Religious Education in Schools Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Religious Education in Schools

Baroness Fox of Buckley Excerpts
Thursday 18th January 2024

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, we live in a period in which Jewish schools have had to ramp up security to protect their pupils, and religious symbols of Judaism are being hidden by students in fear in non-Jewish schools. My question is: given that religion and politics have got very messy, who would be an RE teacher dealing with such fraught difficulties? Over the last few days, the front pages had the story of Michaela Community School, led by Katharine Birbalsingh, whom I admire but others do not—she is certainly controversial. Of all things, the school has been taken to court by a pupil for banning Muslim prayers. The head teacher had basically said, “We shouldn’t be divided by religion. We should have no prayers”. I was fascinated that one of the things the teacher said was that some pupils were being intimidated by their peers for not being religiously pious enough, and it was a kind of bullying.

There is a poisonous atmosphere out there. Even the question of whether we live in a Christian country is rather more awkward than one would think. I loved the explanation given by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, of religion as education and knowledge, and I totally agree with him on that, but many British institutions seem embarrassed by the western Judeo-Christian tradition. Its accomplishments are more likely to be labelled as white privilege than as the repository of positive values and virtues.

Instead, in recent years the new religion is diversity and inclusion, which has incentivised faith groups to adopt politicised cultural religious identities and has proved a recipe for stirring up divisive tensions and encouraging group grievance-mongering and offence-taking. We should not forget that a schoolteacher from Batley Grammar School is still in hiding, in fear for his life, for the blasphemy of showing pupils an image of Muhammad in a religious studies class. He had no support from politicians or trade unions, was labelled Islamophobic and was told he was making a fuss about nothing, although the Parisian teacher Samuel Paty was decapitated for a similar offence of showing cartoons of Muhammad. We have to admit that this is difficult.

I shall finish with the Reverend Bernard Randall, who lost his job at a Christian school—Trent College in Derbyshire—because he delivered a sermon expressing approval of mainstream Christian teaching on marriage, biological sex and gender, and the head teacher reported him to Prevent. That bodes badly for RE teachers. I would avoid it like the plague. We have to be honest that it is more difficult than it sounds by just paying bursaries.