Let’s not turn RE into a weapon in the war against Catholic schools

25 Jul 2018, 5:00

Some campaigners have an ulterior motive in pushing for a national RE curriculum – they know it would cause Catholic schools to close, argues Andy Lewis

Despite their historical contribution to this country, there has always been opposition to Catholic schools in one form or another. Whether motivated by anti-migrant racism, establishment anti-Catholicism, or ‘liberal’ secularism, hostility has been something Catholic schools have had to live with.

However, those who want to abolish Catholic schools have a problem: they are consistently high performing and popular with parents of all religious backgrounds – so there is no appetite from government for forcibly closing them down.

This means the only options left to their opponents, is to try and dilute the Catholic character of the school so much that it loses its faith-identity entirely. The field in which this is currently taking place, is religious education.

Forcing all schools to teach a national RE curriculum is a way to bring about the closure of Catholic schools

RE is at the core of what Catholic schools are about and, as stipulated by the country’s Catholic bishops, ten per cent of curriculum time is dedicated towards it. The bishops’ RE curriculum followed in all Catholic schools is broad, critical, academically rigorous, and produces theologically literate young people. To this extent, Catholic school pupils account for a fifth of all GCSE RE entrants, and year after year consistently outperform the national average.

The same cannot be said for RE in all state schools. Recent studies have shown a declining number of people taking religious studies GCSE, and a significant number of schools were found not to be teaching it at all.

There is so much concern about the quality and provision of RE that not only have we seen numerous reports published on it – the most recent being the revised report by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead – but a commission has been put together to look at how to reform the subject.

However, rather than look at one of the few sectors where RE is done very well (the Catholic sector) and emulate it, such reports tend to develop recommendations or statements that do not reflect the best current teaching of RE.

The quality of religious education will not be improved by teaching less religion

Catholic schools take a distinctively theological approach to RE. It’s an approach that starts from the position that God exists – or there are people who genuinely believe God exists – and that the job of the theologian is to look at the truth-claims of religion as well as the human interpretation of the divine. It is essentially an appropriate, school-level study of the great academic tradition that continues today at university. As an RE teacher I want my pupils to come out as good theologians, just as my history teacher colleagues want their pupils to become first-rate historians.

In terms of the academic integrity of RE, politically-motivated reforms could severely damage the subject – in other words, the quality of religious education will not be improved by teaching less religion.

Forcing all schools to teach a national RE curriculum – even if Catholic RE were taught in addition – is a way to bring about the closure of Catholic schools. This is because you would effectively be forcing Catholic schools to teach a state-imposed version of what the Catholic faith is – something the Catholic community would find totally unacceptable. Those who oppose Catholic schools understand this, and are therefore fervent supporters of a national RE curriculum.

A Catholic school, which is provided and part-funded by the Catholic community, should be able to teach Catholicism in the method in which it sees fit, not at the government’s direction. This is non-negotiable for Catholics, and we have always been very clear on this.

I have no doubt that organisations that want to reform RE have good intentions, but they need to be aware that if they wish to recommend measures knowing that they would force the closure of Catholic schools, their impartiality and judgment will be severely called into account.

Theologically literate young people are essential to creating a more tolerant society

In Britain today, we have a pluralistic approach to teaching RE, which allows all schools to approach the teaching of religion in a manner in which they see fit. Yes, there is a problem with RE provision in some state schools, but rather than buy into the anti-faith-school argument of dumbing down the subject to a series of ‘world views’ – or even removing it altogether – policy-makers need to look at the schools doing it well and see what others can learn from them.

There is no doubt about it, theologically literate young people are essential to creating a more tolerant society. It would be the cruellest irony therefore if the subject were destroyed because of an intolerance of the Catholic faith.

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  1. stephen terry

    I write as a retired Anglican Clergyman, and Chair since the beginning of this year of the Accord Coalition for Inclusive Education.

    I really don’t understand why the Catholic Church is reacting so defensively to the Clarke/Woodhead Report, and I think it is very interesting on a psychological level that the institution reacts in this way. Why is it so defensive?

