Worship cannot be taught

19th July 1996 at 01:00
Joe Walker says schools should be left to get on with the moral dimension.

They are at it again down south. The Archbishop and his Sir GalaHoward are out to slay the monster of moral relativism. From that bastion of social equality, the Upper House, Archbishop George Carey has roused their lordships to ask just what is in religious education anyway. Dr Carey calls for improved morals and joins the chorus putting this task on to already buckling teachers. Dr Carey plugged the Government's view on religious education, and then went on to cry for more school worship, which the Government rather kindly took on board. Ministers promised an immediate crackdown on schools that neglect compulsory worship.

What has this got to do with the Scone-stone wielding bravehearts? Simple, sooner or later someone will extend the argument to Scotland. So let's be clear: religious education in Scotland is not school worship. Religious education and religious observance are not bedfellows, as Dr Carey seems to believe. Let there be no confusion. Religious education in Scotland's non-denominational schools is not a handmaiden to or an extension of compulsory worship.

Every time there is a moral hiccup in England, and increasingly here, everyone asks what the schools are doing. "Do more religious education and football hooliganism will fade away." Please do join us on planet earth. In case colleagues here wonder what Scottish RE teachers have to say, let's get out of the realms of righteous indignation from their lordships and spell it out yet again. Religious education in Scotland has a role in moral education to be sure. It is not the only provider of moral education by any means, but we have developed some expertise in the academic and objective study of morality.

Religious education in Scotland has the opportunity to give moral thinking a special focus in a school while recognising that moral education stems from the ethos of a school, and within other subjects as the need arises. How many biology teachers can avoid moral discussions? We see this, however, as quite distinct from worship in school. That is a whole-school issue, and should be decided by the whole-school community, legal requirements notwithstanding.

The Association of Teachers of Religious Education in Scotland has forged good links with other interested bodies in this area, including the Scottish Humanist Association (who says that morality has to be linked to religion?) and we are working hard to ensure that all moral education is firmly rooted in objective enquiry. We believe that moral education is of vital importance in the school curriculum, and while it won't change the world overnight, it is at least sowing the right seeds. Scottish schools have a variety of courses on offer looking at moral issues. Indeed one-fifth of the Standard grade religious studies course is concerned with nothing but. Short courses and modules abound in the area, and the 5-14 programme, for all its many faults, raises spiritual and moral questions galore.

Teachers of religious education, indeed, most Scottish teachers, are (as I am sure most English teacher are too) keenly aware of their role in raising moral awareness. There are those who think that proponents of arguments such as mine would have pupils flopping around in a moral mire, sinking while their teachers sacrifice on the altar of pure objectivity. We know that the delivery of moral education in schools cannot be value free, but we like to think that we make that clear to our pupils, and enquire along with them as well as leading them - not merely instructing them as it often seems our Government would wish.

Meanwhile, what are our newly morally aware ministers up to? The plug has been pulled on the local authorities. Advisers in religious and moral education are few and far between. Novices and virgins in the field of moral education are more and more left unsupported by those with expertise in the area. Teachers, while still expected to up the moral tone of the nation, are expected to do so in less time, with fewer resources, greater class sizes and collapsing morale brought about by wondering how we are going to get through the latest round of cuts.

You can understand the Government backing Dr Carey in his call for more worship - implementing that little nugget of social control won't cost anything. What if he had called for more teachers of religious and moral education or a strengthening of religious and moral education support services. Doubtless it would then have been a return to business as usual between the Government and the Church of England, the former telling the latter to keep out of politics. In this case, the call for a dose of old-time religion is OK for the moral right (pun intended).

There are many other questions which could be asked, like which version of Dr Carey's morality exactly? When calling for social justice in the inner city or when wincing away from enquiry into the love life of the royals? Besides which, this argument for daily worship to cure all social ills might cut less ice when one remembers that Parliament itself begins with a daily act of worship (manners forbid the drawing of unfavourable parallels). I am sure that our colleagues in England are heartened that Dr Carey has raised awareness of the need for good moral education in schools, it is just a pity that he fudged it with his own vested interests.

Before there is a flood of similar righteous indignation here, let's just tidy up the distinctiveness of our own situation. I reiterate: teachers of religious and moral education in Scotland work well with a wide spectrum of groups, religious and otherwise, in promoting and delivering good, balanced non-directive (as far as that is possible) moral education. The extent to which morals in society can be improved or even influenced greatly by schools is a debate for those more learned than me, but several things are clear.

If you think that moral and spiritual development will come automatically from enforced school worship of the nice Christian type, then perhaps you should think again. Even those who support compulsory worship are aware of its limitations. If you think that religious and moral education is in some way openly or sneakily linked to religious observance and collective worship, then you should think again. I would not dream of speaking for my counterparts in England, but it is certainly not the case in Scotland.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, for teachers of religious and moral education and indeed all teachers in Scotland, moral development is a valid function of schools and can take place in schools, but not when, at every budget round, rugs of support are being pulled away from the teachers who can help it to happen. If the Government is so concerned with the development of moral education in schools then perhaps, and no other cliche is up to the job, it should put its money where its mouth is: back into the local authorities and back into schools to allow us to do the job which we are actually very good at.

That means producing young people who not only pass exams but are rounded individuals ready to take their place in society with a balanced view of right and wrong. Schools can play a major part in moral development, but we have to be allowed to do our job without bearing the brunt of others' failures in producing brave new worlds.

Joe Walker is head of religious studies at Liberton High School, Edinburgh, and secretary of the Association of Teachers of Religious Education in Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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