Audiences may no longer understand Monty Python’s Life of Brian because of the biblical references.
Show Hide image

Why religious education is letting our children down

Religious illiteracy leads to an anxiety about the role of religion in the public sphere: from fear of terrorism to fear of exclusion and fear of litigation.

Last weekend my sister recounted a story of a friend of hers who had been “freaked out” by a seemingly sadistic birthday present she had received from her boyfriend.

“He got me this lovely necklace, but it had some dude hanging from a cross on it,” she said.

“That’s not some dude,” my sister replied, deadpan. “That’s Jesus!”

Although my sister’s friend might appear unique in her ignorance, this vignette actually fits neatly within a wider trend. Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s head of religion and ethics, has recently expressed concern that the UK is so religiously illiterate that he fears audiences would not understand Monty Python’s Life of Brian because of the biblical references.

Of course, if the scale of religious illiteracy meant little more than a failure to understand jewellery and 1970s comedy, there would be no issue. But billions of people around the world are religious, despite the assumptions of secularity.

On top of this, religion also plays an important role in social action and welfare service delivery. The Church of England alone claims to serve 10 million people through its community activities – and that doesn’t factor in the help that people get from their local mosques, temples and syangogues.

Religion also permeates news headlines and world affairs: the Pope’s visit to Asia, tragedies such as 9/11, the murder of Lee Rigby, the persecution of religious minorities, or reports of Britons fighting with Islamic State. All of these are news stories that are informed by religion.

Religious illiteracy is responsible for a failure to understand and appreciate the power of religion. It leads to an anxiety about the role of religion in the public sphere: from fear of terrorism to fear of exclusion and fear of litigation. These fears flared up again during the so-called Trojan horse and gay cake sagas.

In a series of projects over the last decade, we have found, here at the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, that a better understanding of the real religious landscape will result in better public services and culture.

In light of these issues, it is especially worrying, if not surprising, that Ofsted has claimed more than half of schools are failing students on religious education (RE). It is in the context of these issues that we are undertaking a new project called RE for Real. This will explore what school leavers really need to know and understand about religion and belief in the contemporary world.

We need a newly invigorated national conversation around the future of religious education in the UK, one that addresses the lack of clarity about how and where learning about religion and belief should take place, what it should consist of, and what it should be for.

I believe that schools can and should play a crucial role in shaping how young people engage with the presence and diversity of religion and belief in the world around them. But the only way to enable them to do this is if we garner the views of teachers, parents, pupils and employers about what sorts of knowledge and skills school leavers should develop about religion and belief.

This is a real time of religious crisis in the UK. Our children cannot continue to be let down by having a poor religious context. In the UK, where we celebrate the vitality of a diverse life, we need to talk about religion more, and provide our children with the best religious education.

Professor Adam Dinham is Director of the Faith and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Professor of Faith and Public Policy

Getty
Show Hide image

"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

0800 7318496