Guy Hordern is Chairman of Birmingham City Council's Standing Advisory Council for religious education
Will faith continue to be a part of the fabric of this country as the Prime Minister predicted during the Pope's visit? Differing faith communities in Birmingham have taken heart from statements made by him and other members of the cabinet who emphasise the important contribution that faith makes to national life.
For example, Michael Gove has reiterated the same sentiment. For most young people access to reliable information about faith comes through Religious Education (RE) in schools. So what are education policies doing to secure a place for faith in the future fabric of this country?
The Government is robust in its support for faith schools but, no doubt due to unintended consequences, it is less certain that its policies will be as effective in other schools and academies. The exclusion of religious studies from the choice of humanities subjects in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) did little to help; consequent school timetable changes, cuts in staffing, and training places for RE teachers has only weakened RE.
Nick Gibb, the Minister for Schools, maintains that "RE is central to the aim of the school curriculum"’. He takes the view that being required by law is RE’s "key strength". So in other words, the Government is relying on the law to secure the future of faith through the teaching of RE in non-faith academies and free schools.
However, how does the Government's support for faith schools and this reliance on law dovetail with the Government’s strong commitment to developing free schools and academies? For it is becoming increasingly clear that this latter policy directly undermines the “key strength” of RE. The reason for this is simple. Free schools and academies are bound not by statute law, but by funding agreements. And any of the minister’s successors can change funding agreements at will, unlike statute law, which cannot of course be changed without reference to parliament.
Another difference between funding agreements and statute law is that the law makes many more demands and safeguards. At the moment a funding agreement simply requires RE to be in the main Christian, and to take account of the presence of the other principal religions in the country. Most of the other requirements, rights and freedoms at present guaranteed by statute law are not touched upon in funding agreements.
For example, under the present statute law RE syllabuses must be agreed locally by an Agreed Syllabus Conference (ASC) that involves four distinct groups: the Local Authority, teachers, the Church of England and other faith groups. Indeed, and as Gibb himself states, these local bodies ‘… remain best placed to design an RE curriculum that is relevant and valued by their community’. The ASC’s and Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs) which exist at local authority level are the Big Society at its best.
The very process of agreeing an RE Syllabus has been a source of community cohesion in Birmingham and elsewhere, as the different faith groups learn to work together for a common purpose. The success of this process is reflected locally in the first Free School in Birmingham, The Nishkam Primary School which freely adopted, on its inherent merit, the vision for Religious Education embodied in the 2007 Birmingham Agreed Syllabus.
Since funding agreements do not specify a process of agreeing a RE syllabus, the Government is effectively disempowering faith communities from having the influence on RE which they currently possess in law. And in doing this, the Government is undermining the establishment of the Church of England and reducing its contribution to education. This touches on fundamental constitutional issues. To deprive the established church and other faiths of their legal right to make a contribution to RE is not the best way forward of securing faith as part of the fabric of the country – an aim to which the Prime Minister rightly aspires.
It must be evident to the Government that if the ‘key strength’ of RE resides in statute law, then funding agreements are precisely the way to undermine it, since they bypass most of the statute law requirements. The Government could correct this state of affairs by requiring funding agreements in law to include all the historic conditions governing RE.
Most especially, RE in Free schools and academies without a religious designation should follow a locally agreed syllabus. These schools, like the grant maintained schools before them, should participate in their local SACREs. They should also contribute to the funding of their local SACREs and ASCs.
Without steps of this nature the Government’s assurances that RE is required by law will have a somewhat hollow ring. For it is clear that statute law is going to be irrelevant to the growing number of schools which become academies. Moreover, since currently a key role of SACREs is to advise Local Authorities, they will become increasingly irrelevant as more and more schools become academies. Without some intervention, current policies will simply weaken the role of faith communities in society and accelerate the demise of SACREs and ASCs which Gibb rightly praises so warmly.
At a time when the country is still coming to terms with the riots which so damaged our national reputation, some in government and in the nation have voiced the view that they was due to a lack of character and morals in the young. Since the Birmingham Agreed Syllabus is strongly focussed on developing the character of pupils and their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, this is clearly not the moment to be weakening the status of RE, and its associated bodies.