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Religious education ‘more important than ever’ to prepare children for modern life, Norfolk heads say

Headteachers in Norfolk say teaching about tolerance and various faiths in religious education is more important than ever. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Headteachers in Norfolk say teaching about tolerance and various faiths in religious education is more important than ever. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

PA Archive/Press Association Images

Norfolk’s headteachers say it is vital that religious education evolves to focus on tolerance and a multifaith approach to equip children for life in modern Britain.

In a survey with 60 county heads, just over 83pc said the material of religious studies lessons had changed in the last few years.

The majority said lessons now needed to cover more religions, focus on greater tolerance and warn about extremism.

Though national surveys point to a move towards a secular society, one head said it was “more vital than ever to ensure we get this right”, while another said religion still played “a huge role” in shaping our society.

“We need to ensure our children understand and respect each other’s values, but are aware of where extremist views are not acceptable,” one respondent said.

Another said parents, and sometimes staff, were still surprised the religious education curriculum spanned beyond the traditional nativity play.

“When I first started teaching over 40 years ago we only taught Christianity, now we teach about other faiths,” one head said.

Many said it was key to equip children with an understanding of other religions, and a knowledge of the “difference between religion and terrorism”.

One headteacher said: “We think children need this knowledge to help them respect and understand others’ points of view. In addition, children need to be able to make informed choices in a world where they will very likely live with difference and diversity: they may encounter extreme ideologies.”

By law, religious education must be taught by all state-funded schools in England, but, with academies having greater freedom over how they teach it, national studies have claimed many children are missing out.

But 90pc of respondents in Norfolk - with 59pc of the total 60 coming from local authority schools and 36pc from academies - said they still taught the subject through dedicated lessons, rather than through other topics, one-off sessions or assemblies.

And while some said time constraints and a focus on core subjects distracted attention, 73pc said they still felt able to make religious education a priority.

But one headteacher warned that standards had declined in the subject, due to a lack of specialist teachers.

In 2017/18, 405 new trainee teachers were recruited in religious education, just 63pc of the government’s target of 643.

Removing children from lessons

The vast majority of parents in Norfolk have not removed their children from religious lessons, the survey suggests.

Parents have a legal right to withdraw their children from all, or part of, the lessons, or religious school trips.

But in the survey, 80pc of heads said no parents at their school had chosen to withdrawn their children from lessons, with 20pc saying one to three pupils were withdrawn.

One respondent said while no parents had chosen to do so for lessons, a handful of children were pulled out of religious outings.

And the vast majority said the figure had not changed in recent years.

In 2016, school leaders called on the government to revoke parents’ rights, arguing that giving parents a choice undermined the teaching of British values - a core part of the government’s strategy to tackle radicalisation.

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