Embracing our religious diversity

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy. By Robert Jackson. RoutledgeFalmer pound;24.99

This book is one of the more valuable recent contributions to RE, although it takes time to get to its real core, which for me came as late as chapter 8 of this 10-chapter volume.

The earlier sections cover selected approaches that have sought prominence over recent years, but the key issue concerns the here and now for all.

That comes in Jackson's robust response to the advice given to the Government by David Hargreaves, when he was chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Hargreaves's diagnosis appears sound enough - namely to find some social cement with which to hold together people from various traditions into one reasonably harmonious society. His proposed remedy, however, Jackson regards as potentially fatal. It is to increase the number of faith schools for those who wish for them, in sufficiently large numbers, and to send all other pupils to what he terms "secular schools" where citizenship would simply replace RE.

Jackson's opposition is forthright. The remedy is not separation, but dialogue. He might have added: "Look across the Atlantic and see the consequences beneath the superficialities, namely a society rapidly coming apart because various sections no longer converse about the things that really matter to them."

The problem is that, for all his experience in education, Hargreaves's knowledge of this subject is frighteningly superficial. India offers a better example than most where "secular" is rightly interpreted to mean, "maintaining impartiality towards different religious and non-religious truth positions".

The purpose of religious education is not to promote faith, but to share it. The community school should be a genuine forum for dialogue. Within that, Jackson argues, religious education continues to supply not only key knowledge and information, but also traditional skills, sometimes in short supply today, such as "stilling", listening and contemplation. This is backed up by many examples of research, such as that being conducted by Julia Ipgrave in Leicester.

Indeed, what this whole book shows is something of the vast range of both large and small research projects going on largely unrecognised, not only by the public, but also by those who ought to know better. It is still the case that even government ministers are inclined to consult church and other religious leaders before they even notice the existence of religious education's professional bodies, advisers and teachers. No other subject suffers these indignities. The word "secular", after all, originally referred to those clergy who were not subject to religious, monastic rule.

All of this relates to England and Wales, but what this book really exposes is the common assumption that RE is peculiar to Britain. The range of Jackson's enquiry extends from Norway to South Africa; from North America to India and Australia. Nevertheless, his main focus is on what is happening in England and Wales in terms of recent major research.

He deals critically with the cultural heritage emphasis of Penny Thompson's recent work, the post-modernist ideas propounded by Clive and Jane Erricker, which have influenced the new Hampshire syllabus (see opposite), and the "Religious Education as Cultural Literacy" project led by Andrew Wright at King's College London. He then deals in detail with his own interpretive and dialogical approaches. All of these are significant in showing the largely unrecognised liveliness of thinking in the British RE world, particularly as it is by no means a fully comprehensive list.

I have just one reservation about the scope of this book - it tends to assume a national picture, with Coventry at its hub. For the past 100 years (the first agreed syllabus was produced in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1902) the subject has operated with strong regional emphases, which may be about to change. All agreed syllabuses now involve concern for religions and not just denominations, but the proportionality differs. For example, Cornwall may have had one of the country's first Muslim RE advisers, but under him it kept the Cornish saints within its syllabus and one cannot imagine Northumberland without Aidan and Cuthbert, or Wales without David.

There are new dimensions to the variety, which has always been the strength of religious education in this country, but some of the old remain potent within their own localities and this needs to be recognised by those who assume big-city life is the norm.

Jack Priestley is honorary research fellow at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning, University of Exeter

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