SACRE meeting 16th June 2008
The meeting began with the response from government to a letter sent by the Chair regarding collective worship in secondary schools. The Chair said that secondary schools were not conducting a daily act of worship and asked if there were plans to change the legal requirement to do so. She also asked for guidance on acts of worship in schools. The government simply spelled out the current law and the obligation of head teachers, governors and local authorities to ensure daily acts of worship were carried out. NOTE: The government has just announced a review of the law, and has formed a committee of 30 members, two of which are BHA senior representatives. This process will take 18 months, and will probably result in a change in the law. Until then, all SACREs are in the impossible position of enforcing a law that is broken daily by the vast majority of secondary schools. The law is simply unenforceable.
It was then announced that the new new RE syllabus (Word version here) is being sent to press. The Chair has written a draft Forward, which includes the statement "the syllabus is a collaboration of parents and faith communities.". She does not mention secular belief groups, such as Humanism, because there was no formal collaboration with them; there is only a token mention of them in the syllabus.
The RE advisor announced that there had been a 50% take up of teacher training for the new syllabus. The draft materials he presented did not clarify when it was appropriate to teach secular world views.
The members were then asked to scan the new syllabus and make comments. After a few minor comments, the Chair stated that they wanted to reflect the whole community. This is quite incredible, bearing in mind that somewhere between 17% and 64% of people either have no religion or do not practise one (these statistics are taken from the 2001 census and other independent surverys).
The launch of the new syllabus will take place in October at Oakhall Community College. SACRE members, schools communities, young people and members of the public are invited. Regular SACRE observers, such as myself, are also invited. NOTE: I have sent an email to the RE advisor declining the offer, as the presence of a BHA representative would signify an endorsement of the new syllabus. This syllabus does not promote Humanism or secular world-views; it only advises the teaching of them "where appropriate", and offers no other guidelines or encouragement to be inclusive.
The meeting then discussed the OFSTED inspection reports for West Sussex. It was agreed that the lack of detail rendered the report next to useless. There was no report on whether schools were condcuting daily acts of worship (though we know already that secondary schools are not).
This then raised the issue of how SACRE can meet its legal obligations to collect information about RE and the collective act of worship in schools. Various points were raised. Perhaps a sample of schools should be be sent questionnaires. The CofE representative mentioned that all CofE schools have their own inspections, which are publicly available (on school websites usually).
The Chair suggested an extra meeting of interested members to consider the options before the next SACRE. This was agreed.
NOTE: Were I allowed to speak at these meetings, I would have asked why the SACRE is only now considering how to collect information on schools. Surely this has always been a requirement of SACRE?
The meeting then considered the content of the OFSTED report. One member asked what was meant by a low rating for "cultural" in one school. Another member suggested that, if school was rated as "unsatisfactory", it should be brought to the attention of the SACRE.
The meeting moved on to an Action Plan drawn up by the RE advisor. He reminded members that the purpose of the SACRE is to (only) advise the local authority on how to improve RE and collective worship in schools. This cannot be done without collecting information from schools; the CofE representative said that any advice from SACRE that involved expenditure would probably not be followed by the local authority without being backed up by hard facts. The Council representative suggested an inpenedent survey on collective worship.
The Head Teacher representative pleaded that children can tell us all we need to know, as they have the most experience; even young children can articulate their views. He said that SACRE needed to ground itself in the real experiences of people (believers and non-believers). NOTE: At this point I wondered why he voted against a Humanist representative on SACRE. I was reminded of him quoting his bishop friend that "including a Humanist on SACRE would be like inviting a vegetarian to a turkey-growers convention".
The RE advisor and Chair recommended waiting for the RE syllabus to be implemented before moving on to the issue of gathering information from schools about collective worship. The reason is to avoid marring secondary schools' perception of the new syllabus.
The meeting returned to the question of gathering information from schools.
The Chair said that we need to consider where we shall go as a SACRE.
NOTE: The way forward is to abolish SACREs, adopt a proper national curriculum for philosophy, beliefs and culture, and to replace the daily act of worship with an inclusive assembly. Until that happy day, West Sussex SACRE can start by apppointing a Humanist as a full member. They should then find out what is going on in schools, starting with Year 1 of Primary School. At every stage, they should ask:
Are children encouraged to think about religion and beliefs critically at all times, right from the start?
Are religious ideas and stories being portrayed as fact?
Do lessons include and interest the non-religious?
Does the material reflect the beliefs of the local population?
Is indoctrination taking place, e.g. by teaching religious beliefs and practices in meticulous detail, and ignoring non-religious perspectives?
Is religion being taught in context, in an unbiased manner, "warts and all"?
They should then change the name of RE to something like Philosophy, Beliefs and Culture (this would encourage teachers to make a fresh start), and set about writing a truly broad and balanced curriculum, as required for every other subject.
And, of course, they should give guidelines on how to conduct inclusive assemblies that conform to the Human Rights Act.