The time is ripe for change in how the law deals with religion and schools. The welcome publication of the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper[i] on March 14th indicates that government thinking is changing and so it is time to make the case for amendments to the current statute.
Reforming anything to do with religion is always very difficult. The legal requirements in relation to the right place of religion in schools (notably the statutory act of collective worship, the legal requirement to teach religious education and the basis of admission to faith schools) have lain quietly on the statute book since 1944, essentially unchanged with the exception of small adjustments in 1988 which resulted from wider education reforms.
But over those nearly 75 years, schools have changed almost beyond recognition while the map of religions and beliefs across the country has been transformed and issues of community cohesion and contesting extremism have risen to the top of the political agenda.
Politicians rightly proceed with great caution in considering change in this area. They fear taking steps which might create confusion and unnecessary conflict and whose social consequences are unpredictable and could be damaging.
But the Green Paper from the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid and the new Education Secretary Damian Hinds (responses to their proposals should be submitted in the next 4 months) shows that the balance of judgment has changed, quite rightly. It is the vain effort to keep things as they are which most risks damaging the cohesion of society. Action has to be taken and the gathering pressure for change is steadily becoming unstoppable.
That was the basis upon which in June 2015 Linda Woodhead and I published A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools about the legal status of religion in schools. And the same thinking informed the wide-ranging report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, published in December that year, and RE for Real, Adam Dinham and Martha Shaw’s reinforcement of the need for religious literacy across our society.
These three reports followed the ‘Trojan Horse’ allegations about some Birmingham schools, which were made public in early 2014 after which Prime Minister David Cameron decided to describe himself at Easter 2014 as “evangelical” about his Christian faith and then in June 2014 to write an article to coincide with the 799th anniversary of Magna Carta which called for the promotion of “British values”.
After the BREXIT referendum the new Prime Minister’s first domestic policy initiative was a lecture at the British Academy in September 2016, proposing to remove the cap on faith-based admissions to free schools – mainly at the behest of the Catholic Church. This was associated with a government consultation, ‘Schools that work for everyone’, to which we still await the government’s response.
In December that year came the publication of Dame Louise Casey’s report (which David Cameron and Theresa May had asked her to carry out in July 2015) about what could be done to strengthen cohesion in the most isolated and deprived communities in the country. That led, 15 months later, to the publication of the new Green Paper.
And throughout all this it became more and more clear that the law is increasingly breached. In 2004 the then Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools, Sir David Bell, reported that 76% of secondary schools were failing to meet their legal requirements in relation to an Act of Collective Worship. In 2011, a poll commissioned by the BBC found that only 28% of pupils attended daily worship at their school, and 60% of the public did not think the legal requirement should be enforced. Our own research in early 2016 suggested that about a third of all schools were in breach of the law.
In September 2017 The National Association of RE teachers and the Religious Education Council published their State of the Nation report based on detailed analysis of the School Workforce Census conducted by DFE. This revealed serious breaches of the law in this sphere.
25% of all schools surveyed said a weekly RE lesson to ensure pupils understand different religions and beliefs is not available, whilst in academies and free schools this rose to 34% for 11 to 13 year olds, and 44% for 14 to 16 year olds. Even 4% of schools with a religious character do not offer a weekly lesson.
The newly appointed Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, has become ever more forthright. Her first Annual Report, in December 2017, stated that an growing number of conservative religious schools are deliberately choosing not to meet the legal requirements that set the expectations for shared values and tolerance, and that some illegal ‘schools’ have been created to avoid teaching the unifying messages taught in the vast majority of schools in England.
She followed this up in February 2018 with a speech at the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership criticising the Church of England for blocking changes to the law that would have allowed out-of-school-hours provision to be inspected, in order to protect them from being indoctrinated by extreme religious views.
In February 2018, scandals around unregistered schools (mainly faith-based) surfaced in a BBC news documentary with both Amanda Spielman and Louise Casey calling for more action by the Department for Education, a plea which the Green Paper appears to answer.
Meanwhile the Commission on Religious Education, chaired by the Dean of Westminster, The Very Rev Dr John Hall, has been working on very timely recommendations, to be published this autumn, designed to improve the quality and rigour of religious education, and its capacity to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain.
This sequence of events has eroded the conviction of some diehards that we can just go on as we are, that nothing needs to be done. It seems increasingly implausible to suggest that simply better enforcement of the current law will do the trick, risking the provocation of bitter conflicts at school gates up and down the country.
The challenge now for all those who think that an updating reform is necessary is to make it as easy as possible for the government to act in the confidence that there are solutions which command the confidence of wide sections of the faith and education communities, so minimising the prospects of damaging conflicts.
The 1944 Education Act was passed in the way that it was in order to contest the violent extremism so frightening at the time, and to bolster our liberal democracy against any possible totalitarian threats, whether from right or left.
We should make 2019, the 75th anniversary of that Act, the year when its principles are updated in law in order to treat the place of religion in schools in the right way for the modern world.
Charles Clarke is Visiting Professor in Politics and Faith at Lancaster University, and co-convenor of the Westminster Faith Debates. Charles was Labour member of Parliament for Norwich South from 1997 until 2010, serving as Secretary of State for Education from 2002 to 2004, and then as Home Secretary until 2006.