Clarke Woodhead on Religious Education: The good, the bad and the risky

Anthony Towey

Recent days have witnessed something of a war of words between the authors of a report on Religious Education and Catholic stakeholders in the subject. In this article, Professor Anthony Toweyof the Aquinas Institute for Theological Literacy offers a constructive critique of the report and explains why some of its current recommendations are being vehemently contested.

An Unsettled Settlement
When Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead chose the palatial surroundings of the Houses of Parliament to launch A New Settlement Revised: Religion and Belief in Schools, it didn’t take long for contestation worthy of the Brexit debates in the nearby Commons to ensue. Even during the launch itself, several of the sixteen recommendations came under fire from various quarters and thanks to the wonders of the internet, a withering press-release from Bishop Marcus Stock was already melting various smartphones. The Director of the Catholic Education Service engaged Professor Woodhead in robust exchange and I myself was accused by Charles Clarke of a Heseltine like ‘brandishing’ of the document as the work of an ‘Anti-Catholic Cabal’. Yikes!

By the end of the day, the BBC had picked up on the event noting that it had not been well-received by two groups in particular, the Catholic Church and the National Secular Society. In the days that followed Clarke and Woodhead clearly prioritized their response to the Catholic Education Service and within a week had published a somewhat hasty and over-excited letter admitting to ‘infelicities of expression’ but vehemently denying their views were potentially damaging to RE in general or to Catholic education in particular. They have since followed this up with a Letter to The Tablet and further profiling of their views on their Westminster Faith Debates website which they curate. 1

O Bother
So why has a report whose avowed methodology is ‘consensus’ caused such fireworks? Well in fairness to all concerned, it is because a whole raft of people actually care about Religious Education.

Readers may be unaware, but in the North of England, believing folk are sometimes benignly referred to as ‘God-botherers’. Part of the problem in RE is that since the roster of interest groups includes religious stakeholders, atheistic pressure groups, anti-radicalization agnostics, intellectual educationalists, money making exam boards, recruitment conscious universities, cohesion sensitive community organizers, vote-hungry politicians, over-stretched teachers, league table led school leaders, anxious parents and over examined pupils it can sometimes seem that everyone is an RE botherer. Passions run high and it is small wonder that Mark Chater has characterized the politics of the RE world as a place ‘where ignorant armies clash by night’. 2

With this in mind, the fact that Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead are even attempting to find a consensus among the Babel of the bothered is laudable, and at first glance, they seem well placed to contribute. Charles is an experienced and well-respected political figure who since leaving the House of Commons has become increasingly involved in a variety of religious and educational initiatives.

Linda is an experienced and well-respected academic whose sociological background has inter alia led her to pursue a number of relevant topics relating to the field of education and RE. Together they launched the Westminster Faith Debates, a forum whose stated aim is ‘to bring academic research about religion and belief into constructive conversation with public and policy work.’ To that end they published their first ‘settlement’ report on RE in June 2015 and on July 18 th , 2018 published a revised version which is the document under review here.

The first thing to notice about the report is that it is less the fruit of original research and more a collation of consultations. It is organized into five sections, the first four of which indicate its salient concerns. An Introduction which argues that legislative change is both necessary and timely, followed by a section proposing a national body to orchestrate curriculum RE. A third section deals with the vexed question of Collective Worship in schools followed by a fourth which considers questions relating to Faith Schools. The fifth part of the document brings together the sixteen recommendations while an appendix provides data regarded as key to the report, including statistics on types of school as well as the list of stakeholders consulted and the committee of advisors convened by the authors. While in this short article it would be impossible to analyse every line of the document, in what follows a ‘good, bad and risky’ classification system will make evident areas of my own approbation and concern.

Section A: Time for a Change?
RE has a specific status in English schooling enshrined in legislation dating back to 1944. The Introduction (pp.4-11) juxtaposes changed sociological realities (e.g. the pattern and practice of religious faith is now very different to that era), political concerns (e.g. the recent pre-legislative Green Paper on Community cohesion), selected research projects (e.g. the Dinham-Shaw ‘RE for Real’ survey) and educational deficit (e.g. the failure of increasing numbers of schools to make provision for RE) as grounds for legislative change informed by its recommendations.

