Once a year, in January, I sit around a table with an eclectic group that includes Chris Bryant, the Labour MP, Anna Sapir Abulafia, professor of the Study of the Abrahamic Religions at Oxford University, and a smattering of religious publishers. The setting is a modest room at Oxford University, the occasion is the meeting of the External Advisory Board for the Faculty of Theology and Religion.
And every year our group puzzles over the same issue: how can we get more young people to study theology and religion at undergraduate and graduate levels?
The answer, I fear, is we can’t. At least not until religious education enjoys a higher status in schools. Religious Studies doesn’t feature in the top 10 A level subjects of 2018, and take-up has decreased by 21.3 per cent between 2017 and 2018. The number of people taking Religious Studies GCSEs, meanwhile, is declining year on year.
A recent survey of more than 2,000 Britons revealed that nearly three fifths think Religious Education should be replaced by Politics at secondary school. A quarter of state schools do not teach RE at all. This suits a culture where two parents recently filed a lawsuit because their children’s primary school, overseen by the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust, held assemblies that included prayer and Bible stories. In 2019 Britain, where most no longer see themselves as Christian, the parents are likely to win.
Allowing more and more parents and schools to opt out of Religious Studies means there are thousands of youngsters walking around not knowing who the Good Samaritan was, or the Pharisees, or who wrote the Gospels. But our loss, when Religious Studies are ignored, goes deeper. Ask yourself how “character” is formed: many of our greatest heroes, who inspired our ancestors to good deeds and even martyrdom, belonged to the Judaeo-Christian legacy many schools now opt to forget.
There will be families where the traditions and the core pillars of RE will be taught in some form; but their children will have understood that this is a subject that their school does not prize. The Government has called for a commission to examine how best to reform the teaching of RE. Be prepared for a pale imitation of today’s subject, a hodgepodge of “world views” and “universal values” that will teach children all about Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and very little about the Trinity or the Sacraments.
This bland and vacuous course, the academic equivalent of “Kumbaya”, may not offend anyone but it won’t please anyone either. It certainly will not produce the curious, theologically articulate youngsters our advisory group hankers for. Nor will it form the characters we want as politicians, teachers, or friends.
Instead of diluting the subject beyond recognition, why doesn’t the government try to learn from best practice? Pupils at Catholic schools – a fifth of all GCSE RE entrants – consistently outperform the national average.
Catholic schools still take RE seriously. In the state sector, the Bishops’ Conference decrees that RE comprises 10 per cent of the curriculum, and that it should be taught with the same academic rigour and to the same standards as maths. In independent schools, heads and faculty can be even more ambitious. Take Stonyhurst, the oldest Jesuit school in the world (founded in 1593). The last Independent Schools Inspectorate report hails its “outstanding all-pervasive spirituality which promotes reflective self-awareness and increased moral fibre, leading many pupils to relish opportunities to turn their faith into action”. Or as headmaster John Browne points out, parents increasingly ask schools about their “ethos” and their “values system”. For many, “character” is now more important than exam results.
Character formation is also deeply embedded in the Religious Studies taught at Ampleforth College. Its covenant with students centres around a “Compass for Life” based upon St Benedict’s principles of attentiveness, hospitality, respect, integrity, stewardship and equilibrium. In addition, the school offers Christian Theology and Christian Living classes.
The Government should pay attention. Religious Studies develops precisely the kind of sound judgment between good and bad, virtue and sin, that defines a model citizen.
Here then is an example to copy. Just as top independent schools are asked to share sports fields and teachers with neighbouring state schools, Catholic schools should be asked to share their approach to RE. In this way, crucial lessons about our Judaeo-Christian legacy, and the formation of character, can be shared widely. We will all benefit as a result.
Cristina Odone chairs the Parenting Circle charity