The Bahá'í Council for Northern Ireland
Statements on Matters of Public Interest / Concern
RELIGIOUS EDUCATION CORE SYLLABUS
Bahá'í Council for Northern Ireland
25th November 2003
Churches' Religious Education Core Syllabus Review Working Party
I write to respond to the consultation document on Proposals for RE in Grant-Aided Schools. This response is from the Bahá'í Council for Northern Ireland which is the elected governing body for Bahá'ís in the region. The Bahá'í Council welcomes many of the positive comments that are contained in the consultation document and it is gratifying to see that the Bahá'í Faith is included among the selected religions that can be studied in the module on other world fhs at Key Stage Three.
The response from the Bahá'í Council explains that there are three main areas where we have concerns about the approach that has been taken to the teaching of RE. These are as follows:
The Council is of the view that the Working Party must clarify directly with Barnes whether he feels that his research supports the analysis that has been developed that ""teaching World Faiths confuses pupils". If Barnes is unable to support the interpretation suggested by the Working Party then we feel that there is a need for a comprehensive review of the approach that has been taken. The enclosed comments suggest a number of critical areas that must be covered in undertaking such a review.
We feel that RE is a very important subject in our schools. If taught in an inclusive way we feel it can support the faith development of pupils, equip pupils to deal with issues of diversity, command the support of the majority of teachers, parents and pupils and be appropriate, relevant and instructive, adequately equipping children for the future in Northern Ireland.
We hope that this response will assist in developing the proposals for RE so that we will have a learning area that is attractive to children and young people and commands the respect of teachers and parents.
Core Syllabus in RE in Grant-Aided Schools
Response to the Proposals from the Bahá'í Council for Northern Ireland
1. The Bahá'í community in Northern Ireland
1.1. The Bahá'í Council for Northern Ireland is the elected representative body for Bahá'ís in the region. There have been Bahá'ís in Northern Ireland since 1908 and there are approximately 300 Bahá'ís in Northern Ireland from a diversity of backgrounds. Within the island of Ireland there are approximately 1000 Bahá'ís. Bahá'í children attend a range of different schools including Controlled schools, Catholic maintained schools and Integrated schools.
1.2. Within Northern Ireland Bahá'í families have experienced a wide range of different approaches to the teaching of RE. Our experience has been that it is not possible to identify a particular type of school as being particularly good in their teaching of the subject.
1.3. Although we have experienced some very good practice in some schools we have also experienced some very poor practice. Where we have experienced good practice it appears to be because of a particularly skilled and sensitive teacher and very often such individuals have lived and worked for a time outside of the Northern Ireland context, and in this way they have developed a wider sensitivity to the issues.
1.4. On the basis of this experience it appears to us that there is a critical need for enhanced training of teachers to deal with issues of diversity in the classroom and particularly to deal with issues of religious difference.
1.5. Our perspective in relation to the religious education of children is informed by the experiences of Bahá'í communities in other parts of the world as well as by the essential teachings of the Bahá'í Faith that all the world's religions are derived from the same Source.
1.6. The following quote from the Bahá'í Writings illustrates the Bahá'í belief that all religions are worshipping the same God:
There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed. All of them, except a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose. Arise and, armed with the power of faith, shatter to pieces the gods of your vain imaginings, the sowers of dissension amongst you. Cleave unto that which draweth you together and uniteth you.
1.7. Such an appeal does not call for abandonment of faith in the fundamental verities of any of the world's great belief systems. Far otherwise. Faith has its own imperative and is its own justification. What the above words do unequivocally urge is renunciation of all those claims to exclusivity or finality that, in winding their roots around the life of the spirit, have been the greatest single factor in suffocating impulses to unity and in promoting hatred and violence.
1.8. In Northern Ireland we have learned much over the past three decades of the very negative consequences of exclusive truth claims within Christianity. The challenge for us now is to understand the implications of such exclusive truth claims between Christians and the adherents of other religions. As the above passages indicate, Bahá'ís believe that there is no theological basis for any religion to claim that it has exclusive access to the truth. 1
1.9. Other segments of society embrace the implications of the oneness of humankind, not only as the inevitable next step in the advancement of civilization, but as the fulfilment of lesser identities of every kind that our race brings to this critical moment in our collective history. Yet, the greater part of organized religion still stands paralysed at the threshold of the future, gripped in those very dogmas and claims of privileged access to truth that have been responsible for creating some of the most bitter conflicts dividing the earth's inhabitants.
