‘Religious Education and Muslims in England: Developments and Principles’
by John M Hull
Muslim Education Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4, 1998, pp. 10-23
It is estimated that there are
about 450,000 Muslim children in the schools of
These arrrangements worked quite well until the early 1990s, when problems began to arise. In 1988, the Conservative government of Mrs. Thatcher had created important new educational legislation. The Education Reform Act (1988) not only initiated the National Curriculum but considerably strengthened the position of religious education and collective worship. For the first time, the content of the agreed syllabuses, although continuing to be constructed at the local level, was required to conform to a legal prescription, namely that they should 'reflect the fact that the principle religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principle religions represented in Great Britain' (ERA 1988 Section 8.3). Similarly, collective worship, previously undefined, was now to be 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character' (Section 7).2
At first, the Muslim community tended to approve of the new legislation but as the implications became clearer, there were signs of discontent.3 This article will outline two of the many incidents which have taken place in recent months and years, and will comment upon the significance of these developments, both for the participation of Muslims in religious education, and for the character and rationale of the religious education enterprise as a whole in England.
I choose these two incidents, not because they are necessarily typical, but because they give rise to interesting questions. I could have described other cases where Muslims have worked very happily with the agreed syllabus arrangements. This article is not a comprehensive review of Muslims in British religious education.
The Kirklees incident: withdrawal
The first of these incidents took
place in an administrative area of
Late in 1995 hundreds of Muslim children were withdrawn from both the primary and the secondary schools in Kirklees.4 This withdrawal was not uniform over the area, Batley being the most seriously affected. To some extent, the level of withdrawal seemed to depend upon the attitudes of the leaders of the local mosques. The main issue was the contents of the new agreed syllabus which had just been published.5 It contained a good deal of teaching about Islam, having been prepared in consultation with representatives of the Muslim community.6 Nevertheless, the impact of the withdrawals was significant. In one of the most affected secondary schools, about one third of all the children in years 7, 8 and 9 (aged 11-13) were withdrawn. In practice, this means that for purposes of their religious education class the children in these year groups are divided into three classes, two of which receive the normal agreed syllabus education while the third consists of Muslim children who have been withdrawn. These children do not receive religious education at all, but are given work in various other subjects. In the primary schools which feed this particular secondary school, about half of the children are Muslim and there is a similar, perhaps even more pronounced pattern of withdrawal.
However, in years 10 and 11
(children aged approximately 14-15) students may opt for a short G.C.S.E course
of public exam
The second situation arose in one
of the primary schools in the inner ring area of
This being settled, attention then
turned to the arrangements for religious education in the classroom. It was decided that the parents would not
withdraw their children from the agreed syllabus, as had taken place in
Kirklees, but that Muslim children would be gathered together from their
various classes and taught the agreed syllabus by a teacher especially
appointed for that task, who is himself a Muslim. This appointment took place in September
1994. The situation then was that two
forms of the local agreed syllabus were being taught. One was the Islamic form taught by the Muslim
teacher, to most of the Muslim children, and the other was the ord
These arrangements proved to be very popular with the Muslim community and the percentage of Muslim children has steadily increased from 70% in 1994 to 96% in early 1998. The result of this increase is that almost all the children in the school take part in the special Muslim teaching of the agreed syllabus, while in each classroom there are perhaps two or three children who are taught by the regular class teacher from the same agreed syllabus but not from a specifically Muslim point of view. Rather than saying that this arrangement has divided the school along religious lines, it would be more correct to say that the special needs of the small numbers of children who are not Muslims are being catered for.9 We will now discuss the significance of these incidents.
Muslim withdrawal from religious education classes
What the Muslim parents did in Kirklees was perfectly legal. The law offers to parents the right to withdraw their children from religious education, and even allows alternative religious education in accordance with the wishes of the parents to be available on the school premises provided no additonal cost falls upon the school. The right to withdraw, however, has not been widely exercised in recent years. Parents who withdraw their children are usually members of Christian movements such as the Jehovahs Witnesses and the Exclusive Brethren, groups for whom such withdrawal is part of a general policy of social separation. Children from religions other than Chrsitianity have not often been withdrawn from religious education classes, and the Kirklees incident was significant not only in that Muslims were involved but that a substantial group of parents and not just one or two decided to withdraw their children.
