Glaring gap in national curriculum and ‘the needs of the community, society and world’, says Robin Alexander of the CPR.

Janet Downs's picture
There’s a glaring gap in the new national curriculum between what is mandated and the ‘needs of the community, society and world in which our children are growing up,’ says Professor Robin Alexander in his latest blog for the Cambridge Primary Review (CPR).

The CPR recommendations, based on years of research but never implemented in this country, included a framework of ‘domains’. These, predating the current debate on ‘British values’, included ‘place and time, citizenship and ethics and faith and belief’. Robin writes:

‘The last of these was deemed integral to the curriculum because, as our community soundings confirmed, ‘religion is fundamental to this country’s history, culture and language, as well as to the daily lives of many of its inhabitants.’

But the ‘exploration of faith and belief’, which isn’t necessarily compulsory Religious Education, Robin says, is not reflected in the proposed national curriculum ‘even as religion is invoked to justify unspeakable atrocities'. He also highlights other glaring omissions:

1World history gets ‘scant treatment’.

2In Science, the ‘ethical dimension’ has been cut out.

3Culture, however defined, receives ‘short shrift’ and is missing completely from the primary phase.

Robin reminds educators they need to be ‘mindful of what is appropriate for children’ during their growing up. The ideal of a childhood free of adult concerns and fears should not, he says, be ‘lightly dismissed’. But the CPR’s ‘soundings’, taken across the country during the review’s research, were infused with ‘a sense of deep pessimism about the future’ and children were aware of this. But the soundings also revealed hope:

‘…where schools engaged children with global and local realities as aspects of their education they were noticeably more upbeat … Pessimism turned to hope when witnesses felt they had the power to act.’

What should educators do and what should children learn? Robin asks. He urges people to respond to the DfE consultation on promoting British values in independent schools, academies and free schools, which closes on the 18 August. It is available here.


You can find a detailed discussion of the wider purposes of primary education and implications for the curriculum in ‘Children, their World, their Education: final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review', chapters 12 and 14.
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Helen's picture
Wed, 13/08/2014 - 12:40

Robin says it is a glaring omission of the proposed national curriculum that an exploration of faith and belief is not reflected there, and he makes an assumption that religion is "fundamental to the daily lives of many of its [this country’s ] inhabitants."
This statement is based on the views of three religious leaders who were invited to the "soundings", and which is surely mistaken.
Religion is irrelevant to the daily lives of the majority, especially to young people, and we have a largely secular society to thank for our peaceful way of life here. Religion has an historical relevance, yes, and should remain as such.
A reaction to events in Birmingham which results in more religion in schools would be regrettable, if this is what is being suggested.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 13/08/2014 - 14:28

I agree with you Helen, but I don't think this is what is being proposed.

Helen's picture
Wed, 13/08/2014 - 15:01

I hope not, but reading Robin's post suggests he would like more teaching about faith and belief.
The History curriculum includes "the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups" - surely this covers it?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 16/08/2014 - 07:56

Helen - I read Robin's statement as meaning pupils should be taught about different faiths because all our lives are affected by religious beliefs even those who are non-believers. Recent world events demonstrate that, as Robin pointed out.

Even Richard Dawkins supports pupils learning about the Bible because you can't fully understand and appreciate Western art, literature and music without this foundation.

Teaching about religious beliefs is not the same as proselytising. Teaching about religious beliefs promotes understanding of the beliefs of others. Teaching about religious beliefs encourages pupils to think about their faith (or lack of it) so they can make a decision for themselves as opposed to having a decision forced upon them by their parents or schools.

And teaching about religious beliefs means children have access to some cracking stories. But they don't have to believe them.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 16/08/2014 - 16:59

Absolutely right and very well put Janet.

