Georgia L Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.
If the average British citizen has any formal connection with religion, it is usually via occasional rites of passage or increasingly secularised holidays.
A 2014 YouGov survey found that a measly ten er cent of Brits confessed to religion playing a ‘very important’ part in their lives.
While many faith-based communities persist, and the religious roots of our culture are never far from the surface, for most of Britain transcendent faith is no longer understood, never mind adhered to.
At first glance, this might seem surprising. After all, teaching Religious Education (RE) is a legal requirement in English schools. Maintained schools are statutorily obliged to teach it, while academies and free schools are contractually required in their funding agreements. Faith schools must follow the national curriculum but are permitted to choose their own RE topics.
The subject also remains popular, with analysis released this week by the RE Policy Unit demonstrating a 50 per cent uptick in A-level entries for the subject since 2003, beating the more traditional humanities options of Geography and History.
This is against the backdrop of RE receiving no subject-specific funding from 2016 to 2021. During the same period, £387 million was allocated to music projects, £154 million to maths projects, £56 million to science projects, £28.5 million to English projects, and £16 million to languages projects. It is time the Government put RE on an even keeling with such disciplines.
Worryingly, 500 secondary schools are still reporting zero hours of RE provision in Year 11. Meanwhile, at a time when the Government is pushing schools to join multi-academy trusts, approximately 34 per cent of current academies report no timetabled RE classes.
The 2021 Ofsted research review also identified barriers to high-quality RE teaching, which included an insufficient supply of properly well-equipped teachers.
Syllabi for the most popular RE qualifications, GCSEs, also routinely allow students to study just two religions to pass their exams, hardly amounting to an in-depth exploration of global spirituality.
As Ofsted guidance stresses, RE “affords students the opportunity to make sense of their own place in the world”, and it is hard to disagree with their point.
In light of increasingly polarised political debates, surely the school children set to come of age in this fractious landscape deserve to benefit from the millennia of ethical reflection offered by religious perspectives?
A familiarity with faith is also crucial in light of growing issues of religious extremism. Despite the growing presence of far-right ideologies, Islamist extremism remains the dominant terror threat in the United Kingdom.
As Dr Rakib Ehsan, a social cohesion expert, told me, a broad RE curriculum “has the potential to cultivate social trust and mutual respect between young British people of different religious backgrounds,” including those across all groups who may be at risk of falling prey to extremism.
He also emphasised the possibility of interfaith cohesion through such a curriculum, stating that:
“There is much common ground to be struck when it comes to the family-oriented and community-spirited values that can be found under various belief systems.”
Surely secular and faith schools alike would benefit from a well-rounded education in the religions that have and continue to shape Britain and the world? As Camille Paglia, the atheist art scholar, stresses, religions represent “the metaphysical system that honours the largeness of the universe…. Without it, culture would revert to fear and despair.”
As a religious person I obviously appreciate the value of some doctrines in and of themselves. But surely regardless of one’s personal beliefs, an academic acquaintance with religion is essential to a balanced perspective?
This is particularly true when it comes to confronting history. How can one accurately study slavery and its opponents in Europe, for example, without grappling with the classical doctrine of “natural slaves”? The evangelism of the abolitionist Clapham Sect? The Catholic scholasticism that underpinned the Valladolid debates of sixteenth-century Spain?
The STEM obsession of successive Conservative governments has probably not helped the fate of RE, nor has it uniquely impacted it. All three English A-level courses saw entries fall by one fifth between 2016 and 2019, while STEM entries grew by the same proportion.
This followed the spurious claim, made by then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan in Autumn 2014, that it “couldn’t be further from the truth,” that arts and humanities subjects are useful.
While this is blatantly not the case when it comes to understanding art, culture and history at the least, these claims fail to line up even with purely material considerations. Indeed, the average post-graduation salaries of arts students are similar to their STEM counterparts.
It is an act of historical and social vandalism to dismiss the role of religion in Britain and beyond. The study of religion has just as much a place in the curriculum as maths, science, or other humanities subjects.
It is time schooling began to reflect the importance of religious studies, rather than pitting valuable disciplines against each other.