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RE needs to be renamed, include non-religious viewpoints and focus less on indoctrination

By Rebecca Black

Published 08/12/2015

Commission chair: Baroness Butler-Sloss
Commission chair: Baroness Butler-Sloss

The traditional daily act of morning worship in schools across Northern Ireland should be replaced by 'inclusive assemblies', a new report has found.

Religious education and acts of collective worship are compulsory by law in Northern Ireland schools, although parents may withdraw their child from these on the grounds of conscience.

But a new report from the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life said schools need to widen their current religious education.

The commission, chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss, also called specifically for RE to be broadened to include more religions and non-religious world views on the same basis as religions.

Following two years examining religion and belief across Britain, it has made a number of recommendations, including specific comments about the education system in Northern Ireland.

It said that education about religion and belief is essential in schools, but says it must reflect religious and non-religious traditions in the UK, and should not contain elements of "confessional instruction or indoctrination".

The report was also critical of the Northern Ireland syllabus, saying that study of world religions "is only available for Key Stage 3 pupils on the basis of the churches' argument that younger children would be confused".

It said: "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."

The report also called for the subject of RE to be "renamed" and "given an explicitly educational rather than confessional focus".

The recommendations have received a mixed reaction from local parents.

Kirsty Patton from Newtownards, Co Down has a daughter in P1 and said she is open to the idea of children learning more about world religions, if age appropriate.

She said her daughter's school teaches about festivals in other religions. "In primary schools other religious festivals, eg Diwali etc are normally covered at least at foundation stage," she said.

"I think a broader understanding of the differences and similarities would be good for children - if age appropriate."

Ms Patton added: "We're raising our children as members of the Presbyterian Church but we're very keen they have an understanding and tolerance of all different viewpoints and religions, I definitely think there is a place for this in the primary schools, as I said, as long as it's age appropriate.

"I think we're living in an increasingly diverse society in NI so children need an understanding and respect for classmates' traditions and beliefs."

Jenni McCallen from Belfast also has a daughter in P1 and said she would like her to learn about all faiths, but disagreed that religious education should be compulsory.

"I think the option to learn about all faiths would be good, but RE as a whole shouldn't be mandatory," she said. "If you want to believe in something or criticise something, it would be beneficial to know as much about it as possible though.

"I'm of no faith, hating religion more as the years go on.

"But our children should be taught about it in a way that educates them but doesn't make them feel that they have to believe.

"In a Christian country, how would it work to teach children about each religion thoroughly without a bias?"

Belfast dad Stewart Finn says he wants to find a secular school to send his one-year-old son to.

"I don't think there should be a default taught religion in schools. I think children should be taught about all religions and none and be left with principles, morals, information and a critical mind that allows them to make their own decisions," he said.

"I would like to send my child to a truly mixed school including sex, race, social class and religions, but where no default religion nor the assumption of religion exists.

"I doubt I will find one, so tough compromise decisions will have to made when the time comes."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said it would not comment until they had had more time to consider the report.

What Protestant educationalists say...

The Transferors Representatives' Council (TRC) represents the three main Protestant dominations - the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church in the running of controlled schools.

"This report has only been published today and the TRC will take time to consider it in full," a spokesman said. "The TRC supports the current government policy on assemblies and religious education in schools. The TRC agrees with the position outlined in the Non-statutory Guidance Materials for RE which states: 'The Northern Ireland Core Syllabus for RE at primary level focuses particularly on the beliefs, practices and teachings of the Christian faith, mostly because the Judeo-Christian traditions and scriptures have affected the history and structures of society in the UK and Ireland more than any other religion.' This should be balanced, however, with the growing need of children to develop broad intercultural competencies in their awareness and understanding of religion."

What Catholic educationalists say...

Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown is chair of the Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education, which represents bishops and other trustees of Catholic schools in Northern Ireland. He said: "It would be very peculiar if Catholic schools - here or in Britain - were not allowed to offer a distinctive faith-based approach to education in an increasingly diverse society. It is offered to those numerous pupils and tax-paying parents who wish to avail of it. Access to faith-based education is very popular around the world, not despite the fact that it has a religious identity but because of the explicitly faith-based dimension to it.

Jim Clarke, Chief Executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, added: "My initial view on it is that it is a report that does not adequately reflect the position of the teaching of religion in Catholic schools. We have a much more inclusive vision than that document conveys."

Jim Clarke, Chief Executive of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools

"My initial view on it is that it is a report that does not adequately reflect the position of the teaching of religion in Catholic schools.

"We have a much more inclusive vision than that document conveys."

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