Teaching of religion under considerable strain in Britain

In the US the issue is how to keep religion out of the schools, hence the importance of the debates on the teaching of creation. In Britain, it's the other way around: a movement to get required religion out of the schools.

Every year more schools ignore a legal requirement to give all children weekly religious education and to hold a daily religious service. Many more acknowledge they support the law with the greatest reluctance.

Religious education has a privileged position in British schools: Under a law of 1944 it is the only subject that must be taught. This was a concession to the churches, which have run schools since the 7th century. But British society has changed in the last 37 years, and religious education in schools is now under considerable strain.

A quarter of all secondary schools are not teaching it at all, and only half offer it to all pupils, according to figures from the Religious Education Council. These were confirmed by the government's own education inspectors, but Mark Carlisle, the education secretary, said recently that there were no plans to change the law.

Enforcing it would be difficult. Apart from the mechanical problems of trying to do so, the main obstacle is the chronic shortage of teachers willing and qualified to teach religious education.

More than half the 22,000 teachers of religious education have no relevant qualifications. Last year there was a rise in the number of graduates training as religious education teachers, but even if the trend continues it will be many years before every school has someone qualified to teach the subject.

The content of religious education teaching is also increasingly controversial. Britain is steadily becoming more secular. Baptisms into the Church of England, for example, dropped from 450,000 in 1950, to 240,000 in 1977 (though this was partly because of the falling birthrate).

At the same time the postwar influx of Hindu, Muslim, and other Asian immigrants has meant that the Christian concept of religious education in most schools has had to be revised, and morning assemblies have become increasingly eclectic.

Though straight doctrinal instruction does still exist, particularly in Roman Catholic schools, many schools prefer a broader based approach. Some simply give factual information about the beliefs and practices of different world religions -- perhaps calling in outside speakers -- while others encourage children to consider general moral issues, often in an essentially humanist way.

While most children will be taught evolution in science classes, at the same time they will probably come across religious explanations of creation during their religious education classes (though these may well be taught as no more than useful allegories).

In a much publicized case here four years ago David Watson, a religious education teacher at a Hertfordshire School, was fired for teaching that the Genesis accounts of creation were literally true.

As well as compulsory weekly religious education, about 125,000 children (two-thirds of them girls) choose to study religion as a public exam option.

But however much conventional religion is on the retreat in schools, and however unwilling parents appear to be about going to church, repeated surveys show that a substantial majority of parents do want their children to have someone religious education in school.

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