THE ACT UNPACKED: THE MEANING OF THE 1988 EDUCATION REFORM ACT FOR RELIGIOUS EDUCATION
Derby, CEM 1989, 35pp
When the Education Reform Act, dealing with England and Wales, was passed by Parliament in 1988 a waive of publicity greeted the religious education clauses of the new Act as requiring a preponderance of teaching Christianity at the expense of the broader world religions approach. However, the text of the Act itself does not support this narrow Christianising interpretation. The Act Unpacked drew attention to the broader more liberal interpretation of the legislation.
4. The content of religious education - pp. 13-14
The new wording tells us that Great Britain has a number of "religious traditions". The use of the plural here is extremely important. The British tradition is not monolithic. Not only is Christianity represented here as comprising a number of different religious traditions, but the Christian traditions as a whole are subsumed within the general category "religious traditions". We are dealing here with a social, cultural and historical phenomenon, of which the Christian expressions are, in the main, most widely represented. Moreover, the typical or general presence of the Christian traditions is only the case "in the main". It would appear, therefore, that any new agreed syllabus is not to present a sort of homogenised or uniform impression of a culturally consistent Christianity such as was often found in the agreed syllabuses of the 1920-1970 period, but in line with current practice to present the Christian faith as it is actually lived and believed by a variety of communities with a range of traditions.
This is not all. Any agreed syllabus which stops short at this point has not been faithful to the Act. It will not be sufficient to present a range of Christian traditions even granting that these are not claimed to be absolutely predominant but only "in the main". The section continues "whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain". It seems unlikely that there is any significant difference between "shall reflect" and "taking account of ", so it seems reasonable to conclude that the significance and weight of the requirement lies in both its major elements. This does not necessarily mean, of course, that any actual syllabus should be equally weighted between the mainly Christian traditions and the other principal religions. Sometimes more significance would be given to Christianity; sometimes more significance would be given to the other religious traditions. It will depend upon a number of factors, one of which will certainly be the composition of the area. The significant thing to note is, however, that it will no longer be possible for parts of the country which are predominantly Christian, or where there are no significant groups of religious adherence other than Christian, to claim that therefore the local agreed syllabus should exclude the other principal religions. The locus of study is not to be the local county but Great Britain. Islam may not be a particularly significant religion in every rural part of East Anglia or the West country, but on any reckoning it is a principal religion represented in Great Britain...
It is important to notice that some details are offered about how agreed syllabuses are to take account of the other principal religions in Great Britain. They are to take account of "the teaching and practices" of them. The teaching includes the doctrine and other aspects of the beliefs of the religion.
For the first time, therefore, the basic curriculum of children and young people in our schools will not be meeting the legal standards unless they are taught the teaching of the principal non-Christian religions in Great Britain. This will naturally take place in a way appropriate to the age, family background and aptitude of the pupils, as it always has done, and this is doubtless what is meant by saying that these matters are to be taken into account. Although, as was noted, there can hardly be a difference between reflecting and taking account of, it is perhaps significant that both these expressions imply a certain distance. The wording does not tell us that the agreed syllabuses shall contain the teaching of Christianity and other religions or that Christian and other religions shall be taught. Rather, whatever syllabus is drawn up shall reflect and take account of these realities. It is clear that this leaves a wide margin of educational discretion and will prove flexible enough to be adaptable to the needs of most situations in England and Wales. Great Britain is, of course, larger than England and Wales, and it is interesting to note that it would be appropriate for agreed syllabuses to reflect Christian and non-Christian religions in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, in so far as these are deemed to be relevant to the educational needs of children in England and Wales. Once again, a wide range of selection and a flexible approach is called for.
For other writing on religious education see: RE links
For other writing on collective worship and school assembly see: (3 links)