.sqs-featured-posts-gallery .title-desc-wrapper .view-post

From Mono-religious to Multi-religious in England’s Schools

By Marcus Braybrooke


For centuries, education in England was provided by the Church of England and therefore included instruction in the Christian faith. The rapid growth of the urban population in the nineteenth century caused by the Industrial Revolution meant there were not enough schools. By 1850 only a third of the country’s children were receiving regular education. The Church and Voluntary societies built more schools, but a Board of Education was set up to provide additional schools from public funds. By 1882 school attendance became compulsory for children between the ages of five and ten. All schools had daily prayers and provided instruction in the Christian faith, although in state schools no ‘denominational teaching’ was allowed. A conscience clause permitted Jewish and other parents to remove children from such religious conditioning. Public or fee-paying schools also had a Christian ethos with daily chapel, divinity lessons, and often a clergyman as headmaster.

In general the provisions for state-funded schools were reaffirmed in the 1944 (Butler) Education Act. In the early 1960s, the World Congress of Faiths (WCF) began advocating the teaching of world religions. A WCF statement in 1970 calling for ‘the teaching of world religions and provision for the needs of all children in a plural society’ gained some attention in the national press. The statement expressed concern about imposing Christian teaching on the small but growing number of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh children in English schools. It was also argued that without some knowledge of the great religions children could not understand the modern world.

The first concern was in part met by the gradual change from ‘Religious Instruction’ (RI) to Religious Education (RE), as advocated by a church report headed by the then Bishop of Durham. The purpose of RI had been to nurture children in the faith of their parents. It was now felt that this should be offered by the churches and not as part of the school syllabus, although this was a vain hope as Sunday School attendance was rapidly declining. (The Muslim community have a number of out-of-school classes to teach the Qur’an)  Religious Education, which was to be impartial, was to help children learn about the history and teaching of religions and the spiritual dimension of life – although there were those who argued that religion had no place in schools.

The Shap Wells Hotel in Cumbria, England, where an historic conference titled “Comparative Religion in Education” took place in 1969. – Photo: Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education.

The Shap Wells Hotel in Cumbria, England, where an historic conference titled “Comparative Religion in Education” took place in 1969. – Photo: Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education.

If world religions were to be taught in schools, then teacher training had to change and books and visual material were needed – much of which was provided by or stimulated by the Shap Working Party, which produces a calendar of festivals and other resources. (Shap is not an acronym but a village in Cumbria which hosted a 1969 conference on ‘Comparative Religion in Education.’)

A Religious Education Council, which has published some informative reports, was set up in 1973 to encourage best practices in teaching world religions and to defend RE from pressures that would squeeze it out of the timetable. At the same time local authorities set up Standing Advisory Conferences on Religious Education to determine what was taught and how much time to devote to each religion. The new approach gained the support of Parliament, supported by the bishops who voted against those peers who wanted to continue to provide Christian nurture because England was a “Christian country.”

If RE had to change, what about the provision for ‘a daily act of collective worship’?  Some schools arranged very imaginative assemblies on such general themes as Beauty or Service or Respect, illustrated by texts from several faiths. Others invited the local rabbi or imam as well as the vicar to speak. Other assemblies became a ‘sharing of values’ rather than an ‘act of worship.’

Some recognised early on that education for a multifaith society should not be confined to a RE lesson on a Friday afternoon but rather be reflected in the ethos of the school and the values that it seeks to promote. They set up a Standing Conference on Inter-Faith Dialogue in Education. Besides highlighting practical issues about school uniform or the provision of a vegetarian alternative for school meals, the group arranged conferences and published books, edited by John Prickett, rites of passage. 

Finding Tools for Making Friends while Learning About World Religions

This history (now made more complex by the creation of academies with greater freedom to set their own syllabus) helps us understand key issues which are debated today. I’ll intersperse them with stories from the 3 Faiths Forum (3FF), an 18-year-old agency who purpose is “to build understanding between people of different faiths and beliefs” in educational settings. (See TIO’s June 2014 3FF profile here.)

Students participating in 3FF’s “Faith School Linking” project. – Photo: 3FF

Students participating in 3FF’s “Faith School Linking” project. – Photo: 3FF

The first concern is about faith-sponsored schools. If the government funds Church of England schools, people ask, why not also Muslim or Sikh schools? Some argue this is only fair, although Church schools were intended as a service to the whole community, not as an Anglican refuge. Others oppose all faith schools because they fear that they reinforce the divisions in society and may even encourage extremism. Some faith schools have shared programs across traditions to avoid this danger. The 3FF “Faith School Linking” project enables young people of different faiths to engage in a variety of activities together through the year. There is also intercultural training for teachers and a program called “‘I Saw it in the News,” which facilitates classroom conversations about difficult subjects.

A second issue is that Religious Education is ever more under-resourced. There are too few teachers and the ever growing number of examinations leaves little time for other subjects. At the heart of this issue comes the question, What is Religious Education for?  Answers depend on who you ask. Some faith schools aim to encourage young people to become practising members of a faith community. In other schools, RE is meant to develop a pupil’s spiritual, moral, and social development.  The government wants RE to encourage social cohesion and Britishness and to warn of the dangers of extremism. RE specialists emphasis a theological and intellectual agenda requiring the same rigor as any other academic discipline.

Two recent 3FF reports survey these issues and how 3FF is tackling them. 3FF prefers the term ‘intercultural’ to ‘interfaith education.’  Many young people may not be much interested in practising the faith in which they grow up but even so are deeply influenced by the faith community in terms of food, clothes, or whom they may marry. Moreover, faith is only one aspect of a person’s identity. One woman, it is reported, described herself as “a mother of two, from North London, working as a nurse, a Hindu, and a huge Manchester United fan.”

The emphasis of 3FF workshops held in schools across the UK is, therefore, on how people live their lives rather than on studying texts. This enlivens religion and stops it being seen as ‘past,’ ‘other,’ or ‘exotic.’ “It is all about relationship building … not teaching from a book.” Teachers are trained, who then take it to their classes to teach.

Two skills workshops initiate new participants to 3FF’s programming – “The Art of Asking” and “The Art of Empathy.” They prepare students to meet people of another faith. Students learn that how a question is framed can show genuine interest or implied hostility.

“Encountering Faiths and Beliefs” allows students to hear short personal narratives from trained speakers of different faiths and to ask them questions, rather than debate. “You can argue about ideas, but a person who is telling her story is in a real and vulnerable situation.” “When you listen to an asylum seeker’s struggle to get to Britain, you feel differently about immigration.”

Yet another workshop, “Tools for Trialogue,” is aimed at older students. Speakers from different faiths relate texts to the discussion of contemporary issues, such as the Environment.

The 3FF reports emphasise that intercultural education is not just the responsibility of the RE teacher but should be part of the life of the school and involve the local community. Indeed, the goal should be that society as a whole moves beyond multiculturalism to interculturalism. The government’s response to extremism, however, may delay this process.  As Stephen Shashoua, who has just retired as director of 3FF, warns, ‘”dialogue-based approaches are being replaced by top-down initiatives that prioritise values and assimilation. Intercultural education offers a more sustainable, humane and effective alternative.” 

Listening and empathy, not lecturing will win hearts and minds.