Keep the state out of our classrooms
Debates about the religious education of the young are as important as any imaginable. In the Catholic case, however, contributions tend to focus on seeing off threats to Catholic interests represented by the 10 per cent of the state-school system that bear the Catholic brand-name. Thus those speaking for the Catholic Church in England and Wales were quick to identify a threat to those interests in a new report entitled A New Settlement Revised: Religion and Belief in Schools.
The report, by Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University and Charles Clarke, former Labour Education Secretary, displays a strange unwillingness to understand the basic philosophy behind the Catholic schools network, which is all the more surprising as the project they jointly run, the Westminster Faith Debates, has had its share of Catholic participants. The recommendation
that Catholic teachers in Catholic schools should teach Catholicism to Catholic children according to an RE syllabus imposed by the Government misses the entire Catholic narrative of Church-State relations over the last 400 centuries. Catholicism will never allow itself to be under the control of the British state, however well meaning or widespread the prior consultation.
Professor Woodhead and Mr Clarke clearly did not appreciate what a red rag to a bull their suggestion would be. Nor did they see that their strange distinction between religious instruction, and religious and moral formation, has no meaning in a Catholic context. But this is where the broader point is relevant. With all due respect to the Anglican education establishment, the Catholic school system has a uniquely valuable insight into the religious education of the young – and not just of Catholics.
There are many true and useful things in the Woodhead-Clarke report. Elevating the status of religious education is urgently necessary. But if in the non-church sector school assemblies and RE syllabuses are no longer to be “broadly Christian” – however difficult it has been to define that – what set of values and beliefs would serve in that role instead? Can it be left blank? Might Catholic Social Teaching and its emphasis on the common good have a unifying role to play here? Catholic educationalists have the potential to benefit the whole state-funded school system, not just their small part of it. Otherwise the content of RE in non-church schools could soon be completely secular. And that would certainly be against Catholic interests.