognise and challenge ill-informed or prejudiced viewpoints, including those in the media".

Mr Lloyd said religion and belief were often portrayed "inaccurately" and that this affects people's perspectives.

"Myths and stereotypes permeate the popular media and have become embedded in the national psyche," he said.

"It is vital that all young people are armed with the right knowledge and facts to discriminate between myth and reality."

London Mayor Boris Johnson, writing about his concerns in The Telegraph, described how in some schools children were being "taught crazy stuff" like extremist ideologies.

Good RE, the report argues, will better enable children to resist radicalisation and instead be "informed, active citizens".

The report calls for better training and preparation for teachers working in the RE curriculum, saying in particular that they need to be able to "confidently educate on intra-religious conflicts".

There are also calls for teachers to make better use of social networking to engage more with young people from a diverse range of religious groups and better understand diverse social backgrounds.

Previously, the APPG has been critical of the Government's attitude towards RE, and has raised concerns about how certain policies have lowered its quality.

These include leaving RE off the English Baccalaureate. Ofstead has also stopped including the results of RE exams in the overall school league tables, meaning schools are now less incentivised to prioritise it.

In a report, the APPG said policies of this kind were "contributing to the lowering of the status of RE in some schools, leading to a reduction in the demand for specialist teachers".

The lack of specialist teachers is also a big problem. Last year the APPG said it was "unacceptable" that over half of RE secondary school teachers have "no qualification or appropriate expertise in the subject".

Senior Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chairman of the Accord Coalition for inclusive education, was quoted by The Times speaking about the dangers of failing to adequately provide proper religious education.

"The danger of ignoring RE is not only denying basic information to children, but leading to misunderstanding and mistrust between children from different faith backgrounds," he said.

He warned of the possibility of "ignorance spiralling into mistrust and then degenerating into antagonism, resulting in inter-religious and inter-racial tensions.

"It is precisely because Britain is a multi-ethnic society that we have to work hard to ensure it does not become a multi-fractious one."

There have also been criticisms regarding how well religions are taught, with Christianity often being explained simplistically and stereotypically.

A 2012 poll found that 64% of adults agreed that children needed to understand Christianity to understand English history, and 58% said it was important for children to know about the history of Christianity.

Following the publication of the poll, Dr Nigel Fancourt of Oxford University criticised RE lessons on the BBC for lacking "intellectual development".

As an example, Dr Fancourt said an RE lesson on Jesus's feeding of the 5,000 could turn into "an exhortation to share your picnic rather than a discussion of whether miracles really happen or what significance they have for Christians today: for example those who say they have been miraculously healed or pray for healing".

A Department for Education spokesperson said to the BBC that: "Religious education remains a compulsory subject in the national curriculum for children at primary and secondary schools.

"We are establishing a specialist subject group formed of religious education experts to identify the challenges facing schools and ensure that teachers have the support and resources they need to deliver high quality RE lessons.

"We will also continue to highlight examples of best practice by working with organisations such as the Religious Education Council."

The findings of the APPG report have been endorsed by RE bodies.

Chair of the National Association of Teachers of RE, Ed Pawson said: "Good Religious Education encourages good community relations.

"RE holds a uniquely important position in the school curriculum and where it is taught well, young people put very high value on the freedom it gives them to explore the diversity of views, values and cultures woven into contemporary British society."

Speaking to Christian Today, Mark Chater, director of Culham St Gabriel's Trust, a charity supporting those pursuing a career teaching RE, said: "We fully accept the findings of the report and we believe it is a clear wake-up call for the government, and specifically the Department for Education, to do more to support high-quality teaching and learning in such a vital subject.

"The Department for Education has neglected RE for too long, despite many invitations from the RE Council to support it."