There are few topics more divisive than religion; it deals with difficult subject matter that often readily brings forward strong opinions. The division is felt strongly in many cultures around the world, including in England, where there are divided opinions over whether or not education and religion should be so closely linked.
Under the Equality Act 2010, religion is a protected characteristic. While nobody is saying that a person should change their beliefs, perhaps it’s time to recognise the division. For a long time, the division has not impacted religion’s place in the English school system, but should that change?
Religious Education in Schools Today
For some people, the close link between religion and education in English schools may come as a surprise. The prominence of religion in education does not just impact the pupils that attend one of the 6,814 state-funded English faith schools. Currently, religion is on the curriculum and part of everyday life for many students in England.
The National Curriculum – which most state schools follow – stipulates that schools must teach religious education at every key stage level, making religion a statutory part of education in English schools. However, unlike most other classes, parents can choose whether or not their children are taught about religion, while students over the age of 18 are able to withdraw themselves. Currently, students under 18 cannot voluntarily withdraw themselves from religious education.
As well as being a statutory part of the curriculum, religion is often also part of everyday life at school, particularly in the form of collective worship. Every maintained school (schools that receive funding from a local education authority) in England and Wales, is required to promote spiritual development and provide daily collective worship. The daily worship, which is outlined in the Education Reform Act 1988, must be mainly or wholly Christian, as to reflect the traditions in England and Wales.
England has a predominantly Christian population, which, as of the 2011 census, makes up 59.4% of the population. While this goes some way to explain the promotion of mainly or wholly Christian values and the close link between religion and education, what about the other 40.6% that don’t have such values? Should religion be so heavily linked to education when almost a quarter of the population have no religious beliefs?
Should Religious Education be Optional?
There are many arguments in support of making religion an optional part of the curriculum, and part of school life in general. One argument is that the government’s stand on religion and education is in breach of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that every person has a right to freedom of religion, conscience and thought. This also includes the right not to practice a religion, which is in contrast to the mandatory collective worship in English schools.
Many schools in the UK are beginning to support a reduction in the link between religion and education. In 2017, a council in London was the first in England to encourage schools to hold assemblies that weren’t centred around religion. Some schools have also stopped teaching religious education altogether, despite it being against the law.
By giving students the choice to opt in or out of religious studies, not just their parents, it gives them the opportunity to express their own views and choose whether religion should be an aspect of their personal education experience. Only by giving students the choice, can we really determine how many students want to be taught so extensively about religion.
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