Fostering respect for diversity in a climate of fear and misunderstanding – the case for a religious education

October 16, 2017

I recently woke up to the horrifying news that over a quarter of British people hold anti-semitic attitudes. It is hard to believe these hateful attitudes could be possible when there is still living memory of World War II atrocities. I hosted a lecture recently in which Arek Hersh MBE, a Holocaust survivor, held up his tattooed number on his forearm in front of 200 silent sixth formers. A rare and visceral experience that I am sure will stay with those teenagers for the rest of their lives. I reflected that those students were lucky to have had this experience, to have had the abhorrence and the danger of anti-semitism highlighted to them through a survivor’s story. With time for these experiences inside the RS classroom and outside it ebbing away, perhaps the increase in religious prejudice and discrimination is unsurprising. Not all teenagers have the opportunity to think about the persecution of religious groups in school. Shockingly, now not all teenagers even have the opportunity to study religion. Although the subject still has protected status, without renewed emphasis on the importance of religious literacy, the opportunity to combat these attitudes could be lost as the subject is subsumed by other curricular subjects. Pressure to fully resource only EBacc subjects means that some schools have no choice but to sacrifice time for RS. This is having disastrous consequences for religious literacy. Put simply, without the RS classroom, there is nowhere with the remit to challenge the religious intolerance which students come across in the press, social media or other seemingly authoritative voices within society.


Religious Studies is the only subject to truly focus on our shared humanity. This is the most effective antidote I can think of for schools to combat hatred, prejudice and bigotry, wherein extremism and vulnerability to radicalisation may flourish. Religious Studies celebrates the diversity of peoples, societies, cultures and beliefs. The only thing which is not tolerated is a lack of tolerance, and the only rule is mutual respect. It is the only school subject to focus entirely on what it means to be human. Too often, there is the mistaken view that Religious Studies only focuses on religion, when in fact atheism and agnosticism are given equal respect and time to other world views. 


The misapprehension that Religious Studies is the preserve of religious institutions, that the subject should languish in only the most traditional schools is growing in momentum. Attempts have been made to label the subject as indoctrination by those that would like it taken off the syllabus, when in fact the opposite is the case. Religious Studies teachers are highly trained and are at pains to ensure that open-mindedness and mutual respect are the watchwords of their classrooms. Having taught the subject for fourteen years in two completely contrasting schools, one very traditional, the other very liberal, I can see how imaginations ignite, discussions flow, and respect develops mainly because of, not in spite of, the diversity of views that are aired. 


Without the Religious Studies classroom, it is hard to see how our British Values can be embedded. Of course, all schools have their own ethos and values, and opportunities for assemblies and discussions, but without dedicated time given to understanding what different people believe and to discussing what that might mean for the individual and one’s community, it is hard to see how students would be able to engage with those questions. The current trend is towards the secular in education in schools, as can also be seen in governmental reports and white papers. Values education with the specific aim of countering any kind of religious extremism has become the preserve of the RS classroom, and this last bastion must be protected.


This is a debate of vital importance in the context of the review of the 1944 Education Act, curriculum reform, and the prospect of ‘forced academisation’. The prevalence of the ‘none’ (the demographic group professing to have no religious belief) amongst millennials, aggressive secularism, the false dichotomy which is gathering pace between the sciences and the humanities and consequent competition between the two, added to the metanarratives evolving about religion, leave a potential vacancy within the curriculum for debate and teaching about values, faith and religion, and the attendant need to challenge received ideas. In an indisputably and unalterably utilitarian education system, there is stronger a case than ever for making space for religion within the curriculum in order to avoid a rootless youth, a decontextualized value system and fertile ground for extremist religious mentalities.


Alice McNeill is Head of Partnerships at Bedales School and also Chair of the Independent Schools Religious Studies Association (ISRSA) whose annual conference, “Shared Humanity”, takes place on 6 November 2017.

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