Education Viewpoint: Have faith in diversity

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The best current approach to religious education takes its cue from the universities. Increasingly, theologians such as Professor Keith Ward at Oxford argue that we cannot refer to Christianity as a religion without making it clear that religion is a universal phenomenon known throughout history and the world in many forms.

This does not preclude any teacher or pupil from asserting the uniqueness of Christianity - or, for that matter, any other world faith. In fact, logically, you could not make a claim of uniqueness without making a comparison with other religions.

More generally, if we want to prepare our pupils well for life after school, they will need to know how people in their own country and elsewhere in the world are affected by the diversity of religions and ideologies by which they live.

This week the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), which advises the Government, published two model syllabuses to help local authority committees responsible for religious education to decide on the particular form of syllabus appropriate for their area. The first model syllabus is based 'on the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a member of a faith community' and the second on 'key ideas of religions'.

Although local authorities are not obliged to follow these government models, they are very likely to do so after a report earlier this year suggested that few authorities have properly met the requirements of the 1988 Act. This Act, according to guidance from the Department for Education, obliges schools to teach a mainly Christian syllabus, while ensuring that all other major religions are taught. Non-Christian religions would not necessarily be taught at every age in a school, nor would they be covered in the same detail as Christianity.

During the meetings held in the late autumn by the SCAA monitoring group, of which I was a member, there was heated debate over the exact meaning of 'mainly Christian'. Did it mean, for example, that to pupils aged between seven and 11 virtually nothing but Christianity should be taught? This argument was attractive to those who claimed that teachers (especially non-specialists) reluctant to teach Christianity took refuge in a confused cocktail of other religions. There was claim and counter-claim about the evidence for this view.

Representatives of non-Christian religions argued that no one could gain a proper understanding of their faiths unless they were given adequate time, and unless there was the chance of studying a particular faith more than once during a pupil's time at school.

This argument was sharpened by the circulation of a joint letter by the non-Christians claiming that teaching their faiths superficially might lead pupils to infer that they were less important than Christianity. From this, it would be a short step to regarding citizens who practised these as less equal under the law than others.

This conflict has threatened the remarkable agreement previously achieved across a wide spectrum of Christian and non-Christian opinion. For the moment, this risk has been averted. However, many fear there could be last-minute attempts substantially to alter the syllabuses before they are published in their final form later this year.

As a priest, as well as a teacher, I am adamant that we should prevent this. I am not at all afraid that pupils from Christian homes will be 'contaminated' by learning about non-Christian faiths. I would be content, say, in Confirmation classes, to build upon a thorough grounding in Christianity, which had taken place in the context of other religions.

Pushing Christianity by giving it excessive attention is counter-productive. If children spend the vast majority of their time on Christianity as though nothing else existed, that would be tantamount to proselytising.

If the model syllabuses are used sensibly, they should be acceptable to most Christians and those who practise other faiths. Christianity is assured of at least half the teaching time. Schools also have the opportunity, under the proposals, to increase this to 75 per cent, but I think so great an emphasis on Christianity would jeopardise the thorough and rigorous teaching of other faiths. I would hope that few schools will choose this option.

The syllabuses guarantee the inclusion of at least one other faith for each age-group. If schools exercise their option to teach two other faiths at every stage, this may disappoint more dirigiste Christians. But while the Government's desire to improve religious education is laudable, it should not be at the expense of local responsibility and initiative. It is most welcome that the suggested arrangements permit schools to exercise discretion once they have satisfied the legal requirements. Ultimately, it is in the schools that religious education has to be improved.

The model syllabuses and the Dearing report give religious education its best chance since the 1944 Act. Imaginatively used, the syllabuses should give a coherence and rigour that has often been lacking. The Dearing Report guarantees the time - parity of teaching time with other foundation subjects up to age 14, and 5 per cent of teaching time from 14 to 16 - in which to do it. It would be sad if anyone, especially over-defensive Christians, undermined this unique opportunity.

The author is chaplain and head of religious education at Harrow School.