Helen's picture
Sun, 17/08/2014 - 19:51

Janet – please forgive my lengthy reply, but there is a misunderstanding on your part.
You imagine I think Robin advocates proselytising to children in school – why so? This would be completely unacceptable and I do not for one minute think that is what he is suggesting.
As I said, learning about faith and belief is what is under discussion, and I disagree with Robin, and you, and it appears Roger Titcombe on this matter.
Your remark that children should not have a decision forced upon them by their parents or schools is a curious one in this context. That would mean no “faith schools” at all (I agree of course,) and that children should not be withdrawn from any lessons according to their parents’ wishes – it gets complicated, doesn’t it?
In an ideal world children would not identified with any particular religion until adulthood, but that is never going to happen.
I am aware of the need for children to be taught about current affairs, no-one would argue with that. The part of the history curriculum at key stage 1 I mention above is a good starting point, wouldn’t you say? A greater understanding of current affairs will follow naturally from this. For me this is where the topic should end – an in-depth study in school of belief systems is not required in order to understand conflict around the world, simply the acknowledgement that faith and belief is divisive.
A useful exercise is to substitute the words “religious people” for every different creed each time they appear in a news story, in order to impress upon children the way religion influences the behaviour of different “groups”. They will soon understand that religious people are killing other religious people (often of the same faith) every day around the world, and why.
I have a particular anxiety about RE (Robin says it will “not necessarily” be compulsory) since there exists, in my experience, a real danger of proselytising about religion in these lessons, which are largely taught by Christians. Moral behaviour is brought into the subject where it should absolutely not be found. To include this suggests people derive their morality from religion, which is not true for the majority in this country – to suggest it is outrageous.
Atheism and Humanism are given scant attention if any at all in RE according to my child’s teacher 4 years ago.
Most head teachers appear to be Christians too – it would be useful to know the figures, if they are available.
If a particular painting or piece of music is studied of course the story behind it will be leaned, but as a piece of fiction, not to be confused with fact.
As for the "cracking stories they don't have to believe”, any kind of fiction should be labelled as precisely that, and “cracking” fiction is covered adequately in the English curriculum, without resorting to the often miserable and horrifically violent bible stories you refer to. What a tragedy if children in school should somehow get the idea there is truth to be found in the bible.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 08:54

Helen - you're right about the danger of proselytising in the teaching of religion in schools. There are DfE guidelines re the teaching of RE which schools should follow.

Bible stories (and stories from other faiths) are part of the rich menu of literature. It doesn't have to be restricted to English lessons. And it doesn't follow that in recommending some Bible stories to children I am advocating they should be taught everything in the Bible. But Western culture and its calendar is based on Christianity so a working knowledge is useful.

You're right that humanism isn't given sufficient emphasis - some would argue that's because it isn't a belief system - the human values don't depend on belief in a supernatural body. But that would be a useful discussion within RE.

The danger comes (as we've seen from some schools in Birmingham) when aspects of other religions except the one accepted (or promoted) by the school are eradicated (no Nativity plays, Christmas etc), other religions (or no-faith positions) are presented as inferior or when scripture is treated as literal truth (eg creationism) which leads to people justifying atrocities by citing passages from the Bible, Qur'an etc.

It's important children know about all religions and that all people (whether believers or non-believers) are of equal value while at the same time having the freedom (a fundamental human right) to follow their chosen faith (or none):

Article 18 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.'

That should be a fundamental rule of any RE curriculum.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 09:41

Janet - I don't wish to upset this happy consensus of the unbelievers, but I have to depart from you about teaching children that all religions are of equal value - there is no doubt about individuals - the American Declaration of Independence states that principle as clearly as any.

To accept your supposition means accepting that everything that anybody believes has equal value. This is cultural relativism. It is wrong and dangerous. It led to decades of inaction against FGM for example.

When this is pointed out in relation to religious and superstitious beliefs, adherents often start to talk about 'militant secularism/atheism'. There is no logic in the contrary position. Copernicus' and Gallileo's beliefs about the solar system were right and the Pope's were wrong. Astrology and all the various varieties of crystal swinging in Glastonbury High Street involve false belief and are wrong.

