They should practise what they preach;Platform;Opinion

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Religious and moral education continues to be deprived of its 'fundamental place' in the curriculum, says Bruce Wallace

NOT AGAIN, please. "Secondary schools and education authorities should ensure that religious and moral education courses at all stages receive appropriate allocations of time," we are told in Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools. How often have we to hear this plaint? The Millar report in 1972 was only the first of many official documents to say this.

As recommendations go, it is pretty modest. But will education authorities and schools do it? What's wrong? Is it the advice, or headteachers and education officers displaying a sluggish mixture of incompetence and prejudice? Maybe it's the politicians. But it was a Labour Secretary of State, Willie Ross, who called for the Millar report.

Paradoxically, the Tories did most to advance that report. In the former Lothian Region, no Labour politician was prepared to chair the advisory committee on religious and moral education. The honour went to a Conservative who was also a priest. George Foulkes, education convener at the time, launched this hybrid body of political and official interests, then folded his arms, closed his eyes and took no further part. A veritable parable.

George Younger, the Conservative Secretary of State, acted decisively in 1980 by lifting the bar on inspection of religious subjects by HMI. Douglas Osler, now HMSCI, was the first inspector charged with responsibility for the subject. Successive Conservative ministers continued developments. I did myself no favours by criticising in these columns some of their pronouncements. It led, I believe, to one HMI accusing me in a working group of "importing your socialist views into the curriculum". This was in response to my suggesting that power was linked to justice, and that revolution might be the only alternative left to people trapped in a system beyond reform. I later learnt that my accuser also thought I bore a remarkable resemblance to Lenin. I suppose being bald and bearded were the required performance indicators.

One problem with religious and moral education is its ineffectiveness. Thirty years ago, when Christianity was more or less the one religion of offer, RE was said to be failing because it was about other people in other places at other times. Well, substituting a plurality of faiths is not the answer. For the vast majority of pupils religions are always about other people in other places, even if they are now contemporary.

In this process, however, religious and moral education became another social subject. It lost the distinctiveness that led the Munn report to affirm in the seventies that religion and morality were separate modes - although they immediately became one for political (conservative with small c) reasons. The danger now is that it will be carved up again: one slice to soothe the troubled environmental studies, and the other into the maw of values education.

The 5-14 guidelines have not helped. Even HMI talks about the learning outcomes as Christianity, other world religions and personal search. Inspectors say that 70 per cent of primary schools need to raise attainment in other world religions. The learning outcomes, however, are actually knowledge and understanding, skills and attitudes in relation to these three areas.

In religious and moral education, progression to be by accumulation, usually of dead weight; pupils can't do anything with most of the data. Some outcome. Progression requires development of skills, attitudes and understanding as well as accumulation of knowledge.

Research I undertook indicated strongly that pupils in primary 6 and primary 7 who learnt more about specific religious traditions found religion in general less relevant. Not surprising news, perhaps, but new, I hope, for the inspector who reportedly told an infant teacher she should be providing a more structured study of world religions. Covering festivals and other items in the national guidelines was not, apparently, sufficient. And I don't think HMI had in mind the development of skills and attitudes. Who, may we ask, is assessing the standards and quality of HMI?

It is eight years since the Secretary of State offered clear advice about the extent to which provision should be made to satisfy religious and moral education's "fundamental place" in the curriculum, 17 since Mr Osler started inspecting religious subjects, 22 since Munn made his recommendations and 27 since the Millar report. Advice has been fairly consistent over the period, and it is still not implemented.

Does it really matter what HMI says? Is it all PR and slogans? Whatever spin is put on the standards and quality report, it makes grim reading. Given the paucity of the Scottish education establishment's response to religious and moral education, why should anyone believe it can respond to its other exhortations?

If it's true that schools aren't getting language and maths right, what chance is there for anything else? I suspect religious and moral education has not had "the attention and facilities it merits" because of a conspiracy of interest among the big players in Scottish education, whose careerists have gone along with whatever is fashionable, politically correct, expedient or intellectually undemanding.

For the record, my politics are in damage limitation mode, hoping for social justice and practical solutions to intractable human problems. The guidelines say pupils should learn to appreciate fairness and honesty, but more than appreciation of these moral qualities I am looking for their enactment, especially by politicians, civil servants, education authority officers and headteachers.

Dr Bruce Wallace, formerly adviser in religious and moral education for Lothian Region, is now an educational consultant.

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