Sarah Smalley on Religious Education in the School Curriculum

galaxy09:20 Monday 17th March 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[A]NDIE HARPER: How important is it for our children to study religious studies at school? An All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education has stated that the subject is essential to teach children in reducing religious misunderstanding and conflict. It follows sharp criticism from the Church of England that the Government doesn’t place enough importance on the subject. So, what do you think? Is there a place for religious education in our schools? I’m joined now by Sarah Smalley from the Religious Council of England and Wales. Sarah, good morning to you.
SARAH SMALLEY: Good morning.
ANDIE HARPER: Now we very much live in a changed world, don’t we Sarah? When I was at school, it wasn’t a church school, neither was my grammar school as it was then, and then neither were the schools I taught in for many many years. But they had assemblies every day. And very often they were nothing more than a cut down version of Church of England services, because everybody in those days in inverted commas was Christian.

SARAH SMALLEY: Well first of all can I just say that we are talking about the lesson of religious education..
SARAH SMALLEY: Assemblies are something a bit different to that.
ANDIE HARPER: Yes, but they set the trend really, didn’t they? You had an assembly, and then you had a lesson, very often, connected.
SARAH SMALLEY: Well as you said, things are different now. Things have changed, and religious education is in some ways s subject in the curriculum like every other subject. And the lesson is really of value to all children, whatever their religious background or non-religious background, because of course many children come from families that have no religious belief, as well as the many who come from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or other backgrounds.
ANDIE HARPER: And when we had R.E., either following assembly or as a stand-alone lesson on its own, it was totally Christian. That was the point I was making really.
ANDIE HARPER: Because we were a Christian country. But now of course there are huge numbers of people with no faith, and of course there are huge numbers of people with different faiths.
SARAH SMALLEY: Absolutely. Yes, the census, the last census, shows that’s as true for Cambridgeshire as it is for any other county in the UK.
ANDIE HARPER: So if we’re going to have a religious studies lesson, religious education, then presumably it does now have to embrace other faiths.
SARAH SMALLEY: Yes. Well that’s been required by law for some time. The 1988 Education Reform Act said that children should learn about Christianity and the other principal religions represented in this country. So we’re talking that’s been the case for twenty five years now. So it is not a very recent change. But i think the thing that we’re much more aware of now is that even though we may all have very different views, very different beliefs about some of the big questions of life, we do all share the same world, the same society. And we need to be able to live harmoniously together. So it’s very important for children and young people to have at least some knowledge about people’s religious and non-religious beliefs, so that they understand where other people are coming from. For instance, there was a news story on the radio earlier this morning about sectarian tensions in the Middle East being fuelled by TV channels that promoted hatred and violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Until very recently we had a similar problem ourselves in Northern Ireland of sectarian hatred and violence. And I think schools offer a safe space where children and young people can talk about these issues, away from any pressures of home or community. They can discuss them dispassionately. They can learn more about them. They can recognise that people in their own class, their own school, or their own community may be from different backgrounds, but we’re all human beings that share the same society. And we need to learn to get on with each other.
ANDIE HARPER: But do you think that telling children in a class about Mohammed, or outlining the basic tenets of Hinduism, do you think that really then goes somewhere towards reducing religious misunderstanding and conflict later in life, and elsewhere in the world? It’s one thing to hear about these religions, and to know how they were formed, and to understand why people in various parts of the world follow different religions, but then is that no more really than just something of interest?
SARAH SMALLEY: I’m not for a minute suggesting that R.E. lessons can solve the problems of all the many conflicts we have in the world. But they help to set an attitude of respect for interest in other people. And it’s useful for many jobs, for instance if you’re in the catering industry, travel and tourism and so on, it’s useful to know about the particular aspects of people’s beliefs that have an influence on what they eat, and what they expect in terms of dress, and so on. So I wouldn’t want to claim that R.E can solve all of those problems, but if young people grow up with an interest in other people, what makes them tick, then that can help.
ANDIE HARPER: There will be people, a huge number of people, who think there are no supreme beings, so there is nobody omnipotent over any religion. Therefore they would think what is the point of telling me all about this, I just think you come onto this earth, you live your life, you go.
SARAH SMALLEY: Yes well of course a large number of people believe that. And they have just as much right to be heard in an R.E. classroom as those who have religious beliefs. But we all share the same society, we all live together, we all work together, we all study together. So we need to understand each other. And for some people that means understanding that they have no religious beliefs, that death is the end, that there’s nobody with a controlling interest in what we do, how we behave. But for others, those things are religious matters of various kinds, and they do have a profound and overwhelming impact on the way they live and what they do.
ANDIE HARPER: It’s been really good to talk to you. Thanks for joining us Sarah.
ANDIE HARPER: That was Sarah Smalley, from the Religious Council of England and Wales.