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Education – Woolf howl

February 2016

A major study into the role of religion and belief in public life has taken a side-swipe at schools which encourage collective worship.

Interfaith think-tank the Woolf Institute has completed a commission on religion and belief in British public life, chaired by the Rt Hon. Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss GBE.

Its 104-page report, Living with difference: community, diversity and the common good, recommended that nobody should withdraw from lessons about faith, stating: ‘Education about religion and belief is essential, because it is in schools and colleges that there is the best and earliest chance of breaking down ignorance and developing individuals who will be receptive of the other, and ask difficult questions without fear of offending’.

The report said there should be no legal right to withdraw from learning about religion and belief, as long as the curriculum was ‘objective, fair and balanced’. It recommended that RE should be included in the English Baccalaureate.

However, it also recommended that state-funded schools should not be allowed to select pupils based on their religious background.

Among several other calls, it recommended that the government should ‘repeal requirements for schools to hold acts of collective worship or religious observance and issue new guidelines, building on current best practice, for inclusive assemblies and times for reflection that draw upon a range of sources, that are appropriate for pupils and staff of all religions and beliefs’.

Private body

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chairman of the Accord Coalition, said he endorsed the recommendations, adding, ‘It is the latest in a series of reports that call for greater inclusivity and highlights the change in public attitudes away from schools that effectively ghettoise children. It is time to state firmly that the role of state-funded schools is to educate, and neither to indoctrinate nor segregate’.

Andrea Williams, of Christian Concern, said, ‘In spite of its name, we should not confuse this commission with a public or royal commission. It has been appointed by a private body and its conclusions are not all that surprising, given its make-up.

‘The report is right to recognise the enduring significance of religion. Contrary to the shrill claims of some secularists, religion is not going away. But this report suggests that we need more religion in public life, but less Christianity.

‘It fails to recognise the benefit and coherency that Christianity brings to our past, present and future. A yet more pluralistic approach to our national life is precisely what we don’t need’.