The Good: While faiths may deal with timeless truths, each era manifests different global, national and local geographies of religious allegiance which the report attempts to profile using the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle as an entry point into that discussion. Thereafter, in criticising the widespread disregard for the law which entitles all pupils to Religious Education, the report surely finds sympathy with anyone concerned with theological literacy. In short, the intention to reframe the subject in order to reinvigorate its provision I find thoroughly commendable.

The Bad: That said, the first section does fall into an obvious trap, which, by connecting RE with the Government ‘Integrated Communities’ agenda, inadvertently pathologizes religious conviction.

Indeed it begins to see it as something that needs to be cured by intervention through RE and legislation regarding faith schools. Exacerbating the fact that such a view might distract us from more urgent and intractable divisions (social class, ethnic diversity, disability etc.), there is no counterbalancing of this with the dangers of radical non-religion. 3 Instead, the document construes its statistics in order to beat all schools with the same stick. How else are we to understand why a report that notes the absence of RE in nearly half of academies for 14-16 year olds does not celebrate the fact that 96% of Faith Schools do provide it? 4 Instead it segues into two paragraphs on religious extremism and leaves the reader with a Cassandra-like conclusion that we cannot ‘just go on as we are’ (p.9). The upshot? The focus of attention of the report perversely becomes schools where religious education is taken seriously instead of those that are doing little or nothing.

The Risky: The desire of Clarke-Woodhead to tidy up the Law is understandable and the belief that this will reinvigorate the subject and lead to more compliance has a certain plausibility. That said, in a post-Brexit Britain which is likely to yield fragile parliaments for some time, stakeholders of every kind should be wary of tearing up the past in favour of a dreamed-for future. Was it Jesus or Joni Mitchell who said: ‘Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone’?

Revisiting legislation may lead parliamentarians to conclude that this subject is simply too complicated to handle and the subject may find itself disappearing from schools altogether.

Section B: Nationalized RE?
If this latter concern might seem far-fetched, the following section which deals with “RE in the curriculum” (pp.12-31) ultimately runs a similar risk. The report suggests RE has a declining academic status not helped by the right of parents to withdraw their children from the subject. The solution proposed is that a national ‘Advisory Council on Religion, Belief and Values’ should draft a syllabus backed by the Department for Education which would become statutory in all schools. Since these experts would not be representative of religious bodies, parents would no longer have any reason to exercise the right to withdraw – rebranded as ‘Religion, Beliefs and Values’ the discipline would become like any other subject.

Good: Again, I think that there are laudable intentions aired in this section which would resonate with many readers. Guaranteeing a baseline entitlement to RE for all pupils through the years of compulsory schooling is something widely regarded as desirable, particularly when groups such as the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Literacy have identified it as a factor in social mobility. 5

Bad: From a subject specific point of view, I think that the first problem with the report is that it is already out of date. The 2014-16 Conservative Government reforms of GCSE and A-Level are already correcting any notion that RE is a ‘Cinderella’ subject with teachers and pupils up and down the country at turns reeling from and revelling in the increased exactitude of the discipline. One can only assume that the authors have not visited a Secondary School classroom recently.

From an admittedly more confessional standpoint, however, I am perplexed as to the methodology being applied here. The authors are well aware of the need for maximal consensus ‘to make it as easy as possible for the government to act’, yet have included a clause which they know, ab initio will be vexatious to the Catholic hierarchy who regard themselves as ultimate arbiters of Religious Education in their schools. 6 Despite the nod to such concerns (the envisaged ‘RE curriculum [will] be simple, clear and light touch’ p.17), section B3 once again situates the argument for this change in the context of extremism before particularly identifying Catholic schools as recalcitrant (pp.22-24).

This is at best a clumsy and at worst a disingenuous juxtaposition - it is no surprise that Catholic stakeholders have taken offence.

Risky: Once more, although I ‘get’ the desire for change, I think that the authors need to ‘be careful what they wish for.’ Hitherto, the English RE system has flourished through variety rather than looking to Central Government for guidance on how to teach the subject. Not only do independent and faith schools exercise essential autonomy regarding their RE provision, the local system of some 150 Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs) informing the curricula of schools through Agreed Syllabus Conferences have, in some cases (e.g. Birmingham and Leicester), yielded quite remarkable curricula tailored to local needs. Will they, too, be ‘standardized’? 7

