Ministers plan to revive religious education: Model syllabuses outline time pupils should spend studying Christianity and other faiths. Judith Judd reports

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS yesterday tried to revive religious education teaching by publishing the first national model syllabuses.

Children will have to spend at least half their RE lessons studying Christianity and learn about five other faiths, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism.

Schools will be able to choose to spend 75 per cent of the time on Christianity if they wish.

The syllabuses say that from the age of five pupils might study Christianity and at least one other religion. By 11 they might add a second non-Christian religion and a further two by 14. They must have covered all five by the age of 16.

Besides learning about the Ten Commandments and the Trinity, pupils would also be taught about the oneness of Allah, the importance of the Jewish Torah, and Hindu worship through yoga and meditation.

Traditionalists and liberals have fought bitterly over the proportion of time to be devoted to Christianity. The former argue that half is too little and that the youngest pupils should not learn about any other faith. Some of the latter support leaders of non-Christian faiths in saying that the teaching of Christianity threatens to overwhelm that of other faiths.

Teachers say the issue is not so much what is taught in RE, but whether the subject is taught at all. A recent survey found that 80 per cent of state schools were breaking the law by failing to provide RE for all their pupils. Baroness Blatch, Minister of State for Education, said: 'RE offers an opportunity for children to consider the very beliefs and values by which people give meaning to their life. I am sure that we would all agree that, in this sense, religious education is a real 'basic'.'

The two model syllabuses, drawn up under the guidance of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority after consulation with teachers, RE lecturers and faith groups, will be sent out for consultation. One is based on 'the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a member of a faith community' and the second on 'key beliefs of religions'.

The latter emphasises the relation of religion to human experience and asks pupils key questions, such as what is truth, what would Utopia be like and how can society be structured fairly.

John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, called for national model syllabuses last year after research revealed that most RE syllabuses, which are agreed by local conferences with representatives of different faith groups, did not conform with the law. The law says that RE should be 'in the main' Christian and that pupils should also be taught about other religions.

The new syllabuses are not compulsory and local conferences will be able to use them in different ways, provided they do not break the law.

Dilip Kadodwala, Hindu representative on the working party which advised the Government, said non-Christian faiths wanted to change the allocation of half the time for Christianity. 'The message at the moment is that Christianity must predominate. We need to get away from the idea of percentages of time for different religions.'

Baroness Cox, a Tory peer and leading traditionalist, said that, under the proposals, primary school children might study three religions other than Christianity if a local conference wished. 'That is too many. It could trivialise religions and confuse children.'

Teacher unions objected to the centralisation of RE. Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: 'The biggest practical problem RE faces is that 54 per cent of RE teachers have no formal qualifications in the subject.'

(Photograph omitted)