The action of the parents of the
Muslim children was not only legal; it was understandable. Although the Christian right wing had claimed
in 1988 that Muslims were happy to accept the proposed legislation, in spite of
the special position which this gave to Christianity and to Christian worship,10 it soon became clear to the Muslim
communities that the law had created a situation which was going to marg
The pity of it is that the 1988 legislation was really quite flexible, much more so than the spin given to it by the press indicated. Section 8.3 requires new agreed syllabuses to 'reflect the fact that the principle religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of other principle religions represented in Great Britain'. The advice offered to the then Department for Education by its own legal branch in 1990 emphasised the vagueness of this form of words and that it would be compatible with a wide range of syllabuses.13 Soon after the passing of the Bill, it was pointed out that in schools where the majority of pupils were Muslim it would be appropriate to have a religious education curriculum which was weighted in favour of the teaching of Islam. The fact that the principle religious traditions in Great Britain remain Christian would be reflected by the fact that even in a mainly Muslim school Christianity would occupy a significant but subsidiary place.14 The legislation does not claim that the Christian traditions are always and everywhere the principle ones in Great Britain, but only that this is so ' in the main '. The legislation implies that there will be parts of the country where Christian faith is not the main religion, and the legislation is tolerant towards such situations. These also must be reflected in an appropriate agreed syllabus. Clearly, every new agreed syllabus must include Islam under the requirement of the latter part of the famous clause, since Islam is undoubtedly one of the principle religions represented in Great Britain and hence its teachings and practices must be taught.
It is clear then that the
legislation does not require that Muslims should always receive a religious
education which is predom
Although religious educators
emphasised this point again and again, little or no support for this broad and
more flexible interpretation of the law was received from the then Government
or the press. These continued to give
the public the impression that the legislation would establish England on a
more firmly Christian basis through insisting upon a religious education which
would be mainly or predom
It is interesting to note that the
Parental Alliance for
Choice in Education (PACE) one of the right wing bodies which had insisted that
the Act required religious education to be predom
Some Muslims, like some Christians, would like to have their children educated separately from the faiths of others. Just as it was in the interests of the conservative Christians to exaggerate the Christian character of the Act, so it was in the interests of the conservative Muslims to agree with them. Some conservative Muslims were happy to use the opportunities provided by the Act to strengthen their own position as advocates of a pure and uncompromising Islam.
In assessing the significance of the Kirklees incident, we must distinguish not only between what is legal and what is understandable, we must also ask what is justifiable and what is desirable. We have seen that the action of the Muslim parents was legal. We have also seen that it was rather understandable, in view of the misunderstanding of the legislation which the then Government and the media encouraged. However, whether the withdrawal was a justifiable action is less clear. As already pointed out, the legislation does permit agreed syllabus teaching to be substantially Islamic in areas where this would be appropriate, and these aspects of the syllabus could be further emphasised in particular schools where necessary . In order to determine whether a mass withdrawal of their children by parents was justifiable or not, one would need to examine the Kirklees agreed syllabus, and to find out whether the flexibility of the law had been fully explained to the local Muslim community. We would also need to find out whether the Local Education Authority had emphasised the freedom available to each school in considering the needs of its particular population.
However, objections to the agreed
syllabus were only part of the reasons which led some Muslim parents to
withdraw. Some Muslim parents did not
want their children to receive information and understanding about other
religions19. Although the
legislation permits an agreed syllabus or the adaptation of it by particular
schools so as to emphasise Islam, the legislation would not permit any agreed
syllabus or any school to teach nothing but Islam. In the same way, it would not be possible to
teach nothing but Christianity. No pupil
educated under the requirements of the 1988 Act can receive only his or her own
religion. That is one of the features
which makes it an education
Act rather than a religious nurture Act.
This brings us to the point where we must discuss the purposes of
religious education in
The purposes of religious education
At this point, we come to a principle of fundamental importance for religious education. The purpose of religious education as it is understood in Britain is to educate pupils concerning religion so as to enable them to understand both religion and the various religions, and thus to be encouraged in their general educational development, particularly their spiritual, moral and cultural development. This has implications for the method of teaching and for the content of the syllabuses. As far as the method goes, religious education must be taught so as to stimulate a thoughtful response to religion. Religious education can never be taught in a merely instructional manner. Moreover, we must distinguish the educational task of the county school from the faith-nurturing task of the mosque and church. These two functions are compatible, but not identical. This does not imply that the faith-nurturing process in mosque and church should not also promote thoughful criticism. This may take place; perhaps it ought to take place. In the county school, however, the critical approach is essential.
