The interim report of the Commission on Religious Education was published last month seeking to outline a vision for the subject in current education policy in England. Whilst debates around the place of religions in education seek to balance the place of an established religion with increasing religious diversity, they often ignore the rise in recent decades of a third policy voice – neoliberalism. Nigel Fancourt finds that although neoliberalism is largely neutral on the position of religions in education it has generated conflicting policies.

The interim report of the Commission on Religious Education, Religious Education for All, was published in September. It seeks to outline a vision for the subject in current education policy in England. The purpose of the interim report is to allow for responses and comments, before producing the final version. However, as with any educational document, it can be placed within a wider analysis of the effect of neoliberal policies, and this analysis coincidentally echoes some themes from François Gauthier’s  recent piece.

Generally, debates about the place of religion(s) in schools in England are between educational traditionalists and educational progressives. To over-simplify, the former are those who look to the legacy of the past, seeing education as the passing on of the inherited wisdom of former generations, usually through traditional structures and disciplines: Latin, uniforms, independent and grammar schools etc. This group would be likely to envisage RE as a benign nurturing into the Christian tradition, with perhaps a nod to religious diversity, as a character-forming process of spiritual and moral education. They would consider RE and school assemblies as almost interchangeable, and welcome the presence of faith schools in the educational landscape. They might even prefer them as an educational model.

By contrast, progressives expect education to build a better future, as a way of ironing out current injustices, through wider access, preferential funding for the disadvantaged, non-selective schooling and a child-centred curriculum. Their vision for RE would be in opposition to the traditionalists, either by adopting a French-style secularism, or through a thoroughgoing, multi-religious impartiality, welcoming and celebrating religious diversity. They might also seek to include humanism in the RE curriculum, as a responsive widening out to other worldviews. For them, collective worship would not be part of RE, if it existed at all. They might be against faith schools on the grounds of divisiveness – though pragmatically they support a greater diversity of religions to offer faith schooling, on the grounds of equality.

These debates around the place of religions in education mirror wider debates around the place of religions within the public sphere in balancing the place of an established religion with increasing religious diversity. However, they often ignore the rise in recent decades of a third policy voice – neoliberalism – as Gauthier suggested.

Driven by an economic view of policy, manifest in international PISA rankings and big data analysis, this voice is heard in education in three key areas. The first is the marketization of education, through the encouragement of competition between different schools and through the provision of market choice for parents. This policy was introduced under Thatcher’s government, and has continued through New Labour to the current academisation and free schools programme. It has led to the weakening of many local authorities and the rise of academy chains. These are networks of schools, either locally or across the country. The second strand is in favouring subjects and qualifications offering obvious industrial or employability skills: information technology and business studies, and vocational awards. The third strand is an insistence on high stakes testing, with clear grading; pupils are to be differentially placed for the world of work. Neoliberalism is largely neutral on the position of religions in education, but generates conflicting policies.

First, greater marketization through the freeing up of possible educational providers has meant that ‘faith’ schools have burgeoned. Under the shift from government of education to governance of a market, religious institutions have the experience, resources and expertise. New faith schools open, either under the existing legal arrangements, or as academies, or as free schools. This opportunity also allows new kinds of religiously motivated organisations to be involved – not just the usual players, such as Church of England or Roman Catholic Church.  Religious identity has therefore re-emerged as a strategic tool in educational choice. This policy is likely to encourage the status of confessional RE and collective worship, reasserting a traditionalist model.

Second, the subject can be devalued because of its apparent lack of relevance to employment. This explains its absence from the current English Baccalaureate subjects, however it anomalously remains compulsory. Since 1944, a local SACRE – a consensus of local religious leaders, teachers and local councillors –has devised a non-partisan syllabus. This model assumes that religious leaders have relevant expertise in deciding on these issues. In 1944, the syllabus was Christian only. From 1988, five other religions were also included. This local consensus model has democratic appeal, and often produces a progressive syllabus, but may not be best placed to tackle the requirements of the world of work, though there is an obvious move to appeal to softer skills, such as empathy or collaboration.

Third, examination performance not curriculum content becomes the key marker for teachers in schools – especially secondary schools. Assessment processes and results determine its worth, rather than an intangible sense of religious nurture or multi-faith respect. Clearly the rigour of examination systems goes well beyond what a local committee can offer. More centralised processes, and more examinable cognitive skills are prioritised, so schools now offer more philosophical and ethical approaches. Note the rise of the rebranded ‘philosophy and religion’ department – including in faith schools. These approaches offer a degree of criticality, in which Dawkins is on the syllabus, but downplay religious diversity as philosophical and ethical material takes precedence. Also the effect of assessment processes in schools can cut against the subject’s justification – as a thirteen year old pupil observed:

The thing is, some people have an advantage because if you’re doing about Hindus and someone was a Hindu, in a test, they’d get more than you because they’d know a lot more

The unfair advantage of a believer in assessment becomes a concern, not greater respect for their beliefs.

And if all this sounds like a peculiarly English problem, think again. As noted above, National education systems are being compared by the OECD, in the famous PISA rankings. Countries react to their position within them, abandoning or adopting policies to further neoliberal goals. For RE, those countries which have maintained a model of choice between different confessional approaches, such as Germany with a choice of Protestant, Catholic – and increasingly, Muslim – education, also have to consider whether to continue this model, and then how any model is to be assessed. Sweden has recently introduced national ethics tests in primary RE. Even that most secular of countries, France, introduced the ‘teaching of facts about religion’ across the curriculum to tackle religious literacy and religious diversity – and then had to decide how this is to be assessed.

This then is the landscape through which the interim report must steer, in finding a compromise for RE that is reasonably acceptable to all three voices. Simplistically, its core recommendations can be labelled accordingly. To establish a core entitlement for RE across all types of schools, both faith and maintained, is a largely progressive policy. To hold schools more accountable, such as through formal examinations, is a neoliberal policy.  To reorganise the local decision-making of the syllabus is a traditionalist policy. To develop a National Plan for supporting teaching is a progressive policy. This is not to criticise the document. However, the status of the subject is embroiled in wider issues of the value of the religious establishment, the formal status of religious diversity, and increasing agnosticism, as well as in the educational pressures of an increasingly neoliberal age.

About the author

Nigel Fancourt is Associate Professor in Education, at the Department of Education, University of Oxford.  He is working on an analysis of the impact of neoliberalism on the place of religions in education.



Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and the Public Sphere blog, or of the London School of Economics.