It is harder when it comes to mainstream religions with millions of devout followers. No one wants to gratuitously insult people especially when faith is sincerely and deeply held. However there are lines that a civilised society cannot cross. Prohibition of apostasy, let along encouraging the murder of those guilty of it, is an obvious case in point. FGM is another. Abusing children in an attempt to excorcise evil spirits is another.

The difficulty arises when finer distinctions of abuse are involved but there is no doubt that our Family Courts sometimes make judgements about children's welfare that conflict with the sincerely held religious views of one or more parents. This is the Court asserting that the rational, secular belief system of the nation state can be held to be superior to the belief system that some religious individuals may hold.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 12:17

Helen - My response to Janet is why I think that the school curriculum should require in-depth factual teaching about all the world's major religions and also include prominent sects and cults in the home nations including how they came about.

This is important for many reasons. It enables those with different faiths and no faith to understand where faith groups and their leaders are 'coming from' in terms of their public pronouncements and positions.

It helps everybody to avoid unnecessary gratuitous offence, without the need or objectionable restriction on free expression created by blasphemy laws.

In terms of the Christian churches and sects in the UK, it is very important history.

And last but by no means least it enables young people to develop their own belief systems in full knowledge of what their parent's religion actually involves in terms of basic faith beliefs and to be aware of how that has common features with those of other sects and where the differences and areas of contention lie. (eg C of E and RC). I left school in complete ignorance of this.

None of this can be left to faith groups themselves as they cannot be relied upon to provide the facts.

This form of statutory national curriculum RE/philosophy course should absolutely forbid any bias or proselytising on behalf of the teacher.

As I have argued on other threads I would allow faith schools to teach what they like about their own religion IN ADDITION to the national curriculum requirement, but not in place of it.

Of course no school, faith or otherwise, should be allowed to require pupils to take part in religious ceremonies or worship while at school. That really is a 'no brainer'. The present law is indefensible and long past its historical sell-by date.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 13:55

Roger - I said 'all people' were of equal value. However, I should have made it clear that a person's right to follow a chosen religion does not mean that harm can be justified in the name of that religion.

Helen's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 08:22

Roger and Janet – How much time would you dedicate to teaching children about religion/cults? All that is required is a brief explanation of the “diverse” groups in society, as already mentioned in the history curriculum.
The reason atheism and humanism should be covered if you insist on RE lessons, is that children are not even aware of the possibility of these options unless they are presented. Roger you say you left school in ignorance of how Christian sects differ – as a child I did not even know there were atheists – that is an important piece of information for children if we are going to teach RE.
An RE exam paper I saw asked how a Christian would respond to a certain situation and followed this up by asking which is the “right” way to respond (the Christian way was the “correct” answer) Proselytising? Not overtly, but still indoctrination. The kind and law-abiding citizens who have no religious belief are not considered worth mentioning in RE.
I am afraid the guidelines Janet mentions for RE are not reassuring in this respect,
A letter in the Daily Telegraph last week about the place of religion in schools was signed by members of the clergy as well as representatives of the British Humanist Association who campaign on this issue.
A recent comment there by johndowdle expresses well the reasons for not wasting time on RE;
“Do we need to teach children about these beliefs in our schools?
Yes - but only so they can appreciate the effect of religion on history.
The alleged core content of these belief systems is a waste of time in itself.
The important lesson is that all false ideologies lead to struggle, conflict and waste.”

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 08:37

Helen. But the world is as it is - populated by billions of people with religious faith that can be manipulated by their priest class. The real danger is when priests become politicians and then corrupt democracy by telling people how to vote on pain of eternal damnation or death in their present life. Promising murderous martyrs extra privileges, like access to virgins for sexual purposes in heaven is another new and truly frightening dimension.

