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Commission on RE debated in the House of Lords

There was a Short Debate in the House of Lords on 17th December on the Commission on RE’s report.  Lord Alderdice secured the debate “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Commission on Religious Education Religion and Worldviews: the way forward, published in September; and whether they intend to publish any response”.

It was a well attended debate with most of the Peers who spoke offering support for the report and the recommendations within it.

The debate came just days after the publication of the Secretary of State’s response to the Commission on RE’s final report.

Lord Alderdice described the Final Report as:

a thoughtful piece of work. In fact, arguably, it is the most substantial piece of work on the issue of religious education in our country since the 1970s.

and stressed that:

If the Government do not deal with [the issues raised by the report] and instead pay attention to a small number of stakeholders, some of whom are fundamentalist in their known perspectives, I guarantee the Minister, the department and the Government that this issue will not go away and those who are determined to promote it will not go away. There will be a substantial campaign by people who say, “These are important issues for our generation and the next, and we will continue to press them”.

I hope that the Minister will take that message back to his colleagues, particularly the Secretary of State. This is important and it is not going to go away.

Lord Stone of Blackheath spoke positively:

I am pleased that this report recommends that children should experience and learn to link the spiritual and the secular and be helped to broaden their world view.

The Lord Bishop of Chichester argued:

It is the Church of England’s hope that this CRE report will contribute to a significant improvement in the delivery of an education in which the skills of religious literacy are a natural and valued element. The urgent need for this has been well stated by the Religious Education Council of England and Wales’s chief executive, Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, when he observes:

“More than ever, as our society becomes multicultural and religious extremism dominates the news agenda, we need young people to be religiously literate”.

Lord Taverne stated:

I welcome this report because it seems right that our approach should be that of a Weltanschauung. I speak as a humanist and atheist. I do not believe in divine revelation or miracles such as the resurrection, but religion plays an important part in our society—often for good, although not always. It is important that we should know about the historic contribution that Christianity has made to our history and culture in Britain, and about the important role of Islam in the Middle East and Asia and, indeed, in today’s Europe. I wish I had learned more about Islam and other religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, at school.

Baroness Bakewell spoke forcefully:

this is a splendid report, and the Government’s response is feeble. The report commands our admiration for its range and thoroughness. It took two years and heard a lot of submissions. It is extremely good: broad-based, understanding and tolerant.

Lord Addington argued:

the report has the right approach: make sure that the people who teach the subject have a good understanding of it; otherwise, you will be trying to push water uphill from a very early point

Lord Watson, the Labour Education spokesman in the Lords was clear:

Religious education is a vital academic subject, providing important knowledge as well as the tools to develop critical thinking and ask informed questions. It is important for pupils to have the opportunity to learn about all faiths and beliefs and to understand the way that these impact on how people view the world.

The commission’s report is the result of two years of consultation and has been widely welcomed, most notably by the Church of England, the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, the National Association of Head Teachers and Humanists UK. We share the view of the National Education Union that it should form the start of a much-needed conversation about the place of religious education in our schools. The report confirmed that the pressures on schools to focus on limited, tested subjects and the shortage of teachers with the appropriate subject knowledge make it difficult to focus on religious education.

There was a note of criticism from Lord Alton of Liverpool who argued:

Religious literacy and understanding of faith and no faith, the honouring of difference, the determination to understand one another and to reconsider bigotry, prejudice and caricatures, must surely be at the heart of how we form tomorrow’s citizens. This will not be achieved by forcing the dilution of religious education—quite the reverse. Damian Hinds, was, therefore, right to tell the admirable chair of the commission, Dr John Hall, that he had heard “concerns” that making statutory the inclusion of world views risked diluting the teaching of RE. The future flourishing of RE will best be achieved by strengthening and adequately resourcing the existing legal arrangements for the Agreed Syllabus Conference, and by supporting the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education.

Lord Agnew of Oulton, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Education spoke for the Government:

We have decided that now is not the time to implement the commission’s ambitious recommendations radically to reform religious education. However, the Government agree that good-quality religious education can develop children’s knowledge of the values and traditions of Britain and other countries. It can foster understanding among different faiths and cultures. It is an essential part of a school’s legal duty to promote young people’s spiritual, moral and cultural development.

The full text of the debate is available here.

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