When the 1870 Education Act first provided for state schools, they were modelled on the established pattern of Catholic and other church schools. Religious Instruction, as it was then called, was central; every day began with prayers at assembly. Catholic schools, meanwhile, continued to increase in number and size to try to meet the Bishops' desire for 'a Catholic school for every Catholic child'.
Leap nearly 75 years to the 1944 Education Act and again the importance of Religious Education is affirmed. Indeed it is the only compulsory subject. Compulsory English and Maths, indeed the whole National Curriculum, did not arrive until the 1988. But unlike National Curriculum subjects, the content of Religious Education was not centrally determined; local authorities were invited to set up local groups to produce a local Agreed Syllabus for their schools that reflected the religious composition of the local community. Catholic schools, meanwhile, continued to have the right to teach distinctive Catholic Religious Education. Thus Religious Education has a unique place in the curriculum.
Eventually after nearly 30 years a group was constituted that brought together the wide variety of professional associations and faith communities concerned for Religious Education, to represent their collective interest in deepening and strengthening its provision. Established in 1973, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales (REC) provides a forum for national organisations with an interest in supporting and promoting Religious Education in schools and colleges to meet and share matters of common concern.
It is a Council because it exists to serve the interests of its members. Meeting twice a year, all its member organisations, currently over 50, hear and question eminent speakers, discuss and set REC policy to promote the subject. Between Council meetings the elected Board actively pursues that policy through its committee structure, each with specialist members.
It has worked collaboratively with government to produce the National Non-statutory Framework for Religious Education and in 2010 the Religious Education Guidance documents. To raise the status of the subject, working with its member organisations, schools and teachers across the country, it held Celebrating RE month in March 2011. This increased the profile of the subject and celebrates some of the wonderful work undertaken in classrooms. Examples of the work may still be accessed through the REC website. The month was launched with a Reception at the House of Commons, by which time Religious Education was very much in the news because government had not included it in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).
The Religious Education Council was the natural focus for the campaign to include RE in the EBacc but member organisations also had their own campaigns. This was a good example of how working collaboratively made a significant impact. For example NATRE, the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, played a key part, mobilising members particularly through social media, while both the Archbishops of Westminster and Canterbury spoke out. Meanwhile the REC was able to monitor the media coverage, nationally and locally, issue press statements and even provide spokespersons for interview.
The campaign may have been lost (for now) but many parliamentarians described it as the most substantial education campaign that they could recall.
Building on this, 11 June sees the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Religious Education, bringing together members of all parties and both Houses of Parliament with an interest in Religious Education. The REC has been instrumental in establishing this new group and will be providing its secretariat. Coming just one month after the Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, spoke positively of the importance of RE at the REC, perhaps Religious Education is gaining a higher profile in Westminster but the aim of the REC is to translate this into a high profile in every school across the country. Sadly that is not the case at the moment, which is why the REC is also embarking on its own review of Religious Education, in parallel with the government’s review of the National Curriculum, to ensure it receives the attention accorded to other subjects.
All of which comes at a cost which is why it is launching a campaign to raise funds to secure its financial viability and increase the number of benefactors.
Catholic Church representatives have been involved with it since its foundation. Indeed the Council met in the Diocese of Westminster RE Centre from 1975-78. Today the Catholic Education Service and the Catholic National Board of Religious Inspectors and Advisers (NBRIA) are both active members, working to ensure the best Religious Education in all schools and colleges across England and Wales for the benefit of all young people, including Catholics not attending Catholic schools, while at the same time ensuring the right to distinctive Catholic religious education in Catholic schools is maintained.
Peter Ward, NBRIA Representative on the RE Council and RE Council Board Member