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‘Religion in education: Towards division or inspiration?’

By news editor, on 22 June 2011

On Wednesday 15 June UCL hosted a vibrant discussion on ‘Religion in education: Towards division or inspiration?’. The event was held to commemorate 140 years since the passage of the University Tests Act, which ended religious discrimination in admissions to universities. Dr Sherrill Stroschein (UCL Political Science) reports on the event.

Panellists included Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari MBE (Chairman of the East London Mosque), The Rt Hon Charles Clarke (former Education Secretary & current Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University), Mr Andrew Copson (Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association) and Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE (Chair of the Accord Coalition).

Introduced by Professor Michael Worton (UCL Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs), and chaired by myself, the event was an opportunity for panellists and audience members with a variety of perspectives on religion in education to be able to exchange ideas on this controversial topic.

In brief remarks at the beginning of the event, the panellists covered a wide range of viewpoints. The notion of religious education as ghettoization was raised by some and contested by others. It was also noted that there is an important difference between education regarding religion and the practice of religion in schools, in the form of religious services in which pupils are expected to participate.

While the panellists diverged regarding the intensity with which religious topics should constitute part of education, the discussion converged on the positives of an exposure to different religious ideas as part of religious education, rather than simply emphasizing one particular religious view. It was noted that while diverse religions might be a regular part of a religious education curriculum in London, or in other urban areas, schools in more rural areas rarely feature exposure to religions outside of the Anglican or Catholic traditions.

The questions from the audience provided an opportunity for those present to reflect on important issues that are sometimes deemed too controversial for conversation. Topics included the potential clash between religion and science and the changing nature of demographics in areas with large numbers of immigrants from non-Christian backgrounds.

Religion was discussed in a range of ways, spanning the view of it as:

1) a tradition that embodies powerful values and provides a critique of a world in which the poor are ignored by capitalism, and

2) a divisive element that has emerged in places as diverse as Northern Ireland and Bosnia.

Conversations on these issues continued late into the night at the subsequent reception, and may perhaps continue at future related events.

Watch the panel discussion here:

6 Responses to “‘Religion in education: Towards division or inspiration?’”

  • 1
    guest blogger wrote on 22 June 2011:

    Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Chair, the Accord Coalition comments on the panel discussion, Religion in education: Towards division or inspiration?

    For me personally, religion is inspiration – but unfortunately religion plays a negative role in education. We do not tolerate a society where discrimination is enshrined in law – where one’s rights are restricted according to the colour of one’s skin or because of one’s social class – it would be unthinkable. Yet we do allow that in the educational system in the case of faith schools and the pupils they admit or staff they employ.

    Here are four problematic areas:

    1) Admissions: Tax-payer funded schools should be open to all. Yet the vast majority of faith schools create a closed community, with pupils limited to one particular faith. The effect is division and segregation.

    2) The curriculum: The better faith schools will teach about all faiths – but only a few, because many of them have the express purpose of shielding their children from other traditions, lest they be bewitched by them.

    3) Employment: A case could be made for the RE teacher to be of a particular faith, but why the Maths teacher, French Assistant, kitchen staff or caretaker? Yet Voluntary Aided schools (i.e. all Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh primary and secondary schools and 45% of C of E ones) can deny employment at will on the basis of faith

    4) Inspection: It’s worrying that the Education Bill currently going through Parliament has specifically dropped the duty of Ofsted to inspect how schools promote community cohesion. At a time of great religious and racial diversity in Britain, the exact opposite should be the case.

    As for the solutions – one key improvement would be to make a broad-based Religious Education syllabus an obligatory part of the National Curriculum. This would both expand pupils’ general knowledge and encourage good citizenship so that they understand their Christian/Muslim/Humanist neighbours.

    Faith schools should also open their gates to children of all backgrounds, so they no longer serve as religious ghettos. You cannot love your neighbour as yourself if you never get to meet him or her.

    Britain today is a multi-faith society, but we do not want it to become a multi-fractious society. So, let’s say ‘yes’ to faith being a source of inspiration to those who so wish – at home, after-school classes or in church/synagogue/mosque – but ‘no’ to religion dividing schools and segregating children.

    The Accord Coalition links both religious and secular organisations in campaigning for inclusive education and against religious discrimination in schools.


  • 2
    Kashif wrote on 23 June 2011:

    I was at the event and It was very interesting to hear your views. However I have a few problems with this whole debate which I discussed with you very briefly after the event.

    I think there is a much larger and far more sinister issue underlying the spread of faith schools.

    If I take Islam as an example, some children of Muslim parents are sent to Madrasas (after school religious classes) where they are forced to memorize the Qur’an without learning the meaning of the words they are memorizing and often beaten or caned for making ‘mistakes’. Children are segregated in terms of sex but not age and a common strategy employed by the ‘teachers’ is to get older children (between the ages of 16 to 18) to dish out the punishment to younger children, in some cases as young as four years old.

