Religious Education: why the Church of England will fight any changes

The Guardian reported on Tuesday that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is planning to take over operation of the national curriculum so that he can “free teachers to teach”.

Mr Gove has abolished some of the mechanisms that were designed to prevent governments from hijacking the school curriculum and using it for ideological purposes. It is not yet clear how he will steer learning in schools and whether, in fact, he will be able to resist putting a Tory gloss on lessons such as history and English.

What he won’t be able to do is interfere with Religious Education. Primary legislation requires that RE is devised by and provided by local education authorities. Each local authority must have a Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE) in order to advise on the RE syllabus for local schools.

However, it is clear that there is a desire to centralise RE and make one syllabus fit the whole country. That would be controversial because it would raise questions about who was going to take control of such a delicate matter. And, as with all matters pertaining to religion, it would rapidly deteriorate into a battle between vested interests, in this case for the biggest slice of the RE cake.

As the Established Church, and controlling about a quarter of the education system, the Church of England naturally assumes that it should dictate what happens in relation to religion in schools and will want its doctrines given pride of place in any RE shake up.

The cat was somewhat let out of the bag on the thinking in the Church of England on this topic in an article in the Church Times last week by John Gay. It ended by asking:

But why should the Church of England be promoting RE, which by law has to be multi-faith and non-proselytising? The rationale is clear, it is because:

1. The law requires that RE must be mainly about Christianity

2. For most children and teenagers, their main experience of and knowledge about Christianity is gained through RE lessons in schools, rather than through the churches

3. The quality of the lessons on Christianity has a significant effect on children’s longer-term attitudes to Christianity.

The article is tantamount to an admission by the Church of what we have known for years: that they can’t get children into church and therefore they’ll corner them in schools where the pesky little freethinkers can’t escape. So, the Church of England has a vested interest in resisting any change to item 1 on the above list.

The article claims that the law does not permit proselytising RE, but it in fact the change of subject title from RI to RE was partly window dressing. Faith schools are not barred from proselytising RE – and the Church will do all in its power to make sure that this remains the case.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out, but whatever Mr Gove decides to do with the national curriculum, you can be sure that he will be very reluctant to challenge the hegemony of the Church of England in schools. The last thing his precarious government needs is a catfight with the bishops over their access to captive children’s minds.