Moreover, the implication of being an educated person in the area of religion and religions is that one has some persepective beyond the confines of ones own tradition. Is such a wider perspective damaging to the faith of children? Some claim that it is damaging, but there is little or no evidence in support of this.20 No doubt there is good historical precedent for the claim that studying more than one religion is confusing to children. Christians can hardly blame Muslims for believing that young children should be securely grounded in their own faith before learning about other religions, since Christians have themselves been making this claim for many years.21
As to pupils confused by the study
of several religions, the research team that worked in the University of
Birmingham between 1985 and 1990 on the 'Gift to the child' material found that
when children encountered material from a religion other than their own, it
tended to deepen their own sense of religious identity rather than diluting or
confusing it.22 Similarly,
the work done by Professor
We have been discussing whether it is understandable that some Muslim parents have withdrawn their children from religious education classes. We must now consider whether such withdrawal is desirable.
There can be no question that such
withdrawal is undesirable. The parents
in Kirklees came to their decision after long reflection and with
reluctance. British religious education
is founded upon the belief that it is in the best interests of all children
that they should receive a religious education which will be appropriate for
the moral, cultural and spiritual development of all children, regardless of
their religious affiliation or lack of it, and which may be taught by well
trained and competent teachers with sensitivity and an awareness of religions,
regardless of their own faith or lack of it.
That is the professional basis for the inclusion of religious education
in the required curriculum, and without this basis it would be quite impossible
to maintain it. This general outlook has
received support from leading figures in all of the main religions in
Religious Education and the local religious communities
Although the religious communities have a legitimate interest in what is being taught in the schools, this interest must be qualified. The views of the local religious communities are but one factor amongst the several which must be considered when creating a religious education curriculum.
Next, the local religious
communities are not necessarily typical of the world-wide religion. It is sometimes pointed out by Muslim
scholars that Islam in the British religious education school syllabus is too
much influenced by Muslims from the Indian-subcontinent,
and that Islam is a world-wide movement and is not confined to the Indian
sub-continent. This leads us to the
point that the religions do not belong to the local religious communities in
When the religious communities are encouraged to believe that they are the sponsors of religious education in schools, the purpose of religious education is made more narrow. Its major concern then becomes the accuracy of the representation to the pupil of the self- understanding of the religious community.24 Important though it is, accuracy is not enough. Religious education must contribute to the personal, moral and spiritual development of the pupil, and cannot be satisfied merely with accurate understanding. The accurate information must be conveyed in a way which is relevant to the developing needs of the child. This is the heart of the educational task. This is why it is called religious education and not merely religious studies.
The local religious community tends to think of itself as the unique expression of religion, indeed, this tends to be more true locally than it is in the international circles representing the religious leadership of the faith. At the higher level, collaboration between religions is becoming more significant.25 This means that when religious education gets absorbed into the problems of an accurate representation of the local religious community, the study of religion itself tends to be diminished. Religion then becomes a series of religions,26 and the dialogical model of religious education gives way to the communitarian model. It then becomes more difficult for religious education to be the leader of the spiritual and moral development of the entire school.
Religious education for all
If children from religious homes
are to be withdrawn from the common religious education, the vast majority of
children who are from secular homes, will be left high
and dry. The same thing would happen if
the agreed syllabus of religious education were thought of as comprising
nothing but studies of the self-understanding of the local religious
communities who were represented on the syllabus making body. No doubt such religious education has a lot
to offer children who belong to the local religious communities, but what has it to
offer to the majority of children, who do not belong to any religion? The religious communities cannot assume that
study of themselves is intrinsically fasc
Religious Education as Dialogue
The arrangements for the creation of local agreed syllabuses do not anticipate that the children will be divided into separate religious groups. This is why we have a religious education which concerns more than a single religion, to be received by children all together in one classroom, representing more than one religious and secular outlook. We may describe this as the common or inclusive aspect of British religious education.
In many countries, the religious
education tradition is more denom
The implications for religious education of the situation in the
As we have seen, the problem was
resolved in a different way in this particular
The first issue is whether it is appropriate and legal to teach children the agreed syllabus in groups according to their religious background. While the law does not expressly forbid this, it is certainly against the spirit and intention of the law. Religious education, is to be given "in accordance" (ERA 1988, Sect.2 (1)(a)) with an agreed syllabus, not in accordance with the religion or family background of the children. The children are to receive the religious education as part of their general education and because they are registered in attendance at the school. Whether they are also registered as being in attendance at a place of worship outside the school, or as belonging to a certain religious group, is nowhere anticipated in the law, and the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) does not keep religious statistics for pupils. Calling pupils out of various classes to receive instruction in accordance with their religious background is certainly an innovation in British religious education.
