19 November 2015
Update on changes to RE in Wales
With the Assembly’s summer recess just about to start last July, Huw Lewis, Welsh Government Minister for Education and Skills, dropped a bombshell when he announced out of the blue that the current religious education curriculum in Wales needed to be “transformed”. His contention was that it should be renamed “the religion, philosophy and ethics element of the curriculum, where there is an explicit commitment to allowing children to ponder ideas around ethics and citizenship and what it means to be a citizen of a free country”.
It is worth watching the proceedings on Senedd TV (from 1:08:03 for around one minute) if only to see the reaction to the announcement on the face of Darren Millar AM.
Christians in Wales were taken aback by the announcement. Certainly there had been no prior consultation with Christians or other faith groups and concerns were raised that RE would be diluted in state schools and the place of Christianity in public life would be further eroded.
Indeed this was the prevailing mood among many in the days following Huw Lewis’ announcement, with fears exacerbated by media coverage such as Breitbart’s article, “Ban Christianity from Classrooms for the Sake of ‘Community Cohesion’, Demands Minister”.
These changes to RE, however, were announced in the context of the Donaldson Report “Successful Futures”, published in February 2015 and whose recommendations were accepted “in full” by Huw Lewis on 30 June . Professor Graham Donaldson was commissioned in March 2014 to lead a comprehensive, independent review of the curriculum arrangements in Wales. His 9th recommendation stated unambiguously that:
Religious education should form part of the Humanities Area of Learning and Experience, and should remain a statutory curriculum requirement from reception.
Although it was clear that RE would remain a statutory part of the curriculum, there were questions to be answered around related issues such as the future role of SACREs and collective worship. Darren Millar AM, a committed Christian and Chair of the Welsh Assembly’s Cross Party Group on Faith, took a lead from the outset in raising concerns on behalf of faith groups.
Christian, Jewish and other faith leaders also began to share perspectives and information on the issue from August onwards. Particularly useful were Welsh Government replies to letters and emails on the subject, which showed a gradual piecing together of their intentions. These replies also caused some to wonder whether the Minster had gone somewhat “off script” in his summer announcement and if the planned changes would amount to a rebranding as much as anything else.
More recently, there has been improved engagement between Welsh Government and Christian and faith group leaders. A presentation was given on 2 November at the biannual Faith Communities Forum, chaired by the First Minister, in which it was announced that at least one place would be given to a Forum member on the Welsh Government steering group for RE.
Darren Millar AM of the Cross Party Group on Faith also held a meeting with the Minister, accompanied by group secretary Jim Stewart of the Alliance in Wales, to clarify intentions.
Recent Welsh Government communication has given ground for optimism and allayed fears: there are no plans to change SACREs and collective worship for example. There is, however, still much to play for and Christians would do well to keep a watchful eye and stay engaged.
Image credit 'teachers desk 011' (under CC license)