Posted: 2016-11-01

Read notes for a discussion on Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence (16th October) on religion in Faith Schools, in which the Religion, Philosophy and Ethics model is recommended as a replacement for RE.

I think, first of all, that we have to define faith schools. Faith schools are schools with a religious character. The point is that most schools in Northern Ireland have a religious character. This is both historical and in terms of the people who have gone into teaching. The main faiths, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Quaker and so on set up schools going back centuries in many cases. Also, a large percentage of religious people go into education because they see it as a mission. Teachers are exempt from fair employment legislation. Therefore schools can appoint teachers based upon their religious denomination and religious beliefs. There are no secular schools here. Taking those points together, it is clear that parents here do not have much a of a choice in this matter.


But we live in the 21st century. Many parents are not religious: many are atheists or agnostics or sceptics. And that percentage is increasing all the time. Also, all children have a right not to be indoctrinated and to be educated in a loving and caring environment. Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and Articles 13 and 14 of The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) state that every child has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and a right to think and believe what they want and to seek and receive all kinds of information, as long as it is within the law.


In Northern Ireland we have an RE Core Syllabus, drawn up by the four main Christian churches, that in all Key Stages is heavily Christian, except for Key Stage 3 where two world religious are included. Humanism or Philosophy or real comparative religion do not feature on the syllabus at all.


Even post 16 students at school cannot themselves choose to adopt out of RE and religious assemblies, though they can in England and Wales. This is disgraceful, especially as they leave school and go to work at this age.


This privileged position for Christianity has been even questioned even by many Christians. In December 2015 the report of the Woolf Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life, Living with Difference, was critical of the local RE syllabus, stating that the study of world religions “is only available for Key Stage 3 pupils on the basis of the church’s argument that younger children would be confused”.


It suggested that growing numbers of children and young people from other cultural and religious backgrounds “are not well served by a churches-devised RE core syllabus that positions itself as having an essential Christian character”. It called for RE to be renamed and “given an explicitly educational rather then confessional focus”.


Non-religious world views, such as Humanism, should be included. This is surely necessary in an increasingly diverse society where, according to a recent BBC/RTE survey, 23% of the people here have no religion. Yet they are totally ignored in this restrictive RE syllabus.


I would support the Religion, Philosophy and Ethics (RPE) model. It has many advantages: it is the approach followed by many other regions of the UK; it is favoured by the Welsh Minister of Education; it gives the study of religion an important place in a pluralist system but it includes other more secular perspectives; it is a degree course in many universities; and it includes Philosophy, which is studied in educational systems throughout the world and which the UN says should be in the curriculum of all schools.


Humanists want to see a more secular education system in which state-funded schools no longer favour any religion in pupil admissions, the curriculum, assemblies, or staff appointments. Children have a basic right not to be indoctrinated, a right that is flouted daily in our education system.