PEOPLE need to be wary of the uniform, unsympathetic and religiously semi-literate approach of Ofsted as it extends its powers to cover issues of gender, which raises issues of freedom of expression and religious conscience.
And the BBC needs to refocus its broadcasting of religion to portray ordinary people doing extraordinary things motivated by their faith rather than presenting any religious person in a drama or documentary as a ‘weirdo’.
These were the clear messages of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education, chaired by Fiona Bruce MP , at their recent meeting. Jonathan Arkush, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, argued that faith schools looked after the humanity of all citizens by teaching the dignity of difference.
While former spin-doctor Alistair Campbell had said “We do not do God”, Arkush asked that people should at least try to understand people who do. By addressing such ignorance prejudice is broken down, he said. For Steve Clifford, the general director of the Evangelical Alliance, the top outcomes of Religious Education should be to recognize an alternative worldview to secular neutrality: “no other UK community models diversity like the church,” he said.
A second outcome would be to show how Christianity had shaped the foundations of socie ty in the UK and is the basis of freedom of speech, religion and conscience.
Thirdly, he said that because Christianity ‘stands or falls on the person of Jesus’, RE must expose children to the Jesus of the Bible who makes it possible to have a relationship with God.
Speakers warned that schools inspector Ofsted ‘should learn to distinguish between conservatism and fundamentalism’. It was said that asking a nineyear-old girl if she had a boyfriend was not appropriate nor would asking four-year-old children if they were comfortable in their bodies.
Those present said Ofsted needed to take a more nuanced approach, sensitive to each faith tradition instead of imposing its own uniformity. Ofsted also needed training in religious literacy as the Foreign Office has begun to do.
The meeting heard that such training would also help the Department for International Development (DfID), the police and the judiciary develop cohesion and understanding. Mark Friend, a BBC controller, had led its review of religion and ethics. He suggested at the meeting on 30 April that broadcasting religion on the BBC should not be like broadcasting football, which appealed to a niche audience, but like history that needed to have a broad impact, especially to those under the age of 45, because it covered our shared roots.
Peter Kerridge of Premier Radio noted that religion formed less than .03 per cent of any of the BBC’s national or local output, and that the BBC had no head of religion and no journalist covering religion in the UK. For a public service broadcaster this was unacceptable, he said.
Mark Friend countered that many programmes with religious content were not branded as ‘religion’ because the word put people off. It was better to use ‘what’s right and wrong’, and ‘beliefs’. Impact should also be measured by numbers listening to programmes with religious and moral themes, he said.
Questioners pressed Mr Friend on what plans the BBC had to increase coverage of the real-life worship and practice of ordinary Christian, Jewish and Muslim people living their lives. This should include, they said, the positive contributions religions make, and of the contemporary expressions of festivals, big events such as the Manchester Passion and social projects.
Mr Friend responded that the BBC ‘knows that lived experience works’. But he was reminded that Ann Robinson’s programme on abortion was held to be skewed propaganda for abortion on demand at home, that Andrew Marr had identified bias against Christianity in the BBC, and the “Both Lives Matter” campaign in Northern Ireland was portrayed as “anti-abortion” rather than ‘pro-life”.