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The possibility of God

Religious studies is enjoying a boom. But in a multicultural society, what is it now for? Victoria Neumark reports

clip_image001Niqabs in the classroom, creationism knocking at the door of the science lab, the threat of suicide bombers: big challenges face religious education (RE) in UK classrooms. A critical report by Ofsted last month demanded that RE "contributes strongly to pupils’ understanding of the changing role of religion, diversity and community cohesion". It said children should be taught more about religion’s role in a modern world under the threat of terrorism – and that they should learn that religion is not always a force for good.

How timely, then, that Oxford University has appointed its first professor of religious education for 27 years. Neither a woolly-jumpered vicar nor a wild-eyed evangelist, Terence Copley is an enthusiast for the very virtues of tolerance and reasoned discussion that Ofsted advocates. "We shouldn’t run away from difference in a false and superficial attempt to create multicultural harmony," he says.

Copley has been a Quaker for decades, "though I am very happy to site myself in my family’s Methodist tradition". He taught for 15 years in schools in the Midlands and north and ran a world-beating department of religious education at Exeter University from 1997. He believes in God -and in opening minds.

"I’ve learned a lot from going to other faiths’ places of worship. I’ve not just looked on, but felt the ripples of experience," he says. "That’s more challenging; it’s real. But as a Christian I can worship with Jews, Muslim, Hindus, Sikhs very happily. At the same time, it’s important not to pretend that big differences don’t exist." As Ofsted acknowledges, the political and social significance of religion is changing. Is RE’s potential to help build a more cohesive society being realised?

Copley is optimistic. The UK’s multicultural society is a wonderful resource. "The big thing about RE, which I want kids to do, is empathy. We can’t pretend to be Hindus but we can try to see some of what they might feel." He says RE teachers have to get stuck into teaching religion as the ways in which humanity searches for truth. "We’ve got to teach the possibility of God, and it’s up to children to accept or reject it."

Sticking point

Copley says he is unapologetic about "the three-letter word": God. For non-believers – whose children still have to take RE until they are 16 – this is the obvious sticking point. "In all my years of teaching, I always made sure God was in there and talked about. People might find it embarrassing, but it is the key to engagement."

Ofsted criticised the twin aims prescribed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which straitjacket RE in schools: learning about religion and learning from religion. Copley would replace them with "engaging with religion and other life stances". RE lessons could feature science teachers talking about Darwin or the local imam explaining what the experience of Allah means to Muslims. "You should never directly attack or dissolve any child’s views in the classroom," he says. Or, as Miriam Rosen, Ofsted’s director of education, said: "More needs to be done if the subject is to develop in students a more profound understanding of the significance of religious commitment and diversity and its impact on society."

Copley’s recent book, Indoctrination, Education and God: The Struggle for the Mind, looks at how indoctrination, secular or religious, stops education, stops questioning and stops thinking. "RE should introduce children to a big human debate. What children don’t like is having answers rammed down their throats."

Young people nowadays are fascinated by religion and moral issues. Ofsted reports RE booming after decades of indifference. Secondary schools hunt RE teachers; primaries are crying out for in-service training. Oxford, boasting the country’s largest theology department, has started a new PGCE in RE. Though student interest is at a peak, to some RE remains halfway between a hot potato and a big yawn. Copley is determined to challenge that. "Who wants to have on their tombstone the worthy but dull words: ‘He or she was a useful RE teacher’?" he asks. "But we can’t treat RE as so potentially divisive that we dare not discuss anything, either." He agrees with Ofsted that RE teacher training is due an intellectual upgrade. Terrorism, creationism, the veil in Islam and global warming should all be grist to the RE classroom mill. "You need a pinboard or whiteboard, with The Good, The Bad and The Dotty items from religion in the news up on it each day."

The practice of palming off RE on the sports teacher who goes to church must end. "In Britain, we tend to see religion as a hobby and God like a fire extinguisher, there for the last resort. But most of the world is not like that. How can we expect people to understand that some will die for religion if we portray it as so bland?"

Enthusiasm wells up in the man who got into RE because the O-level let him escape a music teacher who "hated music, hated boys". Nottingham University followed, then school jobs in the Midlands, training teachers in York, and Exeter, where he ran research on assessment in RE, teaching religious narrative and school worship.

Climate change

All in all, he says, "I’ve had a great time". With more than 40 books under his belt, including guides to teaching biblical narrative, biographies of Thomas Arnold of Rugby and Simon Wiesenthal, and a series of mystery quest novels for children, he is now working on Inventing an RE for the 22nd Century. This will focus on the spiritual and social results of climate change. "We’ll need to change, to be more aware of locality, to abandon our feelings of mastery, which are based on living inside 90% of the time and controlling our environment; we need to become more accustomed to living in the weather … What is our place in the universe as a whole?"

As for contention over the veil, Copley says: "It’s clear that within a global religion like Islam, practice varies and culture plays an important part … The majority of British Muslim women don’t find it necessary to cover their face … This is a debate within Islam as well as the wider UK. RE should note the different Muslim views involved and the legitimate concerns of non-Muslim members of our society. But the central aim in teaching Islam in RE shouldn’t get lost in veils. It should be to get children to explore Islam’s experience of the centrality of God. British culture does not take God very seriously, but Islam does."

It’s all in the great liberal tradition. But still, there is one sticking point. Respecting difference, demanding equality, Copley, along with Ofsted, firmly espouses compulsory RE. "There is no legal, moral, educational right to exclude RE from children’s school experience. I’m passionate that RE should not have a withdrawal clause. If it is education not indoctrination, there should be no right of withdrawal. The withdrawal clause should be removed from RE or, logically, extended to embrace all subjects."

Spirit of the times

1944: The Education Act legislates for "religious instruction" (the classroom subject plus school worship). Parents are allowed to withdraw children. An 1870 clause prohibiting denominational teaching except in denominational schools was retained.

1988: Education Reform Act now uses "religious education" to refer to classroom subject only. World religions must be taught. RE required "to take into account that the religious traditions of the UK are in the main Christian". Withdrawal clause retained. RE is outside the national curriculum, with locally determined syllabuses, but must be taught to all children in state schools from entry to 16.

1997: Introduction of short-course GCSE

2004: Qualifications and Curriculum Authority national framework for RE published 2006: QCA publishes schemes of work for ages 5-14.

2005-06: Entries to short-course RE GCSE: 239,000; GCSE: 145,200 (more than music, equal to PE); A-level: 14,900

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