Leading Article: The resurrection of religious education

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The Independent Online
MAHATMA GANDHI once said: 'I consider myself a Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist and Confucian.' He was summing up a fascination with different religions and the value each has in enlarging the human perspective of matters spiritual. Having a feel for all these religions did not diminish him: it enriched his sensibilities and produced a character of exemplary tolerance.

Gandhi would have been an inspirational member of the government taskforce that has been asked to draw up model syllabuses for religious education (RE) in schools. For it should be the task of these lessons to spark an interest in the spiritual dimensions of life, without forcing religion upon children. Young people lacking appreciation of various faiths will understand their contemporaries, and possibly themselves, less than they might. Much art, a great swathe of culture, not to mention a rich vein of religious humour, will be lost on them. A child leaving school should be able to attend a service in a church, mosque, synagogue or temple and broadly grasp what is happening.

Ministers have recognised that RE has lost its way. How should teachers impart a sense of God, or Taqwa, as this consciousness is known in Islam, to children in a society that is both multi-faith and increasingly secular? It is particularly difficult when many teachers do not have religious beliefs. How should schools impart the symbols and language of religion in a way that gives children the tools of spirituality without indoctrinating them?

Religious education is compulsory in state-funded schools, but it is not part of the national curriculum. The syllabus adopted must reflect broad guidelines, but is determined locally. However, inspection of what is actually being taught indicates that the subject needs to be given more weighty treatment. At the moment, standards of material and teaching vary greatly across the country and could be improved if model syllabuses were circulated. For example, in some schools enough attention has not been given to progress in religious education as a child grows older.

All this attention from central government inevitably provokes fears that John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, is embarking on an evangelistic mission. Following his appointment, Mr Patten bemoaned society's 'dwindling belief in redemption and damnation', views that some parents would find worrying. They would be understandably suspicious if his department were to dispatch commandments set in stone as to what teachers should be conveying to their charges. This does not appear to be the role Sir Ron Dearing, head of the advisory body on curriculum and testing, is expected to play. Rather, he will preside over discussions with religious groups on the ingredients of a good syllabus. The Government will not enforce a single model. Study of Christianity will continue to be required to take up at least half the time allotted, leaving the content of the remaining time contingent on local circumstances.

The emphasis on the model syllabuses must be on sparking enthusiasm for the subject. RE in schools may not produce Mahatma Gandhis, but at least pupils will have some options when Dave Allen signs off: 'May your God go with you.'