Leading Article: Christianity is not the exclusive faith

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The Independent Online
MANY OF the advisers who meet today to talk about the teaching of religious education in British schools would agree with the following propositions. The standard of RE needs to rise, particularly in primary schools; students should be taught to discuss moral questions, and to think hard about their own values; Christianity alone is a necessary, but not sufficient, part of the syllabus; and teachers should aim to make children curious and tolerant, rather than to inculcate in them the tenets of a single faith.

Despite this common ground, there is still a danger that the deliberations of today's syllabus steering group today may founder on a single question: how much Christianity in the RE syllabus is too much?

A great deal has already been achieved since John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, set in train the drafting of the model syllabuses to be discussed today. The old system (where RE was largely subject to the joint whims of local authorities and local religious groups) is to be replaced by a more consistent approach, in which broad guidelines are set from the centre, within which schools themselves may choose.

With the more informed lessons that are likely to come with the better training to be given to RE teachers, there is a fair chance that both primary and secondary schools will raise the quantity and quality of RE lessons. Until now, 80 per cent of primary schools have broken the law simply by failing to allocate the required hour a week to the subject.

British law limits the syllabus steering group's room for manoeuvre in setting the upper and lower limits of concentration on Christianity to the exclusion of other religions. The 1988 Education Reform Act lays down that lessons should reflect the mainly Christian traditions of Britain, while taking account of the UK's other faiths. So devoting a minimum of half the time to the teachings of Jesus seems reasonable.

Yet the upper limit of 87 per cent of RE classroom hours proposed in one model syllabus is too high. With the wealth of faiths and minorities that make up modern Britain, schools must encourage in their students some understanding of the great religions of the world, and some regard for the views of their adherents. That job cannot be done in an hour every seven weeks. The syllabuses should say so.