    There is a real systematic dehumanization taking place often accompanied by physical and mental abuse. The most disturbing thing is, most cases are showing that the parents of the children in question were often well aware of what was taking places and endorsed rather passionately by them and lest you think this is a minor crime in terms of numbers, there are at least 1,500 Madrasas that we know about attended by approximately 200000 children.

    Please let me make clear that I am not saying the abuse taking place is due to Islam or that this occurs in every Madrasa. The point I am making is that these places are notoriously difficult to regulate because of their very nature, It is by no means uncommon for a Muslim parent to set one up in their home at the drop of a hat and operating very effectively under the radar.

    Focusing our energy on faith schools will have very little impact. Why do I say this? well, Imagine if we come to the conclusion that faith schools are just nothing more than a particularly dark stain on an otherwise spotless cloth of a multicultural society and the only right thing to do is to abolish them. Or that allowing inspections of these schools or forcing the implementation of a ‘broad-based Religious Education syllabus’ (as you seem to be suggesting) is the way to tackle this problem, then we are simply going to drive this age old activity underground where the possibility of regulation, inspection and (most critically) protecting children subjected to these practices will be far more difficult.

    The moment we broaden the curriculum to include equal time given in class to other faiths, it will cease to be a faith school and parents will simply find other ways to continue the uniquely unbalanced faith based education of their children.

    I just feel like we waste time and energy focusing our attention discussing the justification for the existence of faith schools when the real issue is a CERTAIN number of peoples belief that propagation of their faith takes precedence over everything in this life, even the welfare of their own children. That’s the real challenge we have to face, acknowledge and discuss and I just don’t see this happening.

    We need to hear the voice of parents who have enrolled their children into faith schools and what their motivation was if we stand any chance of curbing this mentality.

    Hearing Charles Clarke bending over backwards defending faith schools for 2 hours on the grounds that this a ‘privately based faith school problem’ prevents us from having a real candid debate that could potentially bear fruit. Yes it’s more common in privately run faith schools but the welfare of children is of utmost importance whether in the public or private sector and they will grow up to be citizens that I will share this multicultural society with. Their thoughts, beliefs and actions have an impact on us all.

    This problem cannot be solved by making these schools ‘public’ or widening the breadth of religious education with the help of regulation and inspection for the reasons I have given above.

    And finally if you are in any doubt of the rather verulent strain of the problem I am suggesting, There were approximately 700 madrases in the UK in 2006, that number has increased to more than double in the last 5 years. I invite you to read the report published by Ghayasuddin Siddiqui and the findings of Imam Chisti, Head of the Light of Islam Academy in Rochdale.

  • 3
    Marilyn Mason wrote on 30 June 2011:

    I don’t in fact see why RE teachers should be of a particular faith – that would be a reasonable requirement for religious instruction, which is not the same as religious education though in faith schools they are often conflated. In fact, commitment to one faith might get in the way of teaching about other faiths (or non-religious life-stances and beliefs) fairly. Some of the most interesting RE teachers I met when working for the BHA were what I would broadly call “seekers” – intensely interested in religion, ethics and religious practices but not obviously committed to one.

  • 4
    mandijel wrote on 30 June 2011:

    I was unable to attend the event on the day, so it is good to see it online. Interesting views.I am a teacher and agree with Charles Clark that we should have more “philosophical/ethical discussions in schools as well as a set RE kind of content in order to broaden, as far as possible, the ideas and issues that young people can consider. (Sadly, often everyone is too busy chasing ‘5GCSEs including English and Maths’ to give much thought to the ‘well-rounded citizens’ idea). Otherwise, I was impressed with JR’s views. The information about free schools being 50% faith interest is very interesting and disturbing. Overall, I agree that children must grow up with the broadest possible experience; that faith schools should not be on the tax bill, moreover that all children should have the right to a broad, inclusive and stimulating educational experience, so that even privately funded faith teaching should be extra and optional and will at least be balanced by the more open dialogue a good state RE syllabus could give.

  • 5
    Unterrichtsmaterial Politik wrote on 11 July 2011:

    The religious education must be given in a way that can inspire rather than divide people. No ones rights can be restricted because he/she belong to the particular religion or cast or origin. The RE should be for better morale values. It must be studied in a very positive manner so this can remove feelings of looking at anybody by watching at his religion or color of skin or anything else. But, all should be seen as human beings.

  • 6
    David Colquhoun wrote on 18 July 2011:

    There should be no place in education for teaching things that aren’t true, especially when they reinforce and divide communities.

    It is beyond absurd that, up to age 18, religious discrimination in schools is not just legal, but encouraged. Suddenly, at 18, it becomes illegal.

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