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Guest post: "Religion is an inescapable part of school life - is this right in modern Britain?"

A new report recommends scrapping compulsory worship in schools. Here, Charles Clarke - co-author of the report and former Education Secretary - explains why

Religion is woven into the fabric of our lives. Each family has its own attitude to it, whether through attending regular acts of worship, participating in religious rites of passage, rejecting organised religion altogether or following a completely different system of belief. Likewise, religion is an inescapable part of the school day, from morning assembly to R.E. classes and school trips to local places of worship. Is this right in twenty-first century Britain? Our current system was established in 1944, when the Christian churches dominated national life far more than they do today. The agreement between Church and state established a structure of church schools, stated that religious instruction would be a legally required part of the curriculum – and decreed that there should be a daily act of collective worship which should be "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character". It's not just changes in the social and cultural make-up of Britain that mean this 70-year-old system no longer makes sense. Over that time, the way we use schools has changed, too. The school leaving age has risen steadily, the role of local education authorities has declined and schools have become the venues of an enormous range of ‘pre-school’ and ‘after school’ activity. For well over a decade Ofsted has chronicled the generally unsatisfactory nature of religious education, with increased confusion on the part of many teachers about its purpose and ambition, and reduced commitment by government to include R.E. as a central part of the school curriculum. At the same time religion has become more significant amongst young people themselves. This has partly been stimulated by the enormous range of controversies around religion which dominate the news, whether about IS in Syria or the Church's attitude to women bishops and gay marriage. Young people are now more likely to have an opinion on a particular faith or practice, and this is reflected in their GCSE choices – examination entries for R.E. have increased year on year since 2006. Clearly, the system needs to be updated – which is why I have co-authored a pamphlet with Linda Woodhead urging the government to renew the legal framework regarding religion in schools. Assemblies are really valuable and important. However it is not necessary for them to be tied into a legal straitjacket, flouted by many schools, with an act of Christian worship at its core. Teachers and school governors – within clear Ofsted guidelines - should be able to decide the best form of assembly for that school and its community. The R.E. system should be changed to respect and honour all belief systems, including those, like humanism, which are not religious in any way. It should ensure that every child leaves school understanding clearly what each religion is, and is not. R.E. lessons should also provide time in which young people can work out their own resilient beliefs, in a safe space which allows values to be interrogated and well understood. Some people argue for the abolition of faith schools. However such an approach would eliminate an important right of school choice and in practice would be horribly disruptive and impossible to deliver. So we concluded that the right should remain but that admissions procedures have to be tightened to eliminate abuse and ensure that the right is properly exercised. The greatest gift of education is to give children and young people the equipment to fully understand the world in which they are growing up, the self-confidence to form their own attitudes and beliefs and the ability to use their knowledge and understanding to change the world for the better. That is why we must bring the legal framework for religion in schools up-to-date, and make it fit for modern times. Source:

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