Much hullabaloo erupted on Monday over the education secretary Nicky Morgan’s policy update on religious teaching in schools, which swatted atheists aside whilst pushing Christianity to the fore.
Morgan was forced to revise the policy following a court ruling in November that found atheism, humanism and other non-religious views were being excluded unlawfully from the religious studies curriculum at GCSE level.
The resultant updates have since led to some amusing headlines from newspapers both sympathetic and hostile to faith-heads, which on first sight would lead one to believe the Tories are launching some mass Christian propaganda exercise.
The Express, bastion of reactionary politics, went for “Britain is a CHRISTIAN country and children should be taught that, urges Nicky Morgan”, a sentiment backed up by the Telegraph (“Schools must teach children that Britain is a Christian country”), and Christian Today (“Yes, Britain is a Christian country, says Department for Education”).
On the other side of the ideological aisle the Huffington Post echoed the message (“Nicky Morgan Wants Schoolchildren To Be Taught That Britain Is Mainly A Christian Country”), with the Indy going further (“Schools must teach that Britain is ‘mainly Christian’ and need not cover atheism, says Nicky Morgan”).
All of which is a somewhat-if-not-quite-true representation of just what the Department for Education actually put out today, a point clarified in only some of the above pieces.
Firstly, it is true that the government is standing behind its decision not to oblige any school to teach children about non-religious views in religious studies classes during the GCSE years.
As the official guidance has it:
“Curriculum balance (and, therefore, compliance with statutory requirements) can be achieved across the key stages. There is no obligation on any school to cover the teaching of non-religious world views (or any other particular aspect of the RE curriculum) in key stage 4 specifically. Rather it is for schools and ASCs to determine how they meet their wider obligations across the key stages.”
(ASCs, or Agreed Syllabus Conferences, are local bodies that set religious studies curricula. Key stages are the government’s method of dividing up school years into academic programmes, with key stage 4 referring to the GCSE years.)
In short, what the government is proposing is that schools can cover non-religious views over the duration of a child’s education and still fulfil their remit under the law.
The Department for Education did state that there is no need for “equal air time to the teaching of religious and non-religious views”, which is where the newspapers have got the story of atheism being put in its place.
But what is not true is the notion that the government has claimed kids should be taught Britain is a mainly Christian country. What has been said is that children should be taught that “religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian.”
Those two words in bold render the above headlines mostly false – by definition, atheism is not a religious tradition, even if these days it non-religious views account for half the population in Britain, according to an official commission.
Whilst there may be unsavoury Tories that would be happy to indoctrinate schoolkids with Christian theology, for the most part this decision defends the status quo: religious schools are still largely free to teach whatever brand of fairy tales they like.
As Morgan put it in a suitably slippery fashion:
“The guidance I have issued makes absolutely clear that the recent judicial review will have no impact on what is currently being taught in religious education. I am clear that both faith and non-faith schools are completely entitled to prioritise the teaching of religion and faith over non-religious world views if they wish.”
More worryingly a source close to the education secretary told the Press Association:
“Nicky has had enough of campaign groups using the courts to try and force the teaching of atheism and humanism to kids against parent’s wishes. That’s why she’s taking a stand to protect the right of schools to prioritise the teaching of Christianity and other major religions.”
The whole furore comes after the prime minister David Cameron’s Christmas message, where he did claim that Britain is a “Christian country”, against all the evidence of one’s senses and the findings of that official commission:
“As a Christian country, we must remember what [Jesus’s] birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”
In summary, whilst the government may be staffed by delusional religious lunatics, for the time being the Department for Education is not a propaganda vehicle for the Church of England, even if it does let others abuse schools to that end.
Image Credit – Leamington Church, February 2014 by barnyz