I was struck by President Obama's recent reference to the Commonwealth as one of the distinctive features of what the UK brings to the transatlantic relationship – that it is as strategically important as its bridging to Europe. Then, I noticed Andrew Marr's extolling of London as a truly global city – a place to feel at home in the midst of human diversity. In subsequently asking why this is, I come face to face with the R word, and its close relative RE.
Religion is simultaneously a source of division and delight. For some it's associated with mass slayings, closed mindedness and hypocrisy. For others, with all that is good, true and beautiful. As critic or defender, I have to recognise the force of evidence in both regards.
Historically, the British Empire is as ambiguous and no less fiercely argued. Embarrassment, as much as pressure to favour Europe or the US, may explain the apparent reluctance of politicians to speak strongly of the Commonwealth. Economic gain was a prime motive in imperial ambitions, but so, too, was sharing a gospel of mutual care.
As Brits spread themselves around the world, goods and services were appropriated. Eventually, independence – of a sort – followed. A sense of greater belonging persisted, not just family, tribe or even nation, but a more inclusive allegiance.
Genetically, the Brits have always been of hybrid stock, the present religious and cultural diversity of the UK derives from the imperial past of recent centuries. As empire or as island the story is one of encounter with diversity.
Failure to notice and cherish the distinctive character of the national RE tradition shows a similar lack of historical sense and imagination.
Religious difference can indeed be divisive. In 1944, in a world shadowed by Nazism, the Government identified RE as the one obligatory subject, and the mechanism for delivering it was a locally agreed syllabus. Then, it was rooted in the Bible as trusted charter across Christian difference, in part shared with the Jews.
By 1988, when global religious diversity had become more evident, the specification was extended to include other principal religions alongside Christianity.
Now there is a pattern of RE provision which, when well taught, is popular with children of all ages. It enables them to understand others and at the same time better understand themselves. Locally, it is referenced and supported by Standing Advisory Councils for RE (SACREs), comprising teachers, politicians and representatives of the principal faith communities, often including humanists. European and global educational responses to this approach are highly appreciative. And yet, this RE, like the virtues of the Commonwealth, is in jeopardy from government policy.
The proposal for an English baccalaureate is supposedly based on a need to strengthen academic subjects. As well as two sciences, maths, English and a foreign language, this includes one of the humanities – either history or geography, but not RE. Already the response from many schools – as reported by teachers – is not to offer a GCSE full course in religious studies as an option, and a related reduction in staffing priority for RE. Unless good quality RE is confirmed as an entitlement for every pupil, one might be tempted to think that the English baccalareate is a convenient way of avoiding the vital need to educate more teachers in the subject.
Turning to academy schools, little allowance is made for the local authority "support" role. The response of local authorities is to shed advisory staff, including those supporting quality classroom RE, and local SACREs. Were the Government now to become indifferent to the need to retain the principle of statutory RE in all types of school, along with checks on compliance, one might again see this as a crafty device to undermine the servicing support for RE teachers.
The policy shift towards severing the historic link between universities and teacher education, locating it instead entirely in schools, assumes that there is a simple transition between study in higher education and classroom effectiveness in schools. This overlooks the fact that existing PGCE courses are already 50 per cent school-based. It is tragic to see that Europe's leading university research unit in religion and education at Warwick University has been obliged to terminate its role in initial teacher education – a highly regarded tradition that antedates even the university itself. Again, a cynical interpretation would see this as deliberately targeting RE, when actually it's just based on bad advice.
Now is the time, before the summer recess, for the Secretary of State to reaffirm that religious education remains essential to the curriculum in all schools, colleges and academies, and for the benefit of every pupil. RE could be included as a humanities option in the English baccalaureate, the supportive and beneficial role of SACREs could be commended both to local authorities and all educational institutions in an area.
Equipping teachers to meet the challenges of RE in the contemporary world could be identified as a national priority. This would be an exercise in common wealth creation.
Now would be an opportune moment for David Cameron to give legs to the Big Society idea by associating it with the Commonwealth heritage at home and abroad, and its roots in personal and communal loyalties and motivations.
Brian Gates is chair of the Religious Education Council of England & Wales
WHY RE IS UNDER THREAT
* In the aftermath of the 9/11 bombing of the Twin towers in New York, religious education became one of the fastest-growing subjects at GCSE. Pupils, it was said, were anxious to have an understanding of comparative religions in the aftermath of the bombings.
* Last autumn, though, Education Secretary Michael Gove announced his proposals for his new English Baccalaureate and brought a halt to the expansion.
* The baccalaureate will be awarded to pupils who obtain five A* to C grade passes at GCSE in maths, English, science, a foreign language and a humanities subject such as history or geography.
* Significantly, the English Baccalaureate was included in this year's exam league tables as a performance measure for schools, despite the fact that the certificate will not be awarded for a couple of years.
* As a result of only history and geography being considered as humanities subjects – and not RE – the numbers taking the subject fell by a third this summer as heads put pupils in for subjects that would give them a high ranking in the tables.
* Mr Gove has carried out a consultation on his proposals and is expected to make a final decision on the composition of the English Baccalaureate before Parliament breaks up for the summer recess.