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What We Can Learn from Religious Education in the UK

Where Government Supports Public School Religion

Having grown up and lived most of my life in London, UK, I’ve just relocated to the west coast of the United States. When I tell people that I work in interfaith and intercultural education, they often are quick to remind me that the North American context for this kind of work is really rather different. So as I unpack my boxes, try to remember which way to look when I cross the road, and swap ‘brilliant’ for ‘awesome,’ I hope I can offer some reflections on what we in North America might learn from the European context of interfaith education.

Like many, I came to interfaith work quite by accident. Having studied Geography and International Development at university, I was always passionate about issues of justice, equity, and community. After graduating, I worked on an interfaith social action fellowship, and over the past five years I have worked on a number of interfaith education programs in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

An Increasingly Complex and Connected World

The question of how we educate the young, their parents, their teachers, and their communities to better navigate an increasingly complex and connected world has of course no simple answer. I hope that sharing some reflections grounded in my experience of various approaches, programs, and organizations might be a small contribution towards this ongoing dialogue.

As some readers will know, an element of religious education or religious studies is a compulsory part of the weekly curriculum in publicly-funded schools in the UK. The idea of state-sanctioned religious education in the classroom poses many questions for my American counterparts.

My experience of religious education in highschool was always incredibly positive, and I look back with gratitude on visits to the local Sikh gurdwara and assignments about understanding different branches of Islam. Typically religious education is characterized by two interrelated strands – learning about, and learning from, religion. The intention is to introduce students to the fundamental tenets and practices of world religions, and to stimulate reflection on their own beliefs, whether religious or not.

More broadly than teaching specifically about religions and religious practice, one area in which schools are assessed during government inspection is how well they promote spiritual, moral, social and cultural education, also known as SMSC. For many of us in the interfaith movement, ‘spiritual education’ may suggest indoctrination or the learning of dogma; in fact, the government defines it broadly – and quite beautifully – in terms of using imagination and creativity, discovering oneself and the surrounding world, respecting diverse values, and reflecting on experiences.

Skills of inquiry, curiosity, and understanding lay a strong and firm foundation for interfaith encounter. For the past three years I worked in London for Three Faiths Forum (3FF), building the skills, confidence, and religious literacy of educators, and shaping an interfaith speakers’ bureau serving schools and community groups. For some students, a 50-minute interfaith panel dialogue is the first time they have ever intentionally interacted with someone from a Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, or Secular Humanist perspective.

A young Muslim talks about her faith at a 3FF gathering of 500 students from 15 London schools. – Photo: 3FFSpeakers – trained volunteers, typically young professionals and rarely faith ‘leaders’ in a conventional sense – prepare short narrative presentations about their faith and identity and invite students to comment and ask questions. Time and again when I invited students to join the dialogue with their questions, someone would raise their hand and begin ‘I’ve always wanted to ask someone this question...’ They would often comment that meeting ‘real, ordinary people’ brought their textbook learning to life, humanizing religions and traditions in a way that only encounter can offer. It reminded me that religious literacy – whilst essential – can only bring us so far: knowing that a Muslim is required to pray at certain times of day is very different from hearing Suhail speak honestly about his struggles to balance his work and prayer schedule.

After one lively workshop in a boys’ school in inner-London, a few students came up to the front to speak with Hannah, the session’s Jewish speaker. “It was great to meet you – and I’d never realized before that Jews and Muslims are allowed to be friends,” one student remarked. I was puzzled. We hadn’t heard any questions about the Middle East or relations between different religions and beliefs more broadly. I realized that the simple fact of Hannah and Suhail sitting next to each other, joking together, each pouring a glass of water for the other, each listening respectfully and compassionately to the other, had shown the students more about empathy, respect, and understanding than any speech we could have shared.

Some schools go further in their efforts to build faith literacy and understanding into their ethos. This past year I’ve been working at Nishkam Free School, a new school in Birmingham, one of the UK’s first minority-majority cities, meaning that the ethnic minority (non-white) population is more than half the total population. It is a fascinating and wonderful city, with a dynamic religious history and a complex religious population, where questions around difference, diversity, and cohesion are thus all the more urgent.

The school opened 18 months ago with a vision of being an interfaith school within a Sikh ethos. Whilst many state (publicly-funded) schools in the UK are multi-faith simply by virtue of there being some diversity in the population in their catchment area, this is one of the first intentionally interfaith high schools, where the religious and cultural identity of every student is celebrated and nurtured across and throughout the curriculum.

At the centre of the school building is a shared spiritual space, where students – and staff – of all backgrounds sit together on the same level and observe or participate in prayer and reflection from different traditions.

Rangit Singh Dhanda of the Nishkam Free School in Handsworth, Birmingham, UK – Photo: Birmingham PostPart of my role has been to think through how this ethos is lived out in the daily reality of the school, from the mundane (should we have power sockets in the spiritual space?) to the philosophical (should non-Sikh students be permitted, invited, or encouraged to cover their head during Sikh prayers like their Sikh peers?), and everything in between. It is hoped that many of the tools, ideas and experiences which develop out of this school will be valuable to other schools and communities that long to engage more deeply and authentically in the complex and diverse reality of their student populations.

Some say that religious education and the place of religion in education in the UK lie at a crossroads. In recent weeks controversy has raged about an alleged extremist influence in a number of Islamic schools in Birmingham, dubbed a “Trojan Horse” campaign; the non-statutory Religious Education Council is proposing radical changes to the content and nature of the religious education curriculum; and non-religious voices argue that the continued presence of religion in schools is increasingly anachronistic in the twenty-first century.

To me, what remains clear is that acknowledging, understanding, and empathizing with the identity, beliefs, and practices of those around us is vital, and our education systems – in the United Kingdom and the United States – have much to learn from each other.