Faith lacking in religious studies plan

October 02, 2014 11:38

Not for the first time, faith leaders have sounded the alarm over GCSE religious studies. When the then Education Secretary Michael Gove omitted it from the list of subjects counting towards the English Baccalaureate, they complained that he was marginalising it.

Now his successor Nicky Morgan has provoked fresh argument with a proposal to force schools to teach at least two faiths for GCSE religious studies. It is a move the authorities believe would help promote interfaith understanding, coming as it does amid concern over the potential spread of Islamist views within the school system.

At the moment, pupils taking GCSE can study one or more of six religions - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. But Jewish schools, as many other state-aided faith schools, tend to focus exclusively on their own.

If the government were to change the rules, some Jewish schools would probably drop GCSE religious studies rather than comply with the new directive.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis objects to the Morgan plan not because he thinks it is wrong to teach about other religions per se. His objection is more practical. The rationale of faith schools is for children to learn about their own faith. With children taking nine, 10 or 11 GCSEs, the curriculum is already pretty crowded, leaving little time for Jewish studies. If Jewish schools were compelled to spend less time on Judaism for GCSE, so the argument goes, that would dilute a key educational commitment.

As for religious tolerance, Jewish children are taught the classic rabbinic principle that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come. But some Jewish schools do teach something about other faiths.

At the Orthodox Yavneh College, Borehamwood, pupils in the pre-GCSE years learn about the origins of Christianity and Islam as part of a Jewish history course. "In our GCSE course, we cover philosophy and ethics and as part of that we cover the Jewish view on the beliefs of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism," explained Yavneh head teacher Spencer Lewis.

He does not see a problem in Jewish law with learning about other faiths "as long as they are taught within the context of and in relation to Orthodox Judaism".

In a letter to the JC this week, leaders of Reform Judaism, welcome the Morgan plan. Studying other faiths "ensures a more confident, robust and positive Judaism", they say.

But others argue that it is better for children to be securely grounded in knowledge of their own faith before they start looking outward. Federation Beth Din head Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein thinks schoolchildren are too young to study other traditions. "If it had to be taught, it should be when they are at a more mature age, at university level," he said.

Objections to the Morgan plan do not come only from within the religious establishment. Stephen Shashoua, director of the Three Faiths Forum, which is at the forefront of interfaith education, believes that tinkering with the GCSE syllabus is "not the best way to build a robust sense of diversity".

The forum sends panels of Muslim, Jewish and Christian speakers to around 50 schools.

Sharing experiences is a more effective tool to encourage respect for others, Mr Shashoua argues. "We believe in demonstrating lived belief. There are some things a textbook can tell you, but most a textbook can't."

October 02, 2014 11:38

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