Alice McNeill is Head of Theology at Ampleforth College and the Chair of the Independent Schools Religious Studies Association.
Education in England has always been intertwined with religion, and yet this year we are facing some fundamental decisions about the place of religion in schools. France and the US have adopted models of education where religion has no place within the school curriculum; this very different approach gives rise to the question: what place does religion have in twenty first century schools? Students being posed with some of the biggest theological and philosophical questions, expressing their views, responding in considered and non-judgemental ways is, to my mind an essential part of education. Ever popular, Religious Studies allows students to question, to wonder and to think deeply about perennial issues.
The antidote to radicalisation, extremism and diminishing British Values is, perhaps ironically, the championing of faith schools, collective worship, and as an academic subject, Religious Studies. Religious Studies is at the centre of education in a Faith School, academically rigorous, non-confessional, and, essentially, open-minded. Burying ones’ head in the sand, and pretending that religion is neither important nor interesting would be paving the way for a further Trojan Horse scandal and opening the door to ill-considered and dangerous fundamentalism. Religious Studies was made compulsory in the wake of World War Two, precisely because it forces one to confront questions and because it engenders respect for religion and differing worldviews to one’s own.
Faith schools are treasure troves which are frequently known for academic excellence. The reason for this is often put down to the strong ethos rooted in a shared sense of purpose and identity which comes from the long tradition to which faith schools belong. The Benedictines and the Jesuits are synonymous with educational traditions spanning one and a half millennia in the case of the former and a well-established educational system in the case of the latter. Faith Schools have an ethos which one simply cannot transfer to an exclusively secular setting, the way that the ethos imbues the everyday lives of the students is intangible but obvious to any visitor. The sense of identity, values, purpose therefore, are key elements of faith schools, but more than this, and so often misunderstood, is that Faith Schools look outwards, not inwards. They epitomise tolerance and respect, because they champion the study and understanding of religion, and without Religious Studies, it would be hard to see how British Values could find any other home in the curriculum.