Equally there is also a danger inherent in a name change the authors admit is not based on practitioner research. I am not against ‘Religion, Beliefs and Values’ per se, but I do think the authors may be making a mistake by specifically likening the subject to Sex and Relationships Education (p.16). Along with the rather vague recommendations regarding Key Stage 4 (p.26), difficulties in assessment could undermine competing aspirations that ‘RBV’ would have academic status in secondary education. With busy Academy Heads already ignoring statutory ‘RE’, RBV could find itself timetabled in form periods bundled together with ersatz versions of New Labour’s Citizenship and David Cameron’s British Values into a ragbag basket of unteachables. 8

Sections C & D: Collective Worship and Faith Schools
The second half of the report sees Clarke-Woodhead attempting to reform and reboot the ‘Act of Collective Worship’ (Section C) before turning their attention to ‘The Existence of Faith Schools’ (Section D). Enshrined in legislation, some would argue the requirement to have a daily Act of Collective Worship to be the most anachronistic of the statutory obligations relating to religion in schools particularly since for State Schools these should be ‘wholly or mainly of a Christian character’. In opting to retain the gist of the injunction, their reasoning relies on both pragmatic and somewhat mysterious arguments. On the one hand it is good to have a gathering event as part of the school day. On the other, removal of the Act of Worship would upset ‘important elements’ of the Church of England. 9

Withal, in trying to retain assemblies, square circles and plait pieties I genuinely think Charles and Linda have done well to come up with a rewording of the requirement that reads as follows: All pupils in attendance at maintained schools and academies shall take part in a regular assembly or act of collective worship in keeping with the values and ethos of the school and reflecting the diversity of character of the school community (p.35).

Sadly, having by now forgotten that it is Community Schools and Multi-Academy Trusts where RE/RBV needs renewal, the report then goes way beyond its competence, evidential base and original iteration by making a series of recommendations regarding Faith Schools that are at best confusing and at worst can be read as a kind of Tudor education policy for the 21 st Century. 10

Good: To the relief of our non-conformist forebears and all those interested in civil liberties and freedom of thought, they are basically in favour of faith schools: ‘Children of families of faith should where possible be able to attend schools of that faith, and that their current legal right to be given priority in the admissions process should not be removed.’ (Recommendation #11, p.36).

Bad: Unfortunately, the document goes on to assert that any faith schools funded by the state must teach RE as they are told to [Do ‘faith-school’ parents not pay taxes too?] (#12, p.43). Furthermore, since [without evidence] they are suspected of not promoting inclusivity, they specifically need to demonstrate that they are (#13) and religious groups should reduce the number of schools where faith is a criterion for admission [because faith is a problem?](#14). Finally, if Ofsted think they are being opaque in this matter, they can have their admissions criteria summarily altered (#15) and in the meantime ‘discriminating’ [a loaded term] appointments on the basis of faith criteria will be put
under review (#16).

At the launch I was genuinely dismayed to read this section. As someone who believes that the only way to improve RE across the whole sector effect and effect legislative change is to construct an ‘irresistible coalition’ of stakeholders I essentially agree with the stated methodology of Charles and Linda. Yet here, I was shocked to see that sections (12-16) take time out to extol recent Anglican policies, chide some Jewish schools, curiously ignore all mention of Muslim schools while singling out Catholic schools as a particular problem. 11

Is this the Nanny state gone mad? Are we back in the 1970’s and constructing a school system designed to get everyone to read and agree with The Guardian? It is very surprising given Professor Woodhead’s own sensitive writings on related matters that this section is so othering, patronizing and colonizing. 12 This is not really a question of ‘infelicitous expression’, these recommendations constitute a challenge to a liberation narrative, to the civil rights of millions of people who, funnily enough, may have good reason to be suspicious of state control over the way their children are taught to think.

Risk: While in my work as an RE Commissioner I have been a strong advocate for the continuing role of the Church of England in virtually all aspects of RE, I think the authors risk their own credibility by too favourably contrasting the Anglican approach regarding ‘inclusivity’ over and against Catholic and other faith schools without attending to pertinent theological, constitutional and indeed evangelical considerations which may lie behind that approach (see p.38-41). 13

The other risk taken by Clarke-Woodhead is their ‘dualistic approach to the dual system’ has inevitably led to questions regarding the confessional and professional balance of the advisory panel behind the report. 14 Their call for transparency, so prominent in this section must cut both ways, a fortiori since the report recommends the future of the subject will be predicated on proper consultation. I understand why Charles and Linda have been hurt by the implication that they are somehow anti-Catholic – that is unfair. Sadly, however, the report itself risks being open to that charge. 15

Conclusion
I recently heard a member of the Clarke-Woodhead advisory panel express the desire to ‘wrest control of the subject from religious groups.’ It struck me at the time that it was akin to a Government body promoting foreign languages while banning native speakers, but it is a view which has come to inform key recommendations made in A New Settlement Revised.