Moreover, it is contrary to the
professional character of the status of the teacher of religious education that
the religous faith of the teacher should be a matter
of enquiry. Clearly, in primary schools,
where religious education is taught by the ord
These objections would have carried
some weight if the situation in this
Nevertheless, an important issue remains. Is it legitimate to present an agreed syllabus of religious education from a particular religious point of view, even when almost all the pupils share that point of view?
This possibility throws into doubt
the whole process during which, over more than 30 years, religious educators
have sought to create an educational rationale which would secure a place for
the subject alongside other subjects in the mandatory curriculum. The work of religious education thinkers such
as Colin Alves, Terence Copley, Edwin Cox, Raymond
Holley, Jean Holm, Donald Horder, John Greer, Michael
This is not the place to enter into the details of this rationale, but it may be pointed out that if religious education is to abandon such a rationale and to return to a confessional approach, it is inevitable that the inclusive character of the subject will collapse. If there is a Muslim confessional approach, then there must be a confessional approach for Hindu chilldren, Jewish children, and especially (because of their significant numbers) Christian children. Not only does this raise the urgent question about the children who do not come from religious backgrounds, as discussed above, it would lead to questions about such religious instruction taking place at the public cost. Politicians, always quick to snatch at any economy, would quickly yield to the claim that such instruction should not be paid for by the taxpayer. Muslims and Christians have their mosques and churches. Let them pursue the interests of their faith and the faith of their children in those proper places.
It is not too much to say that the
future of British religious education depends upon the
What should be done?
1. Provide a more flexible interpretation of the 1988 requirement for the agreed syllabuses
The wording of the 1988 Education Reform Act Section 8.3, which requires agreed syllabuses to 'reflect the fact that the principle religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principle religions represented in Great Britain' is not particularly sensitive and it would have been better if the agreed syllabuses were simply required to 'reflect the teaching and practices of the principle religions represented in Great Britain'. The reference to the Christian traditions has made it possible for the cultural conservatives to exaggerate Christianity at the expense of the other principle religions. This exaggeration was authorised by the notorious Departmental Circular 1/94, which is still in force even a year after the change of Governemnt. A new Department Circular offering a more flexible interpretation would be of great advantage in helping various religious and ethnic communities to realise that they are welcomed by the legislation and that religious education is genuinely intended for all children.
2. Changing collective worship
The problem with collective worship goes deeper than the Departmental Circular 1/94, although there is no doubt that the circular made the situation worse. However, the root of the problem does not lie in the interpretation but in the wording of the Act itself (Section 7). The only real solution to the problem lies in the repeal of this section. It would be possible to restore collective worship to its rightful place in school life as a centre for the moral and spiritual development of pupils by strengthening the wording in the previous Section 6. This requires collective worship but does not impose a theological definition. This section could be strengthened by requiring pupils to attend a daily or frequent assembly, the main purpose of which would be to contribute to the spiritual and moral development of the pupils through collective worship or otherwise. Such wording would not prevent collective worship from taking place, and its character would be determined at the local level. At the same time, it would be recognised that collective worship is only one of the ways through which an effective school assembly may contribute to the moral and spiritual development of pupils. There is no reason why Muslims should not participate in such assemblies alongside other members of the school and the community.29
3. There remains the problem of the
general level of confidence which the Muslim communities have towards schools
and religious education. Afterall, there was considerable unease on the part of
Muslims, long before the 1988 law and its narrow interpretation made things worse.29 We
need more Muslim teachers in schools, not only to teach religious education,
but to teach the National Curriculum, and so bring a Muslim presence and a
Muslim model before young people. It is
also necessary to increase the general awareness of teachers concerning the
special needs of their Muslim pupils, and to improve the ways in which Islam is
taught within religious education. There
remains the problem of whether Muslims can offer an Islamic rationale for an
educational religious education. The
Islamic tradition certainly contains elements of self-criticism and there seems
no reason why an Islamic theology of a world religions approach to religious
education should not emerge. Many Muslim
educationalists have already developed such an educational philosophy,30 and this may be more widely accepted amongst
1. No reliable figures are available. The quoted figure is an estimate based upon the ethnic origin question in the 1991 Census as calculated by C.T.R. Hewer "The Education of Muslims in Birmingham" Éducation et religion dans les îles Britanniques: dieu à l'école, dieu et l'école Vol.13, No,2, 1996 pp 109-123 [University of Nice].
