Could religious education in schools combat radicalisation?

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The religious radicalisation of Britain's youth is a hot topic at the moment, with a highly-publicised spurt of young men and women leaving the country to fight with extremists abroad. But does this problem find its roots in our schools? And if so, could a greater focus on religious education help?


Image: Placard from an extremist demonstration in London.


Ed Pawson, the chairman of NATRE, stated at their recent conference that the development of 'religious literacy' in young people in the UK could help to make them less vulnerable to religious radicalisation. This is an important claim, since reports from the Department for Education and Ofsted have shown that the threat of radicalisation in UK schools is very real.

In December 2012, The Telegraph revealed a secret memo from the Department for Education, which accepted that tackling extremism in both state and private schools was proving to be a problem for education officials. The memo also highlighted concerns about 118 faith schools throughout the UK, claiming that students at these schools were at risk of being radicalised. These claims were made not only as a result of the lack of multi-faith teaching at the schools in question, but also due to the encouragement of pupils to remove themselves from mainstream society and reports that school governors may have links to known terrorist groups.

In December 2014, Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw warned that pupils at six Muslim private schools in East London were placing their pupils at risk of radicalisation and extremist views, with the focus of all six schools too heavily biased towards Islamic teachings. Inspectors found that the curriculum of one of these schools focused entirely on Islamic themes, with pupils believing it was wrong to learn about other religions and displaying a 'narrow view' of women in society, while students at one of the other six schools were unaware of any differences between British and Sharia law.The report made it clear that these schools would be shut down unless sufficient changes were made to prepare students for modern British life.

Children who are at risk of radicalisation, said Boris Johnson in March of 2014, are victims of child abuse and should be protected. His opinions were voiced in reference to those who are radicalised by their parents - but should those at risk of radicalisation by their schools be seen in the same way?

The need for effective religious education

At a time when we live in a truly multi-cultural and multi-faith society, good religious education has never been more necessary. Religious education lessons are designed to give students a strong basis of knowledge and understanding of a multitude of both religious and non-religious beliefs, and to help them to understand both common and divergent views between different faiths. However, with both the number and quality of RE teachers falling across the UK, the government is being called to provide training bursaries to improve the current situation.

In October 2013, Ofsted published a report entitled ‘Religious education: realising the potential’, which claimed that over half of schools were failing students on the topic of religious education. The report highlighted the fact that religious education lessons make ‘an important contribution to pupils’ development, both personal and academic...by promoting respect and empathy, which are increasingly important in an ever more globalised and multicultural 21st century’.

Six out of ten schools examined for the Ofsted report were found to be failing to realise the full potential of religious education as a key part of the school curriculum. Of particular note are the weaknesses that Ofsted highlighted, namely training gaps, weak standards of teaching, flaws in the ways in which the religious education curriculum is examined and confusion over the purpose of this important part of the curriculum.

The state of current religious education teaching can be seen in the data behind the Department for Education's report, ‘School Workforce in England: November 2013’ (download), which highlights that just 46.8 per cent of religious education teachers working in publicly funded secondary schools hold a post-A level qualification in a subject relevant to what they teach. This figure pales in contrast to subjects such as mathematics and history, whose post-A level figures of 77.6 per cent and 72.8 per cent respectively demonstrate that the teaching of religious education could benefit from additional training.

It’s evident that good quality religious education is becoming increasingly important in schools as our society becomes more and more multicultural. By educating children about the diversity of various faiths from a young age, we may be able to better equip them to become less vulnerable to the risk of religious radicalisation.

What can we do to improve the quality and status of RE?

While Ed Pawson has urged the government to assist in developing new resources and training new talent in order to make RE a vibrant and academic school subject, Ofsted has laid out recommendations to help religious education in schools realise its full potential. These include the recommendations that the government should make clearer the aims of religious education in schools, and should provide clear guidance to promote the subject's aims. Ofsted has also suggested that there should be a greater focus on supplying and training RE teachers, on closer monitoring of religious education provision in schools, and on centring teaching and examination content around developing students' understanding of a variety of religions and beliefs.

With religion playing such an important role in today's world, and with those of various faiths living side by side in the majority of communities across the UK, it is vital that children are taught about both the similarities and differences between various religions in order to prepare them for real life.

Moreover, it appears that the government is having second thoughts about the inclusion of humanism as part of the new GCSE in religious studies, despite urging from religious leaders, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, who are in favour of developing religious studies into a more academically rigorous qualification that would give students better knowledge and understanding of the diversity of beliefs in modern Britain.

Humanism teaches that people should rely on reason, science and empathy towards other people and animals to be good and find fulfilment, without the need for a deity or a hope of Heaven. Surely, this would contribute to promoting intellectual autonomy among students by giving them the opportunity to learn about a broader range of ways in which humans have grappled with existential questions?

As it is, a significant number of schools are permitted to teach religious education from a selective and exclusive viewpoint, more analogous to religious instruction than religious education, acting as a conduit for promoting religious belief. Arguably this undermines both the integrity of a state education system and young people's religious freedom.

The causes of radicalisation are varied and complex but a reasonable assumption could be made that high quality religious education taught by qualified teachers without influence from (or bias towards) a particular faith group would help with understanding and consequently, tolerance.


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