1.10. We feel that it is essential that a syllabus in Religious Education supports children to transcend the limited perspectives that have dogged Northern Ireland for so long so that they can see that "The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens"2 and learn that all the world's great religions have come from the same Source.
2. The 1992 Syllabus
2.1. The Bahá'í community was very actively involved in the consultation process that resulted in the publication in June 1992 of the consultation report on Religious Education. We were very disappointed at that time that world religions were not included in the syllabus. We were however encouraged by the Minister's statement at the time, in a letter addressed to the co-chairmen of the Drafting Group:
I note from your report that while the vast majority of respondents supported the group's view that the core syllabus should focus on the study of Christianity, some respondents were concerned about the absence of the study of other world religions. I acknowledge the reasons for the group's decision on the issue but I strongly believe that schools should not lose sight of the benefit to be gained from a breadth of knowledge in this area. I consider it to be of great importance that young people should be led to view the beliefs of others with tolerance, understanding and respect: these attitudes are essential in a world where our social, business and cultural contacts are becoming increasingly diverse, and this diversity itself is becoming increasingly important to our development and progress. I feel sure that you would agree, too, that these attitudes are also, in themselves, essential demonstrations of the Christian tradition and Christian values. I intend therefore to take steps to ensure that schools are encouraged to include the study of other world religions within their total Religious Education programme.
3. The current context
3.1. Eleven years further on, much has changed:
3.2. In addition to these social issues much has also changed in relation to the legislation that governs Northern Ireland:
3.3. In 1992 we believed strongly that world religions should be an integral part of the RE syllabus. We are now even more convinced of the need for RE to be fully integrated into the syllabus across all age ranges. The following sections will further explain this conviction.
3.4. We were greatly encouraged by the statement in the introduction of the Proposals that concurred with this view:
We live in a world that is marked by an increasing consciousness of the interdependence of nations and cultures and a recognition that we belong to one world. Technological advances - especially in the area of communications and travel - allow us to witness events around the world to a degree hitherto unimaginable. We are able to see the variety of religious custom and practice which prevail in other parts of the world and, in some cases, which influence the structure of societies in the same way that Christianity influences our own. Also, due to recent movements of people, we are increasingly in contact with communities of religious beliefs other than Christianity in our own society. Thus, in order to come to a fuller understanding of the world in which we live and the people who make up this world, it is proper that the study of other cultures and belief systems should be encouraged. (Proposals, p. 3)
3.5. Unfortunately, however, despite this very positive statement that explains the justification for teaching other world faiths, we are of the view that the sentiments expressed in this statement are not put into practice in the Proposals. We feel that the Proposals are inadequate to meet the current needs of children in schools in Northern Ireland.
3.6. We have given much consideration to this issue: we have sought views from parents of Bahá'ís in England, Scotland and Wales, we have spoken to educational experts in England as well as in Northern Ireland on the matter, and most importantly we have listened carefully to the stories that our own children have told of their experiences in schools in Northern Ireland. We are wholly convinced that world religions must be fully integrated into the RE syllabus across all age groups.
3.7. The Professional Council for Religious Education in England has recently described how, in England, RE is the fastest growing subject area at GCSE. The statistics in relation to RE in England are impressive: in 1987 only 15% of pupils were studying RE at GCSE. Since then the numbers studying the subject have increased every year to the stage where, in 2003, 53% of pupils study the subject. 4
3.8. Conversely in Northern Ireland research carried out as part of the review by the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) of the whole curriculum indicated that pupils regarded RE as the least enjoyable of all subjects studied in the lower secondary school. Why is there such an apparent discrepancy between the experience of pupils in Northern Ireland and that of their peers in England?
3.9. We feel that the answer to this question lies in the way the subject of RE is approached in Northern Ireland. It is our view that the approach that has been adopted in Northern Ireland actually makes the majority of pupils feel uncomfortable with the subject. In the following sections we suggest critical areas where a different approach could be adopted.
