04/09/2017 07:04 BST | Updated 04/09/2017 07:05 BST

The GCSE Religious Revolution

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It is back to classes this week for most children, but although much of the routine will seem fairly familiar, a quiet revolution will occur for those taking a GCSE in Religious Studies at the end of this academic year.

It marks the end of days when one could study just one religion, whereas from now on, pupils will be examined in a second faith. The motive is social rather than academic, for the increase in different faiths in Britain in recent decades has been accompanied by a rise in religious extremism and intolerance.

Is it that because that home influences trump any talk by teachers about harmony, with the prejudices one imbibes from kitchen table talk being much more powerful? Or because of the exclusive admissions policies perpetuated by Faith Schools whose pupils do not mix with those of other faiths?

Whatever the reason, the Government decided that no school will be allowed to focus solely on their own faith in RE, but have to study a second one. Not only will they learn about where another tradition differs from them, but also see the points of commonality.

When this enlightened idea was first proposed, it was greeted with horror by certain groups, particularly the Catholic and the Jewish Orthodox authorities. They found it difficult to oppose the principle, and instead claimed that there was not enough time on the curriculum to study their own faith properly, let alone another one.

Now that the proposal is law, it is fascinating to note how they have reacted to the change. The Catholics have directed their schools to add the teaching of Judaism and discouraged them from covering any other faith.

This is officially is because of the strong links between Judaism and Christianity and the sharing of biblical texts. While this is true, if the school was in an area with a sizable Muslim community, it would make more sense to explore Islam so that Catholic pupils understand their neighbours better.

It leads to the strong suspicion that the advice is for reasons of religious politics, as Islam is the single greatest threat to Christianity in terms of numbers and influence in the worlds, fighting each other for superiority in various countries abroad, especially Africa, while here in Britain, many from Catholic homes becoming Muslim

On the Jewish side, the Chief Rabbi has suggested that Orthodox Schools should be teaching Islam as their preferred option. Officially this is because it is a major religion in Britian today - but surely Christianity even more significant!

It suggests that the underlying reason may be that many in the Orthodox community still fear Christianity as a missionary religion out to convert Jews, and so no way are they going to let Jewish children study it for GCSE.

But although this opportunity for broadening both general knowledge and social cohesion may be diminished in some schools, others will take it up with great excitement. Ideally it should be extended so that all British pupils are conversant with the major belief systems in Britain today.

Crucially, it will help improve their ability to relate to the different-faith child sitting at the desk next to them or living in the house across the road. It will also help British society to take one step forward.