The story of the beautiful but poor Cinderella ends with her change of status by marriage to the handsome prince. Religious education has often seen itself as Cinderella. Who then has the glass slipper?
Terence Copley, recently appointed to the chair of religious education at the University of Exeter, tells the story of his subject in the 50 years between 1944 and 1994. In the early days the prince seems to have taken the unlikely form of Rab Butler, war-time cabinet minister in charge of education. Copley's engaging account mentions a conversation between the enigmatic Butler and Winston Churchill who, lying in bed with a cat at his feet, accuses Butler of doing less for the war effort than the somnolent moggie.
Similar details bring the whole history to life. We are led into the House of Commons as what became the 1944 Act is debated. The pages of Hansard speak again. Each decade is preceded by a sketch of the social background against which education in general and RE in particular is being conducted. Short haircuts are replaced by the collar-length styles of Teddy boys; the divorce rate climbs in the 1950s; liberalisation occurs in the 1960s; church attendance declines, and so on.
In the early post-war years we see a subject that is bible-based and central to the educational vision of the time. As we reach the mid-1950s, survey evidence shows that despite its legal status, RE is failing to make an impact on the minds of pupils. They are grossly ignorant of quite simple biblical content.
In the 1960s, Harold Loukes and Ronald Goldman suggested that the methods of RE were inadequate. As society changes its ethnic composition, the content of RE shifts from being biblical and ethical to being multi-religious and focused on contemporary communities of believers.
If Copley has a thesis it is that RE cannot dissociate itself from its larger social and cultural context. Whatever the legislators may believe and do, what happens in the classroom reflects the religiosity - or otherwise - of the populace. Yet this thesis is open to the subsidiary proposition that small and articulate groups can change the course of legislation to foist their own opinion on others.
The wheeling and dealing behind the 1988 Education Reform Act may be susceptible to this interpretation. Individuals play their part, but if they cannot change the consensus, then their efforts amount to very little. Attempts to make RE more Christian fail, in the end, through lack of resources, through attempts to find loopholes in the law and through the pressure of the all-powerful national curriculum. Indeed, Kenneth Baker, a high Anglican friendly to a revamped Christian RE, perhaps incited by sceptical officials, makes the mistake of putting RE in the "basic curriculum" rather than the national curriculum.
Yet the achievement of RE over 50 years is to survive this sort of treatment and to emerge with professional competence in today's classrooms. Told in this way it is a story that is strong in description, but weaker in the analysis of religion's claims to truth or its particular fascination.
And does the story end happily? Well, this evocative and perceptive text suggests why, even when more than one Cabinet minister offers her his hand, Cinderella cannot afford the clothes that adorn her ugly sisters.
William K Kay is senior research fellow at Trinity College, Carmarthen