3.10. There was the possibility with the review of RE that the Working Party could have used the opportunity to take a huge stride to reform RE in a way that would have made it relevant to pupils, resulting in a subject, like its counterpart in England, that becomes the most attractive option for pupils rather than the least attractive. We are keen to see that this opportunity is not totally lost.
4. Critical areas to be addressed
4.1. We feel that there are three critical areas that lie at the heart of the Proposals that have resulted in such an unsatisfactory syllabus from our point of view.
"The study of world faiths confuses pupils"
4.2. We were astounded to read the Working Party's justification for not including world faiths throughout the syllabus:
Some would favour going further or, indeed, in an altogether different direction, and advocate a rigorous multi-faith or comparative and phenomenological approach to the study of religions. The Working Party is convinced that there are strong educational, as well as theological, reasons for not adopting such an approach and concurs with Kay and Linnet Smith (2000a, 2000b) who conclude, as Barnes points out, that the study of a wide range of world faiths 'confuses pupils and that thematic teaching produces less favourable attitudes' towards religion in general, rather than respect for religious diversity (2002, p.28). The Working Party maintains that the essential Christian character of Religious Education in Northern Ireland plays an important part in the faith development of our young people, and is overwhelmingly supported by parents and contributes significantly to the promotion of tolerance and the common good in Northern Ireland. The Working Party supports strongly, therefore, maintaining the essential Christian character of Religious Education for all grant-aided schools in Northern Ireland as recognised in existing legislation(Proposals p. 4)
4.3. We were interested to note that the decision appeared to be based on research conducted by Dr. Philip Barnes. We do not feel that Barnes' research supports this interpretation.
4.4. Our own experiences tell us that it is patently false to say that teaching children about diversity confuses them and is therefore educationally unsound. Indeed research by Paul Connolly in the University of Ulster on the subject of sectarianism identifies that children as young as three can form negative sectarian stereotypes:
It is reasonable to assume that children, from about the age of three, are able to develop an understanding of the categories of 'Protestant' and 'Catholic' (although possibly not using those precise terms) and to apply negative characteristics to these. 6
4.5. If children as young as three can form negative sectarian stereotypes we would feel that it is appropriate that children at the age of five are taught about diversity and supported in an educational environment that enables them to deal with the diversity that they experience.
4.6. We feel that the assertion that "The study of world faiths confuses pupils" is educationally and theologically unsound and should be withdrawn by the Working Party.
4.7. This assertion that "The study of world faiths confuses pupils" appears to form a central argument for the approach that has been developed in the proposals. Examples of the approach are the following:
4.8. If the validity of this assertion is called into question then the entire approach that has been developed in the proposals appears to us to be questionable.
A divided approach to Religious Education
4.9. The proposals recommend the following approach:
Within a Christian-centred Core Syllabus for Religious Education, units of study should be included, at an appropriate stage, as an introduction to world faiths other than Christianity. (Proposals p. 4)
4.10. We appreciate that the Working Party states that it is their intention that the new syllabus will still be recognisable to teachers already familiar with the original. This is a laudable aim with the apparent intention of minimising the potential for disruption that could be caused by the introduction of a totally new syllabus. However we feel that the attempt to produce a syllabus that would be familiar to teachers while, at the same time, introducing new content about selected world faiths has caused major discontinuities between the "Christian" content and the module on other world faiths.
4.11. We feel that even if the teaching about other world faiths were to be extended to cover the entire age range of pupils, such a divided approach would be educationally unsound. This approach of a divided syllabus is unacceptable to us.
4.12. Furthermore there are many phrases in the syllabus that reinforce a concept of "us" and "others". Examples are the following:
4.13. While we have no doubt that the Working Party did not intend to cause offence in their use of language nevertheless we feel that the language in many parts of the document is inappropriate. It is patronising in parts, but worse, it tends to reinforce a concept of "us" and "others".
4.14. There is already much diversity in Northern Ireland:
4.15. Are all such people to be considered 'others'?
4.16. Indeed the proposals themselves state that:
The Working Party believes that the central Christian value of respect for one's fellow man and woman - as indicated by Jesus in Mark 12:31 when we are commanded to 'love your neighbour as you love yourself' and exemplified in The Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 - demands an appreciation of others and their sincerely held beliefs.