    Having read the Report (and attended its launch in the Commons recently) it seems to me that all that is being argued for is a recognition that the world has changed since 1944, and that we now live (if we didn’t before) in a UK which is culturally and theologically diverse.

    If we are to serve the present day educational needs of our children and young people, we have to teach a RE curriculum that reflects that diversity, and to deliver it from an open and inclusive standpoint, without arguing for the ultimate superiority of any one belief system.

    Using this approach, students would would also get the opportunity to study and critically examine such belief systems as Humanism and Atheism – surely a necessity in today’s society, which is under threat as never before from all types of religious and political extremism.

    The Religion, Beliefs and Values (RBV) curriculum which is proposed by Clarke and Woodhead seeks to deliver that open, tolerant and inclusive approach, no more no less.

    It is a threat to nobody – unless the choice is made to interpret it as such.

  2. Mark Watson

    You say that a Catholic school “should be able to teach Catholicism in the method in which it sees fit, not at the government’s direction”.
    When you teach pupils about other religions, be it Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc., do you teach them in the manner in which those religions see fit, or in the manner in which a Catholic school sees fit?
    (I ask this question as a Catholic myself)

    • Or indeed when you teach them about non-religious world views (if you do), do you do that in a way that those groups see fit?

      The whole point of a national curriculum is that ALL groups get to contribute so that their religion or philosophy is presented in a way that they see fit.

      • Mark Watson

        Although I agree with your main point, that all groups should be treated equally, I’m not sure I agree that all groups should decide how their religion is presented. I believe there should be some form of objectivity, especially given that a substantial number of children will be influenced by the subjective religious position of their parents.
        Religious groups of every persuasion ‘contribute’ to public education, and it would be entirely wrong to dismiss the extraordinary contribution the Church of England and Catholic churches have made to education in this country, but my personal belief is that schools funded by the state should not give any particular religious group a ‘higher’ level of importance than others.

  3. Clare Sealy

    I can’t see what the problem is with teaching a National RE syllabus and Catholic RE? The latter could even critique the former, should that be necessary. The right of Catholics to self determine their own RE teaching is a good thing, but ensuring all children in all schools receive high quality, academically rigourous RE that respects various religious traditions while also applying critical thought to them is an even greater good. Sometimes we have to choose between the greater of two goods. Otherwise this hands a free pass to any faith school ( and we all know there are some very dubious ones out there facross the religious spectrum) to teach uncritical, partisan, unintellectual indoctrination to their children. It also hands a free pass to militantly secular schools for the very same reason.

  4. bernadette Eakin

    The belief that everything needs to be taught “objectively” is itself a subjective/biased view. I have found that the Catholic faith, based as it is on logic, reason, truth and beauty stands up very well to whatever prism you wish to view it through. This spurious and false notion of balance that the anti RE brigade are calling for is rarely applied to subjects such as History and Science where lazy anti-Catholic myths are often peddled as well known facts.

  5. Sean Naughton

    With the lockdown providing time for more extended browsing, I came across Andy Lewis’ fine article and your thoughtful responses. With apologies for chipping in two years late, it might be helpful to affirm that the purpose of education is to search for and to live the truth. As well as reflecting the diversity of beliefs in our nation, presenting students with the truth claims of other religions and belief systems can help in this search for truth: as Catholics we “reject nothing of what is true and holy” in other religions – and indeed non-religious world views. However, the difficulty faced by Catholic Schools is that the objectivity called for by non-Catholics is too often in reality an insistence on relativisim as the default ‘truth’. That Anglicans have their ‘truth’, Jews theirs, Muslims theirs, humanists theirs and so on. This is dressed up as tolerance but it ends up by asserting that there is no absolute truth – except that one claim of relativism, which is of course self-contradictory: ‘the only truth is that there is no absolute truth’. If by ‘critically examining’ Stephen Terry combines examining with freedom to point out the errors, I’m all for that. If this freedom is denied and labelled as ‘hate speech’ or ‘intolerance’ then we Catholics continue to be arm-twisted to deny truth and in doing so to deny Truth Himself who tells us that “the truth will set you free” (John 8: 32). We can never deny Him and call ourselves Catholics. God bless