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A tale of two REs

Do two new mandatory school subjects risk hindering educational diversity in England?

Last week the House of Lords followed the Commons and approved the government’s changes to education regarding the two new soon-to-be mandatory subjects in all schools in England: Relationships Education (RE) and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE).

At the same time, the government published its new statutory guidance on these subjects, which covers the content to be taught and stipulates that in secondary schools there will be no right of withdrawal from RE and a now limited right to withdraw (if the headteacher agrees) from sex education.

These changes have been quite contentious, for a variety of reasons, but one to explore is the nature of these subjects. They propose to teach, among other things, about the nature of family, the definition of love, and about the purpose of sex (or the lack thereof). 

So, RE and RSE are ultimately proposing, and indeed they have to, given their names, to teach about what it means to be human, about what it means to be a person in community. And that, for a vast number of people, is at its core a religious question.

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Therefore, both REs’ – the other, of course, being Religious Education, at the core require an answer to the questions: What is a human? What does it mean to be a human? Religious Education, long understood as a subject that addresses this, has increasingly come to recognise that in today’s UK there are a variety of answers to these central questions, and that, importantly, the State should not impose one answer, one definition, of what it means to be human, to be a person in community, on everyone. Thus, an approach to RE and RSE that recognises the diversity of views of what it means to be human and the inherently religious nature of the questions would seem to be important. This currently would not appear to be the case with the government’s guidance. 

Over the years, various mechanisms for disagreeing well over these fundamental questions have been developed and refined within the context of Religious Education, notably the Statutory Advisory Committees on Religious Education (SACREs), which allows groups of school leaders, community leaders, religion and belief representatives, and parents to decide together, ahead of time, what is age-appropriate and, crucially, what is appropriate to the religious background of the pupils. In addition, keeping a full parental opt-out and providing different types of schools with (to varying degrees) clear differences in their religious education teaching would seem to be helpful enhancements in the area of RE and RSE

Perhaps by approaching RE and RSE more like the first RE’, Religious Education, the State could uphold educational diversity while still ensuring accountability in a way that resists the temptations to uniformity that can come from either the Department of Education (via statutory guidance) or Ofsted (via inspection interpretations), so that educational diversity based on locality and the uniqueness of all children and families, including religious children, is allowed to flourish for the good of all.

So, please pray for Christian schools, teachers and children and families as these new subjects become mandatory, that they may be witnesses to the truth that Christianity is God’s relationships education, and, indeed, as humans created male and female, God’s relationships and sex education too. 

Please pray we would witness to the truth that how we relate to God and how we relate to other people is for Christians governed by divine love – that the God who is Love calls us to love Him and love our neighbours in the form of love He defines and demonstrates, supremely through the gift of His Son Christ Jesus.

The Evangelical Alliance will produce new resources in the coming months to help Christian parents, children, teachers and school leaders engage with the content of the subjects from a evangelical perspective. 

About the author

Peter joined the Evangelical Alliance in 2018 as the Education Policy Officer and engages with national education policy and work with our members involved in education. Prior to this he had worked in the US for a Christian public policy institute (The Center for Public Justice) in policy areas including education, religious freedom and poverty and opportunity. He has been involved in politics as a local councillor in England and in public policy in both the US and the UK; having worked both on the policy side of education (particularly around education funding and curriculum design) and also having served as a school governor at both primary and secondary schools in the North East of England. He's married to a former primary school teacher and he and his bride have four children.

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