Religious thinking on same lines

20th February 2004 at 00:00
The commentators who joined in last weekend's brouhaha over proposals from the Institute for Public Policy Research that religious education should include teaching about humanism and other non-religious stances on life, either have short memories or were too young to recall the 1980s. Remember the rows over agreed syllabuses, Birmingham's for example, which 20 years ago were doing, more or less what the IPPR wants? Apparently not.

Canon John Hall, the Church of England's chief education officer, received news of the proposals coolly. "How can RE teachers possibly ignore non-religious stances when all children come to school strongly influenced by our largely secularised society?" he asked.

The Muslim Council of Great Britain was similarly unexcited.

The IPPR may be the Labour Party at thought, but officials were quick to distance the Government from the proposals, whispering hasty reassurances in interested ears.

This is because after much thought and temperature-taking, the Education Secretary has thrown his weight behind the proposed national framework for religious education, due to be published in April. He does not want secular grenades lobbed into the drafting rooms. A government representative at last month's seminar is reported to have told the meeting its proposals were unhelpful.

A national approach to RE has long been seen by the Office for Standards in Education and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and their predecessors as the key to improving standards - a way of bringing into line the 150-plus locally agreed syllabuses through which the subject is currently taught and frequently mis-taught.

Against their efforts were ranged the vested interest of RE inspectors and SACREs, the local bodies which at present agree syllabuses and most of which include humanist representatives. Last autumn, Charles Clarke gave the go-ahead, having, apparently, brought dissenters on board.

The national framework will not have statutory status, though that is the probable long-term goal of most of its supporters. Local authorities will, however, be required to take account of its advice.

The Church of England has said it will regard the framework as a model for its own aided school syllabuses, though the Roman Catholic Church, with more overtly denominational schools, is for the moment, merely a sympathetic observer.

Margaret Holness is the Church Times education correspondent

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