Schools breaking law on religious teaching

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The Independent Online
ONLY one in three local authorities has an up-to-date religious education policy, and none meets the requirements of the law.

The National Curriculum Council reported yesterday that 'hardly any' of the locally agreed syllabuses detailed what should be taught about which religions at each stage of schooling. None of them had 'a thorough and well- thought out' assessment policy.

David Pascall, the council's chairman, said it would publish national guidelines later this year to encourage more rigorous teaching. He dismissed as a 'myth' the complaint that there was no time to fit RE into the timetable, and said that more 'specific and challenging' syllabuses would expose the 'excuses' made for failing to teach the subject properly.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, last Friday floated the prospect of creating a national model syllabus which local committees could use as a basis for their own policies.

The present Education Bill, which went to the Lords last week, will require all areas to agree an RE syllabus as soon as possible. The curriculum council's survey of local RE policies shows that 80 areas out of 109 have not produced one since the 1988 Education Reform Act tightened the law.

Local syllabuses are drawn up by committees of local churchmen, teachers and local authority representatives. RE is obligatory in all schools at all ages, including sixth forms, but its purpose is not to convert pupils or urge a particular faith on them.

The Act says syllabuses must reflect the fact that 'religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, while taking account of the principal religions represented in Great Britain'. Mr Pascall interpreted that as 'more than 50 per cent of the content of an agreed syllabus should be devoted to Christianity'.

Of 27 syllabuses studied by the council, two specifically gave Christianity a dominant place, and two others indicated that it should occupy the largest amount of time. 'The others gave no indication as to what the balance should be between religions.'

Mr Pascall said in a speech to the national conference of local religious education councils in London that some of the older RE syllabuses gave 'virtually no detail' about what children should know. 'This is disturbing, given the number of primary teachers in particular who have little background knowledge of the subject on which to call.'

Since 'no syllabus states clearly enough what is to be taught in relation to Christianity and other religions at different times and stages, there is no guarantee that the spirit and intention of the law will be met'.

The council's survey says: 'Our concern is that many of the smaller local education authorities will purchase an agreed syllabus from elsewhere, that being the cheaper option. In our view, there is no existing syllabus which could be recommended.'

It says there is 'little evidence of different syllabuses requiring the same standards of work from pupils of comparable ages'. In other cases 'it was difficult to gauge the standards required'.

The council concludes that 'no single syllabus matched all the legal requirements', and adds that the Department for Education 'must issue further guidelines as to the interpretation of the law'.