by Deborah Weston
I don’t know how I got into campaigning RE, but it was a very long time ago. I’ll probably sound like a geriatric if I say it was during the passage of the 1988 Education Reform Bill, when the sort of RE I believed in was under attack. It was the wonderful late Rabbi Hugo Gryn who took me aside and explained the harsh realities of trying to change the direction of government policy on an issue. He was completely right; it is not easy and there are individuals who will not change their minds about RE, however much evidence you put in front of them. At the opposite extreme, a politician may become suddenly really interested in RE for a very unpredictable and not always helpful reason. Something may happen in their local constituency for example, or they read a book or article and suddenly they want to talk about RE and will offer support to subject associations like NATRE or the RE Council.
The RE Policy Unit
Politicians are obviously key to achieving the big changes in policy; but those working in the RE eco-system make a big difference too. For the last few years, I have been chairing a group called the RE Policy Unit This is a strategic partnership between NATRE, the RE Council and RE Today. It was established because members of these three organisations had made public relations work in support of RE, a key part of their strategic plans.
It made perfect sense to work together; bringing together the lobbying power of teachers’ voices alongside other members of the REC, including communities of faith and belief – all held together with back-office support provided by RE Today. My experience of attending meetings with politicians, officials and other so-called ‘influencers’, has taught me that when those representing teachers stand alongside those representing faith and belief communities and present a united case for change, the impact is likely to be more effective than one group lobbying alone.
The Policy Unit has been fortunate to secure funding from charitable foundations. This allows the work of the volunteers to be supported by paid consultants; including our media and public relations consultants, 3:nine, and Politicomms, who advise and support our political lobbying. The Policy Unit does not make policy itself, but lobbies for action on the policy shared by the three organisations.
For example, all three organisations agree on the vision for the subject set out in the Commission on RE’s Statement of Entitlement and summarised here:. And all three are committed to the need for a National Plan for RE supported and financed by National Government.
What has been happening since the Commission on RE was published in 2018?
The Chair of the REC, Professor Trevor Cooling, described the Commission’s vision as a pebble in the pond, sending ripples far and wide. Just as the authors of Schools Council Working Paper 36 set out a vision for multi-faith RE in the 1970s, so the Commissioners in 2018 set out a vision for an education in religious and non-religious worldviews.
The Policy Unit, as well as its individual organisations and member organisations of the REC, have been very busy in the lobbying arena since 2018. One of the issues with sharing information about lobbying, is that much of it happens behind the scenes. Some of it has to be confidential, and some of it doesn’t make for very interesting reporting.
As you’d expect, the Policy Unit works to a development plan (2020-2024). This plan has one central aim and four focus areas. These have been agreed by the boards/executives of the organisations:
Aim: To secure high quality education in Religion and Worldviews for all pupils in all schools, taught by well qualified and trained teachers.
The work towards achieving these aims in the current three-year period includes four focus areas:
- Building consensus about the vision of the Commission on RE: the need for action and the case for a focus on religious and non-religious worldviews
- Improving public perception and developing more appreciation of the nature of R&W and its importance in a broad and balanced curriculum
- Investing in raising the standard of the workforce: to ensure all children in all schools are taught religion and worldviews by well trained and qualified teachers
- Securing space for education in religion and worldviews in school curriculums: so that all children in all schools receive high quality provision that is consistent with a statement of National Entitlement for the subject.
NATRE regularly updates a summary of its lobbying activity here. If you would like to read a more comprehensive account of REPU activities, you can read this report, which was presented to the REC AGM in May 2021.
So why have we selected these areas rather than immediately lobbying for change to primary legislation as recommended in the Commission on RE final report?
This is of course a matter of individual opinion, and the situation could change at any time. Imagine for example if government plans towards full academisation move forward – you can read the Secretary of State’s recent speech on this here. To be fair, there has been no suggestion yet that the intention is to compel schools to become academies. However, if the process did move forward, there would almost certainly need to be a new Act of Parliament to bring that into law. This legislation would have the potential to affect the structures that support RE; for example, SACREs, Agreed Syllabus Conferences and so on.
So that being the case, why not lobby for legal change now?
The most straightforward way I can express my current view on this is to say that I do not think we yet have sufficient consensus on a future for RE within the sector. The Commission of RE’s vision for an education in religion and worldviews is still relatively new. Exciting conversations are taking place about what the terminology might mean for our subject and a project is just beginning that will produce a range of resources for syllabus writers. This work is on-going; many teachers are using the principles in the classroom, but it is still early days. By the time parliamentarians came to discuss RE in the context of the 1988 Education Reform Act, the teaching of world religions had pretty much become the norm, so the change to that approach in law reflected practice that was already well-established on the ground. Even so, the long and damaging debates that happened in 1987-88 probably act as a disincentive for any current politician who knows their RE history to become involved in legal change in relation to RE.
How could this issue be overcome? There are three possible routes as I see it:
- If public opinion was firmly on the side of change, we would be far more likely to secure government support. So our focus on public perception of an education in religion and worldviews is important;
- If we had substantially more funds at our disposal, we might be able to support a private member’s bill and this might pave the way for a change in the law on RE;
- If it could be shown that the current legislation on RE is inconsistent with something like the Human Rights Act, and it were challenged through a judicial review, the government might need to review the law.
Each of these routes is complicated, and success would still not be guaranteed, especially given the issue of consensus discussed above. For now, the Policy Unit will focus on the four focus areas above, but we are monitoring the political situation daily, in case anything changes.
What can teachers do?
There is a lot you can do to help achieve our overall aim and contribute to the four focus areas. Are you a Champion for R&W? Do you celebrate your successes? What do you do to help parents and others understand the aims and value of an education in R&W? Have you played your part in educating your member of parliament about why our subject matters? I have just submitted an article to RE Today exploring the possible role of an R&W Champion, so if you are interested, you should be able to read more in the Autumn edition. In the meantime, if you have ideas about activities for the Policy Unit, we will be pleased to hear from you.
Deborah Weston OBE taught RE in East London for 34 years and continues to work as an adviser, trainer and consultant. She is the research officer for NATRE, Company Secretary of the REC and a trustee for Culham St Gabriel’s Trust.