FEfocus Editorial - Livin' on a prayer? In its proper place

22nd October 2010 at 01:00

It is probably appropriate that FE should debate spiritual and moral education just at a time when it will soon be, in the words of Bon Jovi's popular anti-trade-union anthem, livin' on a prayer (pages 4-5). True spirituality often thrives in adversity, and religious observance tends to decline as societies grow richer. So in that respect, faith leaders should rest assured that FE will soon be beating a path to their door. The vows of poverty will be easier to uphold and FE will be slimmed down enough that passing through the eye of a needle will be simplicity itself.

More seriously, many of the representatives of religion seemed to feel beleaguered by an oppressive atheism embodied by the likes of Richard Dawkins. Tahir Alam, chair of the education committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, complained that the UK maintained a strict "dichotomy" between religious and public life, whereas in Muslim countries religion was at the heart of all learning.

At the same time, the debate organisers failed to involve any representatives of secularism. If they had, they might have been able to explain that secularism is not the opposite of religion, but the opposite of theocracy. Freedom from religion is also the guarantor of freedom of religion, in a world of mutually exclusive, competing beliefs.

The argument runs that religion is increasingly a part of students' lives. Well, in some communities, perhaps, but it is clear that religion as a whole is in decline - that is what prompts the angst of the religious leaders and why a presence in the education system is so vital to them, because they have increasingly few opportunities to make contact with young people.

One of the lessons of the debate is that as we try to apportion increasingly scarce resources, factional interests need to be carefully separated from the core concerns of FE. Students need help answering the big questions and gaining a sense of purpose in life, as well as being weighed and measured for the exam system. But religion needs to be kept in its place: every science lesson should not break down into an argument over creationism, for instance.

Not all self-interest is merely self-serving, however. Budget hawks are often dismissive of dire warnings about the consequences of cuts from workers' representatives, just as Jon Bon Jovi reflexively blames the striking union for Tommy's economic plight, and not his bosses who, after all, are one half of the negotiation. They get the confidence to do this because when they make cuts, the system does not grind to a halt straight away. But cuts do not cause instant collapses - they create steady erosion.

Teachers have larger classes, work longer hours, have less time with each student. Something has to give, and who will blame them if discussions about the big questions of morality and ethics, to give just two examples, go out the window in the haste to complete the next module in time?

Ironically, for a Government supposedly set against a target culture, it risks perpetuating one by default simply because there will be little time or money for anything but the production line of qualifications. While the education system needs to be about something more than preparing students to be cogs in the economic machinery, to achieve that it also needs money.

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