Religious Education in Schools Defined by Secular Pressure Groups

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Joint research paper by Education experts from the University of Worcester and the University of Exeter highlights the crucial role of Secularists and Humanists in the development of modern Religious Education in the 1960s and 1970s.

The influence of faith groups and educators in the history of Religious Education has long been understood, but previously unacknowledged levels of influence by non-religious groups have now been revealed.

The research, funded by the British Academy, was published in the journal History of Education. It outlines how premeditated attempts to marginalise Christianity from the life and curriculum of state-maintained schools were made by the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association during the 1960s and 1970s. It also shows how many Christians and religious educators of the time actively cooperated with Humanist groups and invited discussions with Secularists.

The Secularist and Humanist movements gained popularity in the 1960s. They focussed much of their attention on attempts to abolish or reform the requirement that all state-school pupils should participate in a daily act of worship and receive regular Religious Education, which was outlined in the 1944 Education Act. Whilst not sufficiently persuasive to change the law, they helped change the aim of Religious Education from Christian instruction seeking to make church members. This was during a period of rapid social and cultural change, including decreasing rates of Christian practice, mass immigration and permissive changes to legislation. These changes created a climate where many who belonged to the churches thought Religious Education, and perhaps even Christianity itself, were in need of defence.

In this context, the researchers found that Christians and Humanists entered into discussions about how Religious Education could be developed in such a way that it was suitable for pupils and teachers regardless of their religious or secular beliefs. As a consequence pupils began to be taught more widely about religions, such as Hinduism and Islam. More controversially, Religious Education syllabuses also began to include non-religious philosophies such as Humanism and Communism. Moral education was also increasingly delivered separately from Christian teaching and worship.

Whilst the churches may have been fearful of any changes to the legislation on Religious Education, the research suggests that Christians and religious educators were not press-ganged into co-operation with non-religious groups. Rather, many of them deliberately liaised with non-religious groups, in particular Humanists.

Dr Stephen Parker, Head of Postgraduate Studies and Research Student Coordinator of the Institute of Education in the University of Worcester, said: “My ongoing research into the history of Religious Education is revealing some fascinating things about how Religious Education came to be as it is today. Examining the historical details may help us to plan for the subject's future - whatever shape that might take. We plan to discuss these issues in some detail at a forthcoming conference entitled 'the Future of RE' to be held at the University of Worcester on 19 June.”

The conference will take place at the University of Worcester Conference Centre. A panel of speakers will include Dr Mark Chater from Culham St. Gabriel’s Trust, Dr Rob Freathy from University of Exeter, Professor Michael Hand from University of Birmingham, Professor Robert Jackson from University of Warwick, Dr Stephen Parker and Dr Lynn Revell from Canterbury Christ Church University.

For further information, and a booking form for this event, please email Dr Stephen Parker at the University of Worcester: