Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘Schools must step up religious education’
Paul Kerensa questions the religious education get out clause
The email from my daughter’s school was titled ‘Rabbit visit’. Aww, I thought. She likes animals. I wonder if she’ll get to stroke its big floppy ears? But when the spelling mistake was revealed, I doubted that the visiting rabbi would have big floppy ears, let alone that the class would be able to stroke them.
It was an autocorrect blunder. Perhaps the school computer wasn’t familiar with the word ‘rabbi’. And perhaps that’s an indication of a wider issue with religious education at the moment. A sentence further down the email bothered me more: ‘If you would like your child withdrawn from this class because of the religious content, please just let your teacher know.’
I’m used to this phrase. It appears in any of the school’s emails that have a vaguely religious reference. A Diwali colouring competition. A mosque trip. An Easter egg hunt. Christmas jumper day. All come with this opt out. Once is fair enough, but the constant repetition can be a little wearing.
I understand that it’s government policy to make such classes optional. Parents can choose to block their children’s ears to all things religious, and they need to know they can choose. It just feels a little heavy-handed, bashing us with reminders that a soundproofed classroom is just a request away, to avoid any apparent juvenile brainwashing.
It unsettled me to the point that I contacted the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education. They told me of their advice to schools: mention this withdrawal info in the policy section of their website or prospectus – once. Constant reminders, they said, are inadvisable. As well as being potentially detrimental to religious education, it’s just downright annoying. Yet schools interpret the law as they wish.
The legislation was introduced in 1944 to protect religious minorities from forcibly receiving Christian instruction. In 75 years though, the world has changed a bit. Britain’s become more ethnically and religiously diverse. That this wartime law is now being applied to stop my children’s classmates learning about rabbis/rabbits or painting an Easter egg is rather laughable.
Do any parents take schools up on this offer? Well yes. A recent study revealed that 41% of headteachers have received requests for this RE-moval. By far the largest number of requests relates to the teaching of Islam. Cultural awareness is being hindered by this policy and its overbearing enforcement.
My concern is that these children are missing out. In a world where the Conservative Party can’t agree on a definition of Islamophobia, and where the Labour Party can’t escape the shadow of antisemitism, we need all the help we can get. Not only are my kids’ pals being denied a colouring competition, they’re also leaving school with little knowledge of the cultures of future workmates and neighbours.
I’d have thought that such awareness was a necessary part of a child’s education. It seems more relevant to adult life than some other elements of the curriculum. I’ve never found a use for my expertise in oxbow lakes or the sine/cosine/tangent functions of trigonometry. I do however wish I left school with a better idea of the difference between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.
Being selfishly protective of our Christian faith (thinking that less attention on other religions means more airtime for us) doesn’t get us far either. Today’s schoolchildren are prone to bin all religions – throwing the baby Jesus out with the bathwater. All need to understand religions in order to tolerate thy neighbour, let alone love them.
World religions matter. They’re not really ‘world religions’ anyway – they’re local. The annual Visit My Mosque Day is a great initiative, as are churches and synagogues that open their doors. But schools need to step up religious education, and that means being allowed to by the government. By revoking this three-quarters-of-a-century old act, they could prepare adults in waiting for the modern world.
The good news is that headteachers agree – 71% think the withdrawal legislation is out of date. Some have reported that those being withdrawn are often the ones who most need that greater understanding of cultures different to them.
I worry that for tomorrow’s adults, the very concepts of religion, faith and church may become alien. I would love it if some of them, one day, could call Jesus ‘rabbi’ – or even ‘rabbit’.
Paul Kerensa is a comic writer, performer and broadcaster
This article was published in the September 2019 edition of Reform