By Chris Sugden
“TO SEE religion as the driver of extremism or division in society is a mistake,” the Rev Nigel Genders told a special meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education last week.
He told the meeting: “There is no evidence that any religion or ideology is a primary motivator of terrorism. That lies in anger at injustice, a sense of moral superiority, a promise of adventure and being a hero.”
He told the gathering of over 100 people that young people are searching for a sense of identity in a moral vacuum.
“Religion is not the problem and RE is not about countering these issues.”
Mr Genders, the Chief Education Officer of the Church of England, argued that to embrace the need for religious education as a tool to address radicalisation confused safeguarding and education agendas.
Instead he claimed, RE is to promote the study of religion on its own terms since it the driving force for 75 per cent of the world’s population; a study of what people believe and how it impacts their lives.
He said that students need to engage both with their own and other traditions, to be religiously and theologically literate, to encounter and wrestle with ideas about God, and explore the inner meanings of sacred texts, to make sense of themselves and the world in which they live.
The meeting was chaired by Fiona Bruce MP, the newly elected chairman of the All Party Group. One delegate said that ‘everyone wants to know how children can be protected from Islamic extremism’.
Professor Marius Felderhof, co-editor of Teaching Virtue, addressed the case that the role of SACREs was broken and that time had moved on.
He pointed out that the provisions of the 1944 Education Act had been reaffirmed in the Acts of 1988 and 1996. Such advocates misrepresent the legal and social situation and have nothing better to put in its place that is acceptable to all.
Prof James Arthur of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue (www.jubileecentre.ac.uk) in Birmingham noted that much time was spent on taking instrumental measures. “But you cannot fatten the pig by constantly weighing it.”
He argued that education cannot be neutral. He claimed that religious education cannot be taught by a teacher who is indifferent. To focus on character education is not being moralistic, dogmatic or rigid.
“Character is about choosing to do the right thing. Schools should be value-driven, building the ethos we wish to have.” He said that the role of RE is to awaken, expand and develop the moral aspirations of young people.
The Head Teacher, Ron Skelton and Head of RE, Mrs Adiba Khan of Broadway Academy in Birmingham with 1,200, mainly Muslim, pupils related how Muslim students visited a Jewish synagogue, and how the head teacher spoke in mosques.
Mrs Khan said that she taught about greater and lesser jihads, and that their rules were never to perpetrate or instigate war, or harm women and children. “If jihad is taught correctly, it will combat radicalism.”
The children are asked: if a bus is blown up and a man dies who has a family to support, was it alright for children to lose a father and for what crime? The school has had no former pupils go to Syria.
Others spoke of the work of the Birmingham Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education and its agreed syllabus focusing on 24 moral dispositions promoted by all religions including honesty, steadfastness, wisdom, courage, justice and moderation.
Many of those at the meeting raised questions about the recent Clarke-Woodhead and Woolf Reports and those who argued for a neutral space and pluralistic approach to religious education.
It was pointed out that there is a shortfall in the number of RE teachers required, and 40 per cent of RE lessons are currently taught by non-specialist teachers.
One participant argued the way RE had been taught over the last 40 years had done much damage to the concept of religious identity and secularized students. Speakers said it was vital for teachers to be exemplars of proper religious dispositions themselves.
Further public meetings of the APPG group on RE are planned.