The recent speech in which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams warned against the “downgrading” of religious education in schools has provoked a vigorous debate over the principles of teaching religion as part of the UK education syllabus.
Those in favour of religious education want RE to be included in the English Baccalaureate; the new set of core subjects the Coalition Government has introduced to assess schools on academic achievement. Their argument is that the subject should be included in the humanities section, alongside subjects like geography and history.
However other commentators have spoken out to argue that, given the increasingly secular nature of British society, RE should not necessarily be included on the syllabus at all. The subject currently forms part of the National Curriculum, making it compulsory for all students to study it for some part of their education, but it is not a compulsory GCSE subject like maths, English and science.
Those arguing against the inclusion of RE in the National Curriculum claim that whilst it could still be taught as an optional extra subject at faith schools, it is no longer relevant or useful to a wide (and ever widening) sector of the general public, who grow up in secular homes and might feel uncomfortable about the compulsory study of religious methods and beliefs.
However, in a society facing ever-increasing fractures, violence and unrest such as the recent riots across UK cities, and with racially and culturally motivated crime sadly still prevalent, it has surely never been more important to include an awareness and understanding of diverse religious and cultural beliefs and traditions in our children’s education. Not, as Williams argues, because of the importance of supporting religion itself, but because of the desperately important need for understanding and knowledge of all different ways of life and belief systems if we are to end the problems of hatred and fear born of ignorance.
Not only does religious education foster understanding and tolerance of different belief systems, it also provides a healthy opportunity for children and teenagers to engage in debate and discussion about important social issues related to cultural difference and perceived social barriers. Allowing a safe and supported space for such discussions to thrive can be essential in preventing frustration from flaring into violence later on.