I do think that a move to an ‘outsider’ band of ‘experts’ to run the subject is contrary to the way the recent GCSE and A-Level reforms were guided by the Department for Education under Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan which deliberately included ‘insider’ contributions to the subject. To me it is indicative of the most serious intellectual error which “RE professionals” are prone to, viz. that they are endowed with educational objectivity whereas avowedly religious people are not. It not only ‘privileges the agnostic position’, in this view, confessional stakeholders are suspected of working against the laudable aims of religious tolerance and community cohesion.

Not only is this view theoretically and philosophically untenable, it practically and empirically ignores the fact that members of SACREs, teachers in faith schools and national stakeholder bodies demonstrate profound mutual commitment to differing religious traditions on a daily basis. This should be no surprise. People who love languages are likely to appreciate the subtleties, colour and expressions of other tongues.

In short, Charles and Linda’s revised New Settlement for RE may have good intentions, but its outworking may have undesirable consequences. The subject itself constitutes a diverse ecology in different habitats, not a dead list of assertions in a uniform environment – we tinker with its climate at our peril.

1 See http://faithdebates.org.uk/ where copies of the report and recent correspondence can be downloaded.
2 Mark is Chair of the RE Trust at Culham St Gabriel’s. His presentation may be accessed via https://mediacentral.ucl.ac.uk/Play/7953
3 Quite apart from the systematized horrors of Fascism, Communism, increasingly complex patterns of
extremism have led to Atheists having to disavow sporadic atrocities against religious believers
http://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2018/05/19/santa-fe-school-shooter-may-have-been-an-atheist-but-thats-not-why-he-killed/
4 See the statistic stated on p.8 and repeated on p.13 which emphasizes the 4% of Faith Schools that don’t and fails to consider e.g. that a commitment to curriculum RE is closer to 100% in Catholic schools.
5 Chaired by Fiona Bruce, M.P., this report is curiously absent from ‘A New Settlement’ – It is accessible via
https://www.fionabruce.org.uk/news/religious-literacy-report-launched
6 Cf. final paragraph p23ff and the response of Bishop Marcus Stock: ‘Not only are [these] recommendations largely incompatible within our sector, they were compiled with the knowledge that the Catholic community would find them unacceptable.’ http://www.catholiceducation.org.uk/component/k2/item/1003655-catholic- church-condemns-Clarkee-and-woodhead-report-on-religious-education
7 It is only right to mention that Paul Smalley, the Chair of NASACRE has cautiously welcomed the proposals see
http://www.nasacre.org.uk/useful-documents
8 Or at least ‘unassessables’ largely taught by non-specialists.
9 To misquote Monty Python, ‘No one expects the Lambeth Inquisition!’
10 Excepting, of course, Henry VII and Mary.
11 E.g. p.7, para.2, p.23, paras.4-6, p.39, para. 1, p.41, para.3 & 4
12 See e.g. ‘The Muslim Veil Controversy and European Values’ at
www.research.lancs.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/the-muslim-veil
13 E.g. As the State Church, there is a certain ‘ecclesiological logic’ whereby a local C of E ordinary may regard
him or herself the carer of all the souls of an entire city rather than just the affiliates of the Anglican
communion. This may be seen as benignly presumptuous by those of other faiths, but it is something that
clearly arouses the suspicion of secularists https://www.secularism.org.uk/opinion/2013/11/the-church-of-
englands-unrelenting-exploitation-of-the-nations-schools
14 While the Committee comprised of a number of Anglican experts, experts on Islamic and Jewish education,
at least one atheist, notable opponents of faith schools, a member of a think tank and a current RE teacher
(from a private girls school), it seems that Clarke-Woodhead did not see it necessary to include a single
recognized expert from the field of Catholic education which accounts for 10% of all pupils and probably
nearer 25% of classroom activity in the subject.
15 For the record, despite the impression given by their Letter to the CES, I never dismissed the report as the
product of an ‘Anti-Catholic Cabal’ – it is I think, Charles’ collectivized and publicized inference from private
remarks I made to him regarding the high octane views of specific individuals on the advisory committee of A
New Settlement.

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