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Call for faith lessons at three

The RE Council warns that the decline in religious studies plays into the hands of extremists. Graeme Paton reports

Children as young as three would receive specialist RE tuition under a Pounds 100 million strategy designed to combat extremism which is outlined today.

The RE Council for England and Wales has told the Government that the time is right for a bold strategic initiative following the July bombings in London.

"It is educationally necessary in its own right and it is also crucial in a direct response to 77," the council said.

Labour has already shown huge support for faith schools.

The RE Council's proposals include improved teacher training and resources, similar to other multi-million pound government-led drives to boost foreign languages and music standards.

It also wants academies, the new independent state schools, to be forced to follow RE syllabuses, closing a loophole allowing them to opt out because they do not have to follow the national curriculum. The recommendations have the backing of all faiths, including Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups, as well as minority religions, such as Jainism.

A document from the council, submitted last week to Lord Adonis, the schools minister, says religion "remains a potent force in society both for good and sometimes ill".

But the council, which represents more than 50 religious groups, says that at schools RE has been relegated to a "mere reminder from another century".

It says that such ignorance plays into the hands of extremists who are able to attract people to private faith schools, free of government regulation. "Many faith community members have concerns about how their faith is portrayed and treated in community schools," says the strategy.

"This undoubtedly leads to greater pressure for having their own school, either inside or if necessary outside the state maintained system. In either case, there is a significant risk that the RE becomes narrow and sectarian."

The RE Council believes better teaching at the foundation stage, combined with intensive RE training for all primary teachers, should be central to a proposed pound;100m reform of the subject. Its national strategy also recommends allowing secondary teachers to desert non-shortage subjects to teach RE and better training for headteachers and governors, saying senior managers can be "uninformed" or "personally negative" towards the subject.

The Government is expected to meet the council to draw up a funding agreement before Christmas. It will represent a major leap for Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, who has been reluctant to show public support for RE following controversy surrounding her association with Opus Dei, the secretive Roman Catholic sect. By comparison, Charles Clarke, her predecessor, and a known atheist, was quick to push for reform, demanding the draft of the first national syllabus for RE.

RE is one of the fastest growing subjects, with 147,516 pupils sitting a full GCSE this summer and 253,423 taking a short course. But Ofsted has serious concerns over the state of RE teaching, which is compulsory but does not feature in the national curriculum, being left to individual council areas to produce their own syllabuses.

Last year David Bell, the chief inspector, said that many secondaries were breaking the law by failing to teach RE at key stage 4. Ofsted also said there was less specialised teaching in RE than any other subject and the quality of the 150 local syllabuses in England differed hugely.

The first voluntary national framework for RE, ordered by Mr Clarke, was published last year to bring more parity to standards, but critics say it lacked teeth. The RE Council says the national strategy will build on its foundations.

Professor Brian Gates, chairman of the RE Council, denied the timing of the strategy was opportunist and played on fears over religious extremism following the July bombings in London.

"We have not changed our tune over the years, we have been singing the same song for many decades, but it is only now people are coming around to our way of thinking," he said.

Schools that attract a racially diverse mix of students should get extra funds and catchment areas should be redrawn to lift racial barriers, according to Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality.


Blair's new term 17 Letters 26


* Boost in-service training for RE teachers and non-subject specialists.

* New teaching resources linked to the RE national framework.

* More RE teaching for foundation-age pupils.

* Improved RE tuition for trainee primary teachers.

* Better subject enhancement courses for secondary teachers without a religious studies or theology degree and a training route for non-RE teachers wishing to teach the subject.

* Accredited RE modules in all 14-19 vocational courses.

* Academies to be forced to follow local RE syllabuses.

* Improved guidance on RE for heads and governors.

* More links between schools and other groups, including churches, to help develop the strategy.

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