4.17. We feel strongly that a format of the syllabus that separates and isolates other world faiths is not showing them due respect.
4.18. Imagine the experience of a child that attends school. For the first nine years of her school life the syllabus provides no opportunity for other pupils to learn anything about her beliefs. The teaching she receives in RE implicitly conveys the message that Christianity is the only valid religion in Northern Ireland. Then she moves with her friends to Key Stage Three and the class is suddenly taught the beliefs of this pupil. It will be very difficult for the young people in that class not to develop the perception that the girl belongs to a non-Christian faith is "odd" and "different". And it will be extremely difficult for the girl to feel confident about her faith in this context.
4.19. It is clearly not good for society to construct a concept of 'us' and 'others'. However it is even worse for us to have a syllabus that perpetuates such concepts. To allow children to grow up in a world of 'us' and 'others', of in-groups and out-groups, is to establish conditions under which divisions in society are drawn, accentuated, perpetuated and exacerbated.
4.20. Furthermore, such language is deeply insulting to individuals, families and faith communities who are being adjudged to be the 'other'. It undermines the efforts of those families and teachers who work hard to educate children to see themselves as members of a single human race.
4.21. We feel that the proposals must be re-written in a way that does not isolate the module on other world faiths but rather integrates teaching about other world faiths into the main part of the syllabus and extends teaching about world faiths across all age groups.
The lack of integration with other parts of the curriculum
4.22. The third major critical area that concerns us in the current proposals is the apparent lack of integration between the proposed syllabus and the rest of the curriculum. In the old syllabus there was cross-linkage to cross-curricular themes such as Education for Mutual Understanding. Such cross linkage appears to be absent in the current proposals.
4.23. The subject needs to be presented in a way that clearly integrates it with other subjects in the curriculum. To achieve this the subject must have a similar framework to the one that is used for other subjects, for example, at Key Stage Three the current proposals suggest statutory requirements that describe the entitlement of every young person in the following way:
4.24. The current proposals for RE do not appear to be consistent with the CCEA's Pathways proposals. We feel that if a difference is created in the way RE is treated in the curriculum such a difference may lead young people to think that the subject is marginal to the curriculum or less important than other subject areas.
4.25. In addition to the issue of integration within the curriculum the subject needs to be presented in a way that is seen to be inclusive to all pupils. Such an inclusive approach has implications for the way the subject is presented and it also has implications for the content of the subject. It would be difficult for a teacher to present the current proposals in an inclusive manner.
4.26. The Pathways proposals for curriculum and assessment at Key Stage Three state that: The Northern Ireland curriculum should provide relevant learning opportunities to help each young person develop as
4.27. As already stated, the RE proposals do not appear to fit into the framework that is being proposed. Furthermore there is little reference to RE in the Pathways proposals whereas all other learning areas appear to be considered in detail.
4.28. Rather than link the RE syllabus with the rest of the curriculum, the RE Proposals isolate RE as a 'separate and unique curricular area' based on 'Biblical revelation and Christian understanding.'
4.29. We feel that this isolation of the syllabus may explain in part why many pupils in Northern Ireland express the view that RE is the least enjoyable subject studied in the lower secondary school. We also suspect that this isolation may cause many pupils to view the subject as irrelevant to the rest of their school work.
5. The consultation process
5.1. We are grateful that the proposed module on world faiths includes some information on the Bahá'í Faith however this section contains a number of errors and inaccuracies. We are not aware of any attempt having been made to consult with the Bahá'í community in the drafting of this material and it is our understanding that no attempt was made to contact representatives of other faith communities.
5.2. Shortly before the publication of the Proposals the Joint Chairmen of the Working Party arranged a meeting in the Ramada Hotel in Belfast and invited representatives of faith communities to hear the approach that was being developed. We were pleased to be able to attend that meeting, however few details were available and there was no written material available for review or comment.
5.3. We understand that the Proposals have been prepared by the Churches' RE Core Syllabus Review Working Party and that the membership of the Working Party was appointed by the four main Churches in Northern Ireland. We understand that the membership of the Working Party was restricted to those who were members of the four main Churches. It is also our understanding that an advisory sub-group was established to advise the Working Party on the issue of the inclusion of world faiths. However as far as we are aware the membership of the advisory sub-group was also restricted to members of the four main Churches.
