20 May 2003

Church leaders propose development of national RE syllabus

The leaders of three Church education bodies have together proposed the development of a new national statutory Religious Education (RE) syllabus.

The Rt Rev Dr Kenneth Stevenson (Bishop of Portsmouth and Chairman, Church of England Board of Education), Kathleen Wood (Education Officer, The Methodist Church) and Gillian Wood (Education Officer, The Free Churches) have written to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, to offer this proposal as a more far-reaching solution than a non-statutory framework.

The Churches' proposal comes as a response to the QCA report of a feasibility study on a non-statutory framework for religious education. The Churches welcome that report as a clear statement of the many benefits to be derived from moving to a more consistent practice in RE across the country; it would also have a positive benefit from the point of view of the Churches and other faith communities in Britain. But a non-statutory framework would only be advisory, and the described benefits would therefore only be derived patchily.

"RE has improved considerably in recent years and is a popular subject when it is well taught," said the Bishop of Portsmouth. "Our proposal would strengthen RE further and make it more effective. RE is important: it helps pupils understand the place of Christianity and other great religions in our society; it helps them respond to important questions for their own lives; and it contributes to a more just and cohesive society."

For the purpose of framing this new national RE syllabus, the Churches recommend the establishment of a national standing conference, to bring together representatives of the churches and faith communities with RE professionals (teachers, teacher trainers, inspector and advisers) and government.

This proposal would spell the end of local authority agreed syllabuses for RE, and therefore the end of local authority Agreed Syllabus Conferences. The Churches do, however, see a continuing purpose in local authority Standing Advisory Councils for RE (SACREs): they would still bring together representatives of the local churches and faith communities with teachers and the local authority to support the quality of RE; and they would still consider determinations about collective worship. SACREs would also continue to have an important place as a forum for local inter-faith dialogue and activity and thus would continue to contribute to the government's community cohesion agenda.


The full text of the letter:

To the Right Honourable Charles Clarke MP, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

When you met some of us with the Bishop of Blackburn before Christmas, one of the matters touched on was the place of RE in the school curriculum. We welcome your commitment to the subject by including it in your own ministerial portfolio, supported by Baroness Ashton of Upholland. We understand that, in a subsequent discussion with the Bishop of Blackburn, you stressed your wish to strengthen RE.

Against that background, we welcome the publication of the QCA report of a feasibility study on a non-statutory framework for religious education. We consider it a clear statement of the many benefits to be derived from moving to a more consistent practice in RE across the country. A non-statutory framework would support teachers and their trainers, inspectors and those responsible for training them and moderating their work, publishers, the media and, above all, pupils. It would also have a positive benefit from the point of view of the churches we represent and the faith communities in Britain. All that is indicated in the report.

A non-statutory framework would, however, only be advisory. Its impact would ultimately depend on autonomous Agreed Syllabus Conferences (ASCs) in each Local Authority. The described benefits would therefore only be derived patchily. Against that, it is sometimes suggested that local agreed syllabuses can be sensitive to local circumstances. Even if the national picture had not changed a good deal since the introduction of ASCs in 1944, we would not consider such local sensitivity to outweigh the potential benefits of a national syllabus.

We are writing, therefore, to offer a more far-reaching solution than a non-statutory framework. What we would like to propose is the development of a new national statutory RE syllabus. For the purpose of framing this new national RE syllabus, we recommend the establishment of a national standing conference, to bring together representatives of the churches and faith communities with RE professionals (teachers, teacher trainers, inspector and advisers) and government.

While this proposal would spell the end of local authority agreed syllabuses for RE, and therefore the end of ASCs, we would, however, see a continuing purpose in local authority Standing Advisory Councils for RE (SACREs): they would still bring together representatives of the local churches and faith communities with teachers and the local authority to support the quality of RE; and they would still consider determinations about collective worship. SACREs would also continue to have an important place as a forum for local inter-faith dialogue and activity and thus would continue to contribute to the government's community cohesion agenda.

We are not proposing a change in the law on RE in schools with a religious character, though some may choose to implement aspects of the framework and to derive other benefits from it. For this reason, and because the route for approving the syllabus would differ from that for other subjects, RE would not become part of the national curriculum but would continue to make up with the national curriculum the basic curriculum for schools.

We hope you may be interested in our proposal. We look forward to discussing the issue with you at an early opportunity when we would offer views about the make-up of the national standing conference. We would be very willing to do all that we can to support the implementation of our proposal.

From the Rt Rev Dr Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth
(Chairman, Church of England Board of Education)

also on behalf of:
Kathleen Wood, Education Officer, The Methodist Church
Gillian Wood, Education Officer, The Free Churches

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