This term, the children in Year One of our local primary school will be spending their weekly RE lessons 'thanking God for nature'. So says a letter that was sent home to parents at the beginning of this term.
But it's not a faith school; it's a local community school. So shouldn't the class – which my five-year-old son is a member of – be spending their RE lessons learning about different beliefs, including atheism, with a view to enabling them to decide for themselves later on whether they think there is a God to thank?
And what about the evidence-base of where nature comes from? To teach five and six year-olds that God is wholly responsible for the world around us takes a purely creationist view and is completely at odds with what they learn in science.
No prizes for guessing where I sit in this debate. But I don't push my atheist opinions onto my children anymore than I'd expect a school to push Christian views – or Muslim or Jewish ones, for that matter. Opinions, by their very nature, require mature minds – something that five and six year olds haven't yet acquired. Yet the RE lessons in our local school have clearly been assigned for teaching (a presumably Christian) God as fact. More than that, they seem to have been assigned for worship.
"Of course, youngsters should be encouraged to discuss the wonder of nature. How nature came to be and just how incredible it is are interesting concepts for young minds. But if you assign a creator and ask the children to give thanks to that creator, you move beyond RE into worship," agrees Stephen Evans, campaigns manager of the National Secular Society (NSS), which advocates comprehensive reform of RE.
Given that young minds are sponges, the NSS is – like me – concerned.
Five year olds don't have the skills to question. If they are told something by people in positions of authority, they will believe it.
"So to teach God as fact is worrying in a community school," says Evans.
The problem lies in the fact that the teaching of religion in community schools is a very grey area. Because (unlike in any other subject) there is no national curriculum for RE, the way it is taught is determined by local authority-run committees that tend to be dominated by local religious representatives.
"Sometimes people with humanist views are allowed on these committees, but they don't get a vote, so their influence is limited", says Evans.
In Hertfordshire, where my son's school is located, the locally agreed syllabus says pupils should be "using their imagination and curiosity to develop their appreciation and wonder of the world in which they live."
"But this seems to have morphed into worshipping God and giving thanks for creation – and that's what we find time and time again – RE being used as a vehicle to promote religion rather than to educate," says Evans, who reports that the quality of RE teaching in England is widely regarded as poor.
"I think this is partly due to teachers not really being clear about what the subject is for. The fact that faith groups hold so much sway over what gets taught in schools is also highly problematic."
So am I alone in my views as a parent? Far from it, says Evans, who says parents are often calling them to discuss their dissatisfaction about how RE is taught in their offspring's school.
"When parents take it up with headteachers, so often what they find is that the school just hasn't thought it through."
I'm still waiting for a response from our school – which, I have to say, is otherwise excellent - and I have a feeling that's exactly what I will hear, although time will tell.
Even within the religious community itself, RE is a subject of intense debate, reports Evans. "It's not just atheists that don't like how RE is taught. People from all belief backgrounds are now starting to recognise that RE isn't fit for purpose and isn't meeting the needs of young people growing up in 21st century Britain."
You might well wonder why the Government failed to include it in its most recent reform of the National Curriculum. "My feeling is that the Government is fearful of making reforms because it doesn't want the hassle from the Church," says Evans.
"It's the same reason that collective worship in still a legal requirement in schools. Hardly anyone thinks it's appropriate, but religious influence is so strong in the field of education that they just don't want the fight."
There is hope, though, with a small but growing number of forward thinking schools, such as the Educate Together schools now being set up in England. They have already proved very popular amongst parents in Ireland where the charity has become the lead provider of new schools, opening 41 new primaries in the past 10 years.
Its model is the blueprint of how community schools should be, with an emphasis on equal respect and dignity to all children and where education about religion is objective, with a neutral approach taken to the consideration of moral and ethical issues.
Of course, it is useful for young people to understand the significance of religion in society and the importance of faith to many people. But I believe this should be done without bias and in an age appropriate way.
So if we are going to teach RE to five and six year-olds - who in many countries are deemed as too young to even go to school – please, please let's refrain from filling their heads with religious and even creationist views as a given.
Article by Justine East
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