2. John M Hull The Art Unpacked: The Meaning of the 1988 Education Reform Act for Religous Education Isleworth, Middlesex, CEM, 1989, ISBN: 1 85100 060 7, Edwin Cox and Josephine Cairns Reforming Religious Education: the religious clauses of the 1988 Education Reform Act London, Kogan Page, 1989, ISBN: 1 85091 898 8.
3. Abdul Mabud "A Muslim Response to the Education Reform Act 1988" British Journal of Religious Education Vol.14, No.2, (Spring 1992), pp 88-98.
4. First reported in the press on 22
January in The Times "Muslims
removed from RE lessons" and "Muslims boycott religious lessons"
5. 1995-2000 Kirklees Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education Kirlees Metropolitan Council [September 1995].
6. Kirlees Agreed Syllabus pp 77-96.
RE Short Courses [Input 6],
9. The school wishes to avoid further publicity and has asked me not to mention it by name. My knowledge of the situation is based partly on my own observations and partly on discussions with the headteacher, and others. For a description and a defence of the situation in this school by an informal participant see Muhammed Mukadam "Religious Education and the Muslim Children at State Schools" in National Muslim Education Council of UK Religious Education - A Muslim Perspective London, 1997, pp13-19.
10. Baroness Cox in the House of Lords on 3 May 1988. Hansard, col.504. For the background prior to 1988 see J.M.Halstead and A.Khan-Cheema "Muslims and worship in the maintained school" Muslim Education Quarterly, Vol.7, No.2, pp197-213.
11. National Muslim Education Council of
13. "Crescent may oust the Cross" Times Educational Supplement
14. Typical examples are the articles:
"Schools told to put emphasis on Christianity" The Times
15. For a survey of the propaganda see:
16. Colin Hart and John Burn The Crisis in Religious Education
18. For example, Mohanned Amin of the Muslim
Association of Batley as reported in "Muslims boycott religious
lessons" The Guardian
19. Yaqub Zaki "The Teaching of Islam in Schools: A Muslim Viewpoint" BJRE Vol.5, No.1 (Autumn 1982), p.35.
20. John M Hull "A Gift to the Child: A New Pedagogy for Teaching Religion to Young Children" Religious Education Vol.91, No.2 (Spring 1996), pp. 172-188, and "How Can We Make Children Sensitive to the Values of Other Religious Through Religious Education", in Johannes Lahnemann (ed) Das Projekt Weltethos in der Erziehung (Proceedings of the 5th Nuremberg Forum on Religious Education, 28th Sept-1st Oct 1994) Hamburg, E.B.Verlag, 1995, pp. 301-314, ISBN: 3 92300 286 6.
23. Hans King and Karl-Josef Kuschel (eds)
"A Global Ethic: The Declaration of
the Parliament of the World's Religions"
24. John M Hull "Religion as a Series of
Religions: A Comment on the SCAA Model Syllabuses" in Vida Barnett et al (eds) From Syllabuses to Schemes [World Religions in Education],
25. John G. Howells "Religious Education in Victoria Today" Learning for Living Vol.17, No.3, 1978, pp.118-122 and Alan H.Ninnes "Religious Education in South Australia: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back" Learning for Living Vol.17, No.4, 1978, pp.145-148.
26. Trevor Cooling A Christian Vision for State Education
27. In the most recent review of opinion, 23 out of 28 organisations and religious bodies consulted have agreed that the present situation is unsatisfactory, and are generally moving towards the solution advocated here. Collective Worship Reviewed: Report of the 1997 Consultation Albingdon, Oxon, Culham College Institute, 1998, ISBN: 0 90795 752 8.
28. I must emphasize again that this article
does not deal with the general picture but only with two specific cases. For a recent discussion of the range of
Muslim educational concerns, see Muslim Educational Trust Issues in Islamic Education
29. Beyza Bilgin "The Understanding of Religious Education in a
Country where there is Separation of Religion and State: the Example of
Turkey" BJRE Vol.15, No.2
(Spring 1993), pp.36-43, Muhammad Ibrahim
"Multicultural Education: an Islamic Perspective Issues in Islamic Education pp.66-71 and Abdullah
development and its educational implications: an
Islamic perspective unpublished M.Ed. dissertation,