A commission into the future of religious education should have “shown more teeth” to discourage parents from requesting that their children are not taught the topic, according to the chair of the committee which sets the syllabus for the subject in Lancashire.
Peter Martin was speaking at a sub-group of the Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education (SACRE), which discussed a recent nationwide review of RE.
The report concluded that the subject should be broadened and renamed “Religion and Worldviews”, to take greater account of philosophies such as humanism. But it did not challenge the parental right to withdraw children from some or all of their RE lessons.
The SACRE meeting heard concern that the commission had recommended only that the right be “reviewed” by the Department for Education.
John Wilson, the Church of England representative on the committee, said the issue had been “ducked” and requested statistics to determine exactly how many Lancashire pupils had been taken out of RE.
The committee was told that withdrawal from the subject was less prevalent in the county than other parts of the country, but that headteachers were “upset” when it did happen.
“It goes against headteachers’ core beliefs for pupils to be excluded from any subject”, Alison Lloyd, the local authority’s SACRE officer, said. “These children all play in the playground together,” she added.
Peter Martin noted that it was “not uncommon” for children to be prevented by their parents from attending particular religious venues as part of school visits - which he described as contrary to the “aim of the syllabus to understand the religions representing the community in Lancashire”.
Committee member and county councillor Peter Steen warned of the possible ramifications for the pupils themselves. “If parents do withdraw their child from RE, they are not helping them - they are isolating them,” he said.
And there was a warning that the commission’s suggestion to investigate whether children could skip RE in favour of lessons in other subjects could hasten take up of the option.
“Parents who thought their children could get additional support, might well put their hand up for that,” Ms. Lloyd said.
The meeting also heard that the commission’s suggestions about the content of the curriculum represented “quite significant changes”.
All community schools, free schools and academies are required to teach RE and, at the moment in Lancashire, pupils must have “in-depth learning opportunities with regard to Christianity and the five other principal religions in the UK”.
Committee members were told that the Lancashire RE syllabus, already teaches worldviews, but that the commission’s recommendations would require an overhaul of the syllabus.
The report suggested that the education regulator OFSTED should assess Religion and Worldviews as a subject in its own right, in contrast to its current focus on “British values” and “Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural” studies - for which RE is simply a vehicle.
Alison Lloyd said that the change in emphasis may help to bridge a gap which exists within some schools, where pupils understand issues such as shared human experience and moral values - but are taught less about religion itself, “because that’s the hard bit”.
The committee heard that there was no “no guarantee” that the commission’s recommendations would pass into law. But John Wilson suggested that they could still be adopted as a guide for the full SACRE committee.
“Perhaps we should look at it positively and see if there is anything we can do within our syllabus to move in the direction [suggested by] the commission, within current legislation, Mr. Wilson said.
RE is part of what is known as the “basic curriculum”. In contrast to the “national curriculum”, that means its syllabus is set locally.
The Lancashire RE syllabus is not due to be revised until 2021, but is currently undergoing a refresh to include specific learning goals, which are common in other subject areas.
“This will give the curriculum some rigour, so it [is] teaching some actual core beliefs,” Ms Lloyd said.
Peter Martin added that the syllabus had to be user-friendly, because “the main users of it will not be full-time RE teachers”.