Reforming Religious Education: the religious clauses of the 1988 Education Reform Act
Edwin Cox and Josephine M Cairns 1989
London: Kogan Page/University of London Institute of Education (Bedford Way Series)
102pp., £8.99 ISBN 1-85091-898-8
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 1990
This is not a book to buy if you want practical help with planning school assemblies or religious education lessons which comply with the 1988 Education Reform Act. It is, however, a prerequisite for such planning as it provides a stimulus for the essential and fundamental thinking which must precede it.
Its two authors take on different - and complementary - roles: Josephine Cairns concerns herself with the background to the Act, both legal (the 1944 Act) and social and cultural; while Edwin Cox examines in some detail the provisions of the 1988 Act and points out some of the ambiguities and problems which they contain and raise. A final chapter provides a forum for five writers from different life-stances to give their views.
In the first three chapters, the authors examine the main provisions of the 1944 Act and developments in the years between 1944 and 1988 and note that, while there have been profound changes to the nature of British society during that period, some things have remained the same, including the British people's ambiguous attitude to religion: 'religious clauses in the 1988 Act which beg so many questions are the direct result' (p.5).
In chapters four to eight, the authors examine these clauses. In his chapter on Collective Worship, Edwin Cox reviews the problems this has always presented and suggests, with delightful understatement, that
to teachers who have struggled with the problems of providing in present-day schools some form of worship which is not an empty formality but has some meaning or significance for the collection of children of various faiths and doubts who are required to attend, the clauses in the 1988 Act may well seem blandly optimistic (p.37).He presents a useful analysis of the nature of worship: one wonders whether the writers of the Act ever undertook such an analysis.
In his next chapter, Edwin Cox considers what is meant by 'broad traditional Christianity', noting that the 1988 Act is rather more specific than its 1944 predecessor in this respect. His last paragraph includes, significantly, four questions and ends by suggesting that the Act has 'left all the problems that beset school worship in the past, and added to them the new one of how to be broadly Christian' (p.50).
Further chapters examine the position of the Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education, teachers, sixth forms, grant-maintained schools and City Technology Colleges.
Josephine Cairns asks whether religious education can seize the opportunities offered by the new Act. She suggests that 'at the very least the Act invites teachers to discuss openly ... what explicit guidance should be offered to young people about moral and religious ideas and practices in a country which refuses to nominate any one moral code or any one religious philosophy as that to which it is prepared to be committed' (p.66).
Edwin Cox asks 'Why religion?' and offers some possible answers - to promote religious belief? - to teach morality? - to promote social consensus? - to provide for transcendental experience? Once again, it seems clear that the legislators have given little thought to the matter, leaving 'a degree of uncertainty as to what precise form of religious education is being legislated for' (p.83).
The book concludes with an Appendix in which a Christian, a Hindu, a Humanist, a Jew and a Muslim comment from personal viewpoints.
Teachers have, it seems to me, to work within the provisions of the 1988 Act, and to create out of them (or despite them) a philosophy and framework for education which is right for our children. The thrust of this book is the necessity for all those involved in education to think, and to think deeply. It is not a book which provides answers; rather, it asks questions and, in so doing, contributes invaluably to that thinking process. I commend it strongly to all those who, like myself, are struggling to make sense of religious education today.
This review was first published in Forum 32(2) Spring 1990 61-62.