In our real world young people need to learn what is going on, what all those millions of people believe and why they believe it.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 08:51

Helen - I agree with the signatories to the Telegraph letter. There needs to be an inquiry into the place of religion and belief in schools. However, I don't agree that teaching about what people believe is a waste of time. This is integral to understanding why these beliefs have affected history and impact on current affairs. It is not enough to say 'the alleged content of these belief systems' are 'false ideologies [which] lead to struggle, conflict and waste' because this immediately alienates those who sincerely believe (and there are many believers among the signatories to the DT letter). That's not to say, of course, that taking religious beliefs too literally doesn't lead to conflict - it does - but religions also claim to be peaceful - 'Love one another'.

RE can, of course, be covered in history as part of the humanities curriculum but this causes two problems:

(a) parents have the right to withdraw their children from RE - this would be difficult if it were integrated into other subjects. Perhaps this ability to withdraw children should be part of the requested inquiry.

(b) it sidesteps current affairs - there should be space in schools for children to discuss the impact of religion on how human beings treat each other and, crucially, what is contained in these beliefs, if only to remind believers what their own scriptures command eg Christian faith schools who discriminate against non-Christians and those of no faith should be reminded of the command: 'Suffer little children to come unto me', Muslims who want to kill apostates should be reminded of the verse in the Qur'an which says there should be no compulsion in religion; Muslims who want women to cover up completely need to be told there's no obligation to wear veils, burquas etc.

This requires knowledge.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 11:18

Sorry Janet - I don't agree with any of that. The teaching of religions and belief systems must be entirely factual. I envisage a textbook, page to view, tabular format dealing with core beliefs under the following headings

Historical Origin of the religion
Origins doctrine - universe, earth, life, humans
Death of humans - what happens - heaven - who goes - who doesn't
Main miraculous aspects of faith
Organisation of church and priesthood - priesthood hierarchy
Core doctrinal/moral principles
Significant ceremonies and festivals - daily-weekly-monthly-annually
Duties of adherents
Holy places
Attitudes to politics
Other significant features

This sounds dry but I predict that children would be fascinated.

Teachers must not get into doctrinal debates with children or parents about what particular holy scriptures mean or how they should be interpreted. There is no consensus within religions on many such issues and there is never likely to be.

If children ask questions about questions of morality and right and wrong that should not be seen as an issue with special relevance to the teaching about religion. All teachers should be able to deal with issues in accordance with the Law, the PSE curriculum and school policies.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 12:15

Roger - There seems to be some misunderstanding. Of course, the teaching of religious beliefs should be factual - I wasn't suggesting otherwise. This would be under your heading 'core doctrinal/moral principles'.

But children should know that interpretation changes and there are, as you point out, arguments within religions about different interpretations (this is often a cause of sectarian violence).

It doesn't follow that in saying knowledge of religion's 'moral principles' should be taught that religion should always be consulted in questions of morality. You don't have to invoke the Ten Commandments to say stealing is wrong. But already we have a moral dilemma - are there circumstances (eg poaching for the pot) when stealing isn't wrong?

PS I've just been watching Les Miserables which poses that question. Were the years Jean Valjean spent doing hard labour justified because he stole bread to feed a starving child? And could the dogged pursuit of Valjean by Inspector Javert be justified because it was sanctioned by the Law? Did Valjean turn his life around because he was intrinsically good or because the Priest who protected him 'bought his soul for God'?

These are philosophical questions. And the last one reminds me of the Euthyphro dilemma I had to wrestle with when doing my OU degree. But to discuss that here would be way off thread (and make my brain hurt).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 13:14

Janet - I agree. I am also a fan of Les Miserables. I especially agree that school pupils should be exposed to moral dilemmas and that any discussion of such should not be especially delegated to teachers of religion in schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 20/08/2014 - 07:45

Roger - such dilemmas can be approached through the study of literature, history, geography and science. When I taught Business Studies I introduced business ethics (which wasn't on the syllabus). So we discussed things such as misleading marketing, working practices (zero hours weren't well-know then, so I didn't cover these), fair profit etc. One of my most successful lessons was a case study on marketing baby milk to the third world (based on real events but without mentioning the firm concerned). It never ceased to shock the pupils.

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