Religion for a new age

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Most schools fail to provide a daily act of collective worship so perhaps it is time to alter the requirements, writes chief inspector David Bell

The Butler Act, named after RA Butler, the Tory minister of education in the war-time coalition government, was a landmark piece of social and welfare legislation, as well as being designed to address pupils' personal and academic development.

On Wednesday, I addressed an audience of politicians, teachers and the media, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Act, exploring its lasting legacy, and considering the extent to which the education system has met the challenges set 60 years ago.

The Act made it a duty of local education authorities to contribute towards the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community. My speech focused in particular on the physical and spiritual aspects of this duty.

The drills and exercises associated with physical education in 1944 have given way to dance, gymnastics and the study of health and fitness. At the same time, fast-food diets, computer games and television are resulting in many young people living far less physically active and healthy lifestyles.

Consequently, progress on the one hand is being counterbalanced, or worse, cancelled out, by the low levels of fitness and high levels of obesity among the young.

So, is it time to recapture Butler's aspiration for the physical development of pupils and inject more of the "physical" into physical education? Should schools, supported by government, ensure rather than encourage pupils to follow a healthy diet while they are in school; prevent the unnecessary use of computers, and insist that pupils go outside and run around when the weather is fine?

Maybe, just maybe, some features of school life in 1944 were better than they are today.

As for spiritual development, this is one of the most controversial legacies of the Act. In Butler's time, spiritual development was probably considered to be synonymous with the daily act of Christian worship, and this remained largely unquestioned for years.

Butler was unequivocal that the statutory requirement for collective worship, first introduced by his 1944 Act, would be widely welcomed.

However, I struggle, as do my inspectors and most secondary schools, with the requirement that every school day shall include an act of collective worship. What, as a society, do we think about collective worship in non-denominational state schools?

Then there is the issue of the "daily" nature of the requirement. How many people in this country, apart from schoolchildren, are required to attend daily worship? Are we right to be requiring from our young people levels of observance that are not matched even by the Christian faithful?

Would it perhaps be better to encourage an interest in matters of a spiritual and religious nature, which fitted better into the society of which the schools and the pupils are a part? An opportunity to debate and discuss as well as to worship?

We cannot ignore the fact that 76 per cent of our secondary schools are breaking the law by not complying with this statutory requirement. I do not think they do so lightly, and believe that by making the requirement for collective worship weekly, or even monthly, rather than daily, we would immediately and significantly reduce current levels of non-compliance. In the process, we would encourage all of those who participate to do so in a more meaningful way.

This is a serious, complex and sensitive issue, which should be of interest to those of faith and those of no faith because we all have a responsibility to consider how best to cultivate spiritual awareness. That is one of the reasons why I am in no way challenging the importance of religious education as a component of the national curriculum.

Indeed, I welcome the possibility of a national framework for the teaching of religious education as a further contribution to enhancing the role of the subject in the curriculum. Young people must never be denied access to that crucial body of knowledge which is encompassed in religious education.

But I am convinced that we should give this matter further consideration and I hope that my comments will stimulate more thought and debate.

We should celebrate the progress that the education system has made since 1944. Local education authorities, governors, heads, teachers and carers have worked hard and achieved much that is now taken for granted.

Our young people are better educated. They enjoy greater opportunities than ever before and their aspirations are higher than we could have dreamed of when we were their age.

There is, however, a lot still to be done if we are to fulfil the vision for education outlined in the 1944 Act. The Children Bill is about to return the child to centre stage and we must ensure each child has the best possible opportunity to achieve their potential.

It is time now for the generations who have benefited from Butler's visionary thinking to repay their debt to him and seek to improve further the life chances of the generations to come.

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