RE can thrive in asecular classroom

6th June 1997 at 01:00
The Scottish Joint Committee on Religious Education was replaced last autumn by a new Scottish Joint Committee on Religious and Moral Education. The old committee had no written constitution and evolved over a long period, adapting to the winds of change, most notably to the Millar report of 1971 and the subsequent development of religious studies as a subject at Standard grade, Higher and Certificate of Sixth Year Studies.

By contrast, the new committee has a strong rationale, focusing on the new philosophical approach as embodied in the 5-14 programme and, most specifically, in the proposed Higher Still religious, moral and philosophical studies. It contains representatives of the Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu communities as well as of most of the churches, with the important exception of the Roman Catholic Church.

The teacher unions are represented, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, the Association of Teachers of Religious Education in Scotland, the Christian Education Movement, parent organisations, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, lecturers in teacher education institutions, RE advisers and the Scottish Office.

As the new committee came to grips with its remit, its members were tacitly aware that the subject area was in crisis. For a variety of reasons, religious and moral education has a low profile and a low priority with most Scottish teachers. The funding crisis has produced more concentration on "the basics", at the expense not just of religious and moral education but also of environmental studies and expressive arts. Indeed, most Scottish primary schools have only implemented the 5-14 programme in English language and mathematics and the position in S1-S2 is, if anything, even more bleak.

There is widespread misunderstanding of the nature of this new subject area. From 1872 to the mid-1970s, schools provided "religious instruction", and the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 still uses these words. This was understood as concerned with the promotion of Christian doctrine and many teachers were alienated from it. Today religious and moral education is based on a radically different approach.

If the subject area is to flourish, its philosophical and non-proselytising nature must be stressed. To specialist teachers of RE, this will seem like old hat, but for many other teachers it is necessary to emphasise that a fundamental change has taken place and the subject may be honestly tackled by any teacher, including an atheist or agnostic. The subject is, or should be, educational and exploratory, not leading to any particular belief outcome. It is for the pupil, in the course of their "personal search", to decide on the outcome. At a recent meeting of the committee, there was an interesting discussion on whether groups such as Humanists and Unitarians should be invited to take up membership. There was a view, shared rather surprisingly by active church members, that the real philosophical divide in society was between the secular-hedonists (the great majority in Britain) and those who actively sought to explain the conundrums surrounding human existence.

Humanists are included in the latter group because they are concerned with promoting an alternative belief system, one that recognises the extraordinary depth and complexity of the human mind. Humanists are also concerned with the need for moral education, which they relate to concepts such as common humanity, community or good neighbourliness.

This is not to deny that there are genuine concerns surrounding the concept of moral education without any kind of supreme authority. Some of these have been articulated by Steve Bruce, professor of sociology at Aberdeen University, who has argued that New Age philosophy had an ethical vacuum at its heart and that this philosophy provided no guidance on how individuals should conduct themselves.

The immediate issue is whether this debate should be conducted within the new committee or outside it, as some kind of parallel dialogue. There is an equally strong case for inviting the advocates of old-style religious instruction, principally some of the smaller Presbyterian churches, to join the body. If nothing else, future joint committee meetings could be very lively.

* Next week: Elizabeth Templeton of the Christian Education Movement.

Fred Forrester is joint secretary of the Scottish Joint Committee on Religious and Moral Education and deputy general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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