5.4. We feel it is a major shortcoming of the drafting process that there was no meaningful engagement with faith communities in the drafting of the world faiths module.
6. The Convention on the Rights of the Child
6.1. Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is as follows:
6.2. Recently the Commissioner for Children has been appointed with the role of promoting and upholding the Convention.
6.3. It is our view that the Proposals, in their current form, are in breach of Article 14 of the Convention.
7. The Bahá'í experience of teaching world religions
7.1. For nearly twenty years the Bahá'í community in Northern Ireland has been running a Sunday School for children. The school currently has more than fifty pupils and it operates for two hours every Sunday morning.
7.2. Those attending this school come from many differing backgrounds: although most are Bahá'ís there are many differing minority ethnic groups represented at the school including Chinese, Indian, Iranian, Iraqi, and pupils from a variety of European countries.
7.3. In addition to the ethnic diversity in the school there is also wide diversity of religious backgrounds among those present. Though most at the school are Bahá'ís their backgrounds include the following religions: Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Zoroastrian.
7.4. This ethnic and religious diversity within the school has given the Bahá'í community a unique experience of issues relating to the accommodation of ethnic and religious diversity.
7.5. For Bahá'ís there is an educational imperative in Northern Ireland and elsewhere to ensure that children learn in depth about more than one faith, that they understand that faith communities can and do interact with each other in a peaceful manner without compromising the faith of anyone, and that all human beings, of whatever faith or race, are part of one single human family.
7.6. Children attending the school from the age of four years are taught about all the world religions - not only those present in the school. There has never been an issue of children being confused by such learning or their own faith being undermined. Indeed our experience has been that by introducing children to teaching about other world religions at an early age they build up a great sensitivity to diversity and their own faith development is greatly enhanced. We would be very happy to share lesson plans and other resource materials that are used in the school.
8.1. To date we have made little progress in implementing the recommendation of the Minister in 1992 that schools should be encouraged to include teaching about other world religions. In order to be able to implement this recommendation it is essential that training is provided for teachers.
8.2. In addition to the training that is needed for teachers it is also essential that good resource materials are developed to support teachers who are attempting to include teaching about other religions. These actions are urgent and essential to enable teachers to fulfil the recommendation that the Minister made in 1992.
8.3. It appears that the major justification for the approach that the Working Party has developed in relation to world religions has been informed by the Party's understanding of research undertaken by Philip Barnes. As a matter of urgency the Working Party should formally contact Dr. Barnes to ascertain if, in his view, his research supports the interpretation that has been developed by the Working Party.
8.4. If, as we expect, Dr. Barnes is unable to confirm that the interpretation taken by the Working Party is supported by his research, the Party must begin a thorough review of the approach that has been developed to RE.
8.5. In undertaking a review of the approach to RE the Working Party should consider the following factors:
8.6. In the process of reviewing the approach to RE that has been developed we ask the Working Party to give consideration to the following matters:
8.7. We feel that if the above recommendations are fully implemented in a timely manner we could develop proposals for the teaching of RE that would
Bahá'í Council for Northern Ireland
References and footnotes
1. The Bahá'í understanding of the relationship between the great religions of the world is explained in a recent letter addressed by the supreme governing body of the Bahá'í Faith, the Universal House of Justice, to the world's religious leaders. The letter, dated April 2003, is available on the web at: http://www.bahai.org/pdf/letter_april2002_english.pdf
2. Bahá'u'lláh, The Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 114
3. Northern Ireland Office, Race Crime and Sectarian Crime Legislation in Northern Ireland. A consultation paper. November 2002
4. These figures have been produced by Lat Blaylock who is employed as an executive officer with the Professional Council for Religious Education. More information is available from Mr Blaylock at: firstname.lastname@example.org
5. CCEA, Pathways Proposals for Curriculum and Assessment at Key Stage Three
7. CCEA, Pathways Proposals for Curriculum and Assessment at Key Stage Three
8. The full text of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and information about the role of the Commissioner for Children and Young People can be obtained at the Commissioner's web site: www.niccy.org