Faith-based academies should abandon religious education, instead adapting the entire curriculum to reflect the values and priorities of their particular religion, according to a leading atheist philosopher of education.
In an article published last month in the Journal of Philosophy of Education, Michael Hand, professor of philosophy of education at the University of Birmingham, points out that, unlike maintained schools, academies are not required to teach the national curriculum.
But, Hand says, while religious organisations have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to lead academy chains, "they have to date shown markedly less interest in the other striking opportunity afforded by the academies policy: the opportunity to rethink the school curriculum.
"Whatever it is that religious organisations hope to achieve by taking on greater operational responsibility for schools, curriculum change does not seem to be high on the agenda."
Hand challenges these organisations to "exercise their freedom from the national curriculum, and to develop their own religiously distinctive curricula ... informed by their specific conceptions of human flourishing".
As long as faith schools aim to instil a set of religious beliefs in pupils via RE lessons and collective worship, their opponents - such as Hand himself - can denounce them as indoctrinatory. Eschewing this form of religious education would therefore rescue faith schools from such charges.
Hand suggests that the role of any school curriculum is to initiate children into intrinsically worthwhile activities. These, he says, are "the sort of activities people engage in not just for instrumental reasons, such as wanting to earn money or lose weight, but because the activities themselves are ... in some way important or valuable".
As for which activities religious organisations would designate most worthwhile, Hand says: "It is hard to believe that a respectable theological account of what matters most in human life would find the subjects of the conventional academic curriculum to be the worthwhile activities of greatest value."
Instead, he proposes two examples of the types of activities that faith-based academies may want to include in their new curricula.
First, he points out that religion tends to assign high intrinsic value to "inquiry into the meaning of life. By this I mean an existentially engaged search for meaning and value, a form of inquiry ... into the significance, origin and purpose of human existence.
"Religious believers characteristically hold ... that human fulfilment (or salvation, or enlightenment) involves apprehending and acting on these answers."
In 1998, George Carey (pictured), who was then Archbishop of Canterbury, stated that education was about "forming people ... who are not reduced to inarticulate embarrassment by the great questions of life and death". Similar sentiments were expressed in 2010 by Trevor Cooling, director of the National Institute for Christian Education Research.
But Hand insists there is little evidence that pupils in church schools spend any more time grappling with such questions than their peers elsewhere.
Second, religious organisations typically place great value on what Hand terms "forms of service". This includes any activity with the primary purpose of giving help, relief or comfort to others, such as offering peer support, visiting the elderly or preparing food for the homeless.
Hand is eager to point out that such service is not exclusive to the religious ("though ... perhaps it is psychologically more plausible to privilege altruistic motivation in human life if one takes human beings to be created in the image of the divine").
Equally, he adds, it does to an extent already exist in UK schools. However, it features much less prominently in the British curriculum than it does in US schools. Even citizenship lessons tend to focus on the politics of social action, rather than on service for its own sake.
But his new curriculum, Hand says, would allow for a subtler form of religious indoctrination than the RE-and-collective-worship model.
"A child whose education powerfully brings home to her the intrinsic value of inquiry into the meaning of life and forms of service may be more inclined to adopt a specific conception of human flourishing that gives priority to these activities," he says. "Any curriculum which includes some, but not all, worthwhile activities will be more congruent with some world views than others."
ACADEMIES HAVE DIFFERENT MASTERS
The government's academies programme claims to offer schools autonomy, but in fact it simply transfers responsibility for school management from local authorities to sponsors, Michael Hand claims.
The University of Birmingham professor points out that, while ministers extol school autonomy and headteacher freedom, they also advocate new "academy chains", with several schools overseen by "strong and experienced sponsors".
A 2010 Department for Education White Paper stated that "chains can support schools to improve more rapidly". And, Hand says, it then went on to praise the Harris Federation for its improvement of nine underperforming schools in South London. "The model of multiple schools managed, regulated and branded by a sponsoring organisation stands in stark contrast with the model of autonomous schools to which decision-making power has been devolved," he adds.
Religious organisations have responded eagerly to the opportunity to expand their roles in leading and managing schools. For example, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has said that he can imagine a middle-term future in which the Church of England could be the largest sponsor and provider of secondary education in the UK. And, in January this year, the Methodist Church established an umbrella trust for all its academies and free schools.
Professor Hand concludes: "Notwithstanding the rhetoric of autonomy and devolution ... the government's academies policy may be less about liberating schools from external control than about transferring operational responsibility for chains of schools from one type of organisation to another.
"Among the parties standing ready to inherit the mantle of responsibility from local authorities are religious organisations."
Hand, M. "A New Dawn for Faith-Based Education? Opportunities for religious organisations in the UK's new school system" (2012). Journal of Philosophy of Education 46 (4), 546-59
Professor Michael Hand, University of Birmingham: bit.lyWaVvxO
Journal of Philosophy of Education: bit.lyfoQpjc.