England and Wales risk having a generation of ‘religiously illiterate’ children, report warns


A PARLIAMENTARY group investigating the state of religious education in England and Wales paints a dismal picture of the state of RE and concludes:

Religious literacy matters for everyone. Religious Education has a vital and powerful contribution to make in equipping young people, whatever their backgrounds and personal beliefs with the skills to understand and thrive in a diverse and shifting world. The value of this contribution has not been widely recognised by policy makers. A raft of recent policies have had the effect of downgrading RE in status on the school curriculum, and the subject is now under threat as never before, just at the moment when it is needed most. This report sets out those threats, along with urgent proposals for meeting them head on.

After the report was handed over to the Government this week, Stephen Evans, campaigns manager at the National Secular Society, said:

There is a clear agenda behind moves to ‘strengthen’ RE that seeks to use schools as a place to promote religious belief generally. This parliamentary group appears to be part of a pincer movement with the C of E to pressurise the Government to strengthen the presence of religion in schools.

Those for whom religion is personally important have a tendency to overstate the importance of RE – particularly when claiming how ‘vital’ it is to community cohesion. Cohesion is best served by children and young people recognising shared values and what they hold in common. A focus on citizenship rather than religion is the most sensible way of achieving this.

He added:

It’s time we abolished the whole concept of ‘Religious Education’ which ring-fences religious beliefs for special treatment in schools, and can too easily morph into proselytisation. Instead we should absorb education about religion into a much broader ‘philosophy, ethics and citizenship’ subject that covers the whole history of ideas that have motivated and continue to motivate people, including secular and non-religious ones. Religion would still be there, but it would take its place amongst other ways of making sense of the world.

Of course, Stephen Lloyd, the Liberal Democrat MP who chairs the group, disagrees, saying it is “essential” that pupils are taught by “experienced and trained professionals”.

It is illogical to think that we can dilute the professionalism and expertise needed to teach RE well and still have a generation of young people that understand and are sensitive to the growing levels of religious and non-religious diversity in our society.

And the Church of England said the report showed that the Education Secretary’s decision to exclude RE from the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) of core subjects was leading to it being downgraded.

The Rev Jan Ainsworth, the Church of England’s Chief Education Officer, said:

This provides strong evidence for our continuing concern that RE is being downgraded as part of the curriculum. RE is about religious literacy for all, growing understanding of the importance of faith, especially in this country, built on Christian values, to the lives of individuals and communities. It is has never been more important than in today’s multi-faith society. We hope the report is a wake-up call for the Department for Education.