Will Catholic Religious Education survive?

Students at the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School (Getty Images)

In the last few years a series of reports have called for major reforms to Religious Education. The most recent comes from the former home secretary Charles Clarke (pictured) and the academic Linda Woodhead. “We are living,” they write, “through the single biggest change in the religious and cultural landscape of Britain for centuries, even millennia.” Hence the title of their new study: ‘A New Settlement Revised: Religion and Belief in Schools’.

Clarke and Woodhead argue that the system is no longer fit for purpose, particularly as “those who say they have ‘no religion’ (but are not necessarily secular) are now the majority”. They recommend 16 changes, including reforms of the RE curriculum, legal requirements, admissions policies and acts of public worship.

Many who work in the RE field support these changes, believing that they are necessary to increase social cohesion. But is there a wider appetite for change, among both politicians and the general public?

The Catholic community might be tempted to ignore these debates. But that would be a mistake. There is much that makes our schools distinct. Some of these unique features are now coming under attack. The Clarke-Woodhead pamphlet seeks to undermine and remove some of the legal provisions and protections afforded to our schools. The so-called “emerging consensus” for change which they identify is in direct opposition to Catholics, something which the pamphlet openly admits. In fact, it claims that the Catholic vision of RE is incompatible with the common good.

Catholic RE is broad, critical and academically rigorous. It produces well-rounded and theologically literate young people. But it is distinctive in that it is the Catholic bishops who both set and inspect the curriculum.

In Britain, there has always been a wide variety in approaches to RE in the state system. Academies and free schools have increased that variation still further. Naturally, some of these RE curriculums are better than others, and sadly in some schools RE has become non-existent. Nobody denies these problems. But the solutions proposed in the Clarke-Woodhead pamphlet do not, in fact, represent the social consensus and, anyway, are not acceptable to the Catholic community.

It might, in theory, be beneficial to create a new RE advisory board, nominated by the Secretary of State for Education and comprising professional educators, to set a new RE curriculum. But this would be a direct attack on the authority of the Catholic bishops. It could lead to a situation where a non-Catholic, government-appointed “expert” would be dictating the content of Catholic RE and inspecting it via Ofsted.

Some are suggesting that Catholic RE could simply be a “bolt-on”, with additional lessons added to a new curriculum. But this indicates a total lack of understanding of Catholic RE. Changing the subject’s name to “Religion, Beliefs and Values”, as proposed, would indicate a shift towards a social science approach, away from the theological one taken in Catholic RE.

If this change were to happen, students would arguably spend less time studying religion and more on “beliefs and values”, which would not improve religious literacy. But it would please groups such as Humanists UK and the National Secular Society, which have long been campaigning for reforms along these lines.

The Clarke-Woodhead reports seem to be part of a wider effort to increase pressure on faith schools. A number of years ago, organisations such as the Accord Coalition targeted Catholic schools’ admissions policies (something which this latest report revisits). But it is now clear that the way in which Catholic schools are going to be pressurised in the immediate future is via the RE curriculum.

Catholic educators fear that the Commission on RE, a high-profile independent commission which is due to report later this year after two years of evidence-gathering, will have similar recommendations to the Clarke-Woodhead pamphlet. The Catholic Education Service has put forward various workable suggestions for how a dual system could continue even after a reform of structures, laws and the curriculum. But the question remains: are reformers really seeking a consensus, or will the Catholic community be forced to fight to maintain our current legal rights, which guarantee that the bishops remain in charge of RE in our schools?