Christian right loses RE battle

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The Independent Online
TRADITIONALISTS have lost the battle to give Christianity a higher profile in the first national religious education syllabuses, which will be published this week.

Draft syllabuses issued in January by John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, have been altered in response to protests from Muslims and members of other minority faiths.

The drafts, to which liberal Christians also objected, included a chart indicating that schools should devote at least 50 per cent of religious education lessons to Christianity. This has now been dropped.

The new syllabuses recommend that primary schoolchildren should normally study Christianity and two other religions. This is certain to anger some Conservative backbench MPs, who argue that young children will be confused if they are taught about more than one religion.

The new syllabuses will be launched on Tuesday with the support of leaders of Britain's six principal religions: Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Islam, as well as Christianity. It is the first time all the faiths have agreed on what should be taught. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi have both given their approval.

Mr Patten, a Roman Catholic, wants to promote Christian teaching in schools. But he has turned down demands that schools should be advised to spend at least 75 per cent of RE time on Christianity.

Members of other faiths said specifying a percentage of time for Christianity and not for other religions suggested that Christianity was more important. Muslims were concerned that if the number of religions in primary schools were restricted, children might study Islam only once.

However, Anthony Coombs, MP for Wyre Forest and vice-chairman of the Conservative back-bench Education Committee, said yesterday that he hoped 'that in practice most schools will allocate 75 per cent of the time to Christianity'. The new syllabuses are for guidance only and are not legally binding on schools. The law on RE, based on the 1944 and 1988 Education Acts, says only that Christianity should predominate.

The syllabuses say that pupils should study Christianity throughout their school career and should cover the five other principal religions at some point between the ages of five and 16. At all stages, children should study at least one non- Christian religion; between 7 and 14, they should study two non-Christian religions in depth.

Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, a traditionalist body, said that the syllabuses must be rewritten. 'The key issue is RE in primary schools. The teaching of two or three non-Christian religions by the age of 11 is advocated. This is too many too soon. Young children cannot grasp so many religions so early.'

Peter Jackson, chaplain of Harrow School and a member of the steering group which drew up the syllabuses, said: 'As a priest and teacher I don't feel threatened in any way by the fact that religions other than Christianity are being taught. There is no threat in the majority of schools to the teaching of Christianity and there is no good evidence that children are confused if they are taught more than one religion.'

Sir Ron Dearing, head of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which set up the steering group of representatives of all the principal religions, advised Mr Patten that it would be wrong to place a heavy emphasis on Christianity for five-year-olds in schools where most pupils were Muslim.

However, the authority's officials argue that the syllabuses allow schools to concentrate mainly on Christianity if they wish. The material for Christianity is longer than that for any other religion.

Local conferences of representatives who determine RE syllabuses for different local authorities can base their recommendations on one of the two national models or ignore them. Schools will also have freedom to choose options.

The conferences are advised to take account of the wishes of parents and governors. Teachers are advised to take into account the faiths of all the children in their class.

The syllabuses say it is important for pupils to acquire 'a coherent understanding of individual religions' but they should also be able to draw parallels between faiths, understanding for instance that both Christianity and Judaism are monotheistic.