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The Act Unpacked: The Meaning of the 1988 Education Reform Act for Religious Education by John M. Hull

June 18, 2015


It was written a long time ago but is relevant today in the light of a recent book by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead challenging the current arrangements.

When I did my PGCE, Birmingham had just produced a radical new Agreed Syllabus for RE which included the six major religions plus 2 ‘life stances’ – Humanism and Marxism. That was in 1974 and, ironically, that city has gone backwards and excluded the secular stances. Back then, this was exciting because many of us had done degrees which included an element of Religious Studies rather than just plain Theology. Our course did not take this into account so we made a great deal of fuss until they imported Owen Cole  from a nearby college to fill the void.

Kenneth Baker’s national curriculum unintentionally sidelined RE because it was already there, in the ‘basic curriculum’. As with Michael Gove’s more recent EBacc, the reality is that an innovation gets so much attention that existing practice gets overlooked.

It is for this reason that a campaign was mounted (in which I was involved) to lobby the House of Lords to strengthen the position of RE. Prominent in the debate which followed was Baroness Cox. With her classic arrogance, she wanted to insist that only Christianity be taught. This is a Christian country, she argued, and she had second-hand, anecdotal information, about the teaching of Islam and other religions marginalising Christianity. She hadn’t caught on that education about religion had replaced instruction in religion. It took the then Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, hardly a liberal, to oppose her. He teamed up with the Chief Rabbi to argue the importance of a multi faith perspective. In a masterstroke, he invited all his fellow religious leaders to leave the house, thus leaving it inquorate and pulling the rug from under Cox.

The result is that agreed syllabuses are to take account of the other principal religions in Great Britain. They are to take account of “the teaching and practices” of them. The teaching includes the doctrine and other aspects of the beliefs of the religion. So they won’t just be about bible stories as the lowest common denominator deemed to be uncontroversial.

Hull’s book led to many changes which shaped RE and improved its effectiveness.


The new wording tells us that Great Britain has a number of “religious traditions”. The use of the plural here is extremely important. The British tradition is not monolithic. Not only is Christianity represented here as comprising a number of different religious traditions, but the Christian traditions as a whole are subsumed within the general category “religious traditions”. We are dealing here with a social, cultural and historical phenomenon, of which the Christian expressions are, in the main, most widely represented. Moreover, the typical or general presence of the Christian traditions is only the case “in the main”. It would appear, therefore, that any new agreed syllabus is not to present a sort of homogenised or uniform impression of a culturally consistent Christianity such as was often found in the agreed syllabuses of the 1920-1970 period, but in line with current practice to present the Christian faith as it is actually lived and believed by a variety of communities with a range of traditions.

This is not all. Any agreed syllabus which stops short at this point has not been faithful to the Act. It will not be sufficient to present a range of Christian traditions even granting that these are not claimed to be absolutely predominant but only “in the main”. The section continues “whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain”. It seems unlikely that there is any significant difference between “shall reflect” and “taking account of “, so it seems reasonable to conclude that the significance and weight of the requirement lies in both its major elements. This does not necessarily mean, of course, that any actual syllabus should be equally weighted between the mainly Christian traditions and the other principal religions. Sometimes more significance would be given to Christianity; sometimes more significance would be given to the other religious traditions. It will depend upon a number of factors, one of which will certainly be the composition of the area. The significant thing to note is, however, that it will no longer be possible for parts of the country which are predominantly Christian, or where there are no significant groups of religious adherence other than Christian, to claim that therefore the local agreed syllabus should exclude the other principal religions. The locus of study is not to be the local county but Great Britain. Islam may not be a particularly significant religion in every rural part of East Anglia or the West country, but on any reckoning it is a principal religion represented in Great Britain…

It is important to notice that some details are offered about how agreed syllabuses are to take account of the other principal religions in Great Britain. They are to take account of “the teaching and practices” of them. The teaching includes the doctrine and other aspects of the beliefs of the religion.

For the first time, therefore, the basic curriculum of children and young people in our schools will not be meeting the legal standards unless they are taught the teaching of the principal non-Christian religions in Great Britain. This will naturally take place in a way appropriate to the age, family background and aptitude of the pupils, as it always has done, and this is doubtless what is meant by saying that these matters are to be taken into account. Although, as was noted, there can hardly be a difference between reflecting and taking account of, it is perhaps significant that both these expressions imply a certain distance. The wording does not tell us that the agreed syllabuses shall contain the teaching of Christianity and other religions or that Christian and other religions shall be taught. Rather, whatever syllabus is drawn up shall reflect and take account of these realities. It is clear that this leaves a wide margin of educational discretion and will prove flexible enough to be adaptable to the needs of most situations in England and Wales. Great Britain is, of course, larger than England and Wales, and it is interesting to note that it would be appropriate for agreed syllabuses to reflect Christian and non-Christian religions in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, in so far as these are deemed to be relevant to the educational needs of children in England and Wales. Once again, a wide range of selection and a flexible approach is called for.

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