History has given religion a highly privileged place in the school system in Britain. The law is different in Scotland, in Northern Ireland and in England and Wales: my focus is on the position in the latter (there are only marginal differences between England and Wales, although with education being a devolved matter these may grow).
The history is of course long and complex, stretching back to mediaeval times, but essentially the churches – in particular the Church of England – have leveraged the near monopoly they had in elementary education in the nineteenth century into control of about a third of the state schools today – a proportion that is slowly growing as pusillanimous politicians ignore the fact that over half the public say they have no religion and tacitly consent to a Church of England policy that explicitly recognises that its survival depends on its schools.
Nor was the churches’ approach any less cynical in the nineteenth century. The Church of England and the non-conformist churches fought a battle for control of elementary education throughout the century, frustrating any attempt by Parliament or Government to intervene as one side or the other always saw any proposed reform as benefitting its opponents. After the 1870 Education Act the churches deplored and tried to frustrate attempts by the new school boards to improve standards in board (public) schools as this would show up the inadequacies of their own underfunded schools – they could have handed their schools over to the school boards but preferred to maintain control of the religious education of as many children as they could.
The 1944 Act rescued them as their own schools were approaching financial collapse: they won total public funding of the running costs of their schools while maintaining substantial control of the religious aspects of education and school life. (Some schools – including all the Roman Catholic ones – traded a commitment to contribute to the building costs of their schools for much greater control of staffing and education.) At the same time they obtained a legal requirement for the two-thirds of schools run by local education authorities to start every day with an act of collective worship and to provide non-denominational religious instruction to all pupils. This law has barely been changed since, though religious instruction is now called religious education.
In this section I have posted my evidence to an enquiry that is currently considering the future of religious education. This is under the auspices of the Religious Education Council, a voluntary body of RE specialists in which Humanists UK (previously the British Humanist Association) has been active from the start. In my submission I call for a radical reappraisal of the role of RE and the pedagogical approach to it. Annexed to it is an example of such an approach by one RE teacher, Brenna Hughes, who has generously allowed me to use it.
Two other papers are included. One is a paper on the British Humanist Association’s successful challenge to the Department for Education that produced a High Court ruling that religious education in non-faith schools must include non-religious beliefs – a ruling the Department is determinedly and shamefully ignoring on the thinnest of technical legal grounds.
The other is a paper on the extensive religious discrimination allowed in the employment of teachers and the failure of the European Commission to rule that the UK had failed to transpose properly the EU framework directive on employment.