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RE and the EBacc

As a brief follow-on from the previous post, a few words on Michael Gove’s decision not to include RE on the list of humanities subjects that students wishing to gain the EBacc accreditation will have to  study.

Now, the issue of RE is a vexed one, and as I have blogged before, and as I hope to blog again in future, there are very real tensions concerning what RE is for and what it should look like. Expectations and demands surrounding RE can differ hugely, affected as much by educational philosophy as by demands of particular establishments (faith schools tend to take a rather different approach from community schools, for example). Whilst it is excessive to call this an identity crisis, which would presume that the lack of uniformity is a bad thing, it is nonetheless true to say that views differ to a degree significant enough to lead some to think that RE is not, and cannot be, a ‘proper’ humanities subject like, say, History. I, of course, would beg to differ, and in the strongest possible terms, agreeing with the CES that (when delivered well) RE “…has a strong claim to be the humanity, par excellence as it demands knowledge and skills in history, textual criticism, anthropology, ethics, philosophy and theology.”

Interestingly, however, this question of academic rigour is not one that Gove seeks to present when addressing the concerns of those who question its expulsion from the EBacc system. Gove states that, firstly, RE is a compulsory subject, and has been ever since 1944, meaning that it does not warrant inclusion in a system which requires students to choose a particular humanities subject to study in greater depth. This (somewhat curious) defence leads directly on to the second, that since the aim of the EBacc is to increase dwindling participation in humanities subjects, therefore RE is not, for this reason, a candidate for inclusion in the EBacc.

Which strikes me as a complete sack of not-particularly-sweet-smelling-substance. If Gove’s vision is to supply students with a thorough and wide-ranging liberal education then quite how many students have ever taken any particular subject, and its current compulsory status on the curriculum or otherwise, is wholly beside the point. The question is simply this: can RE provide an element of that well-rounded and rigorous education? If it can, which is the real debate to be had, then its inclusion in the system is beyond debate.

Gove’s defence is a curious one, and to further the debate some point to the undesirable consequences such a decision might have on, for example, those very faith schools that the government have long made a song and dance about supporting. To quote from the document:

There is, however, concern that faith schools—to which the Government has said it is “committed” are indirectly discriminated against by the EBac’s exclusion of religious studies. The Church of England Board of Education explained the dilemma to us:

Church of England schools, many of which maintain a commitment to full course GCSE RS for all students, are now faced with an impossible choice. Keeping RE as part of the core for all students may well be seen as too risky. At the very least there will be extreme pressure on the timetable if RE is to be maintained alongside the acceptable English Baccalaureate subjects.

A survey of nearly 800 schools, conducted by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE), recently found that almost one in three secondary schools plans cuts to RE teaching. [my emphasis]

This is a key issue, since it will force the hand of Heads in faith schools, who have a commitment to their own founding ethos as well as one eye on the league tables that have the ability to make or break a career, not to mention a school. And beyond faith schools too, since if one essentially incentivises against RE then schools will increasingly choose not to offer it in the same depth and detail as they may have historically chosen to do. Quite apart from the question of whether this is an acceptable preparation for our children as they enter into a world that continues to be so hugely influenced by religion (on the level of sociology as well as philosophy and ethics), the question also remains of whether this allows students to explore and engage with seams of thought that might assist their own development, both personally and as conscientious citizens. As Ben Thomas, a Headmaster from Battersea, put it (drawing upon similar sentiments to those I explored yesterday),

Tolerance will surely come only through understanding of each other’s religions, and understanding through education

Non-faith schools, without the downward pressure of diocesan commitments and governors to protect RE in their schools, could quite easily shelve RE as any sort of mainstream subject, and in so doing create blindspots in the intellectual and moral development of our children that no amount of Citizenship lessons are ever likely to fill, and this in precisely those schools where commitment to explorations of faith and religion might already be weakest*. Again, from the report:

Others have argued that the absence of religious education in the EBac will encourage schools — despite its standing as a compulsory subject — to treat the subject less seriously, which could have a detrimental effect on students’ wider education. Headteacher Hugh O’Neill predicted that “for a non-faith school” religious education will become “an extremely rare choice, if the EBac stays as it is”, despite being—in the words of another Headteacher — “as rigorous academically at GCSE as history and geography.”

And that last comment is key, since it seems to me that, for all that he is doing his level best to avoid saying it, the real reason why Gove has chosen to exlcude RE from the EBacc is because he doubts its academic rigour and would prefer the emphasis to fall on History and/or Geography instead. The clue comes with Gove’s suggestion that some poorly performing schools (it is not worded thus, but the implication is clear) might use RE as a ‘tick-box’ for the humanities subject in order for their students to achieve the EBacc – the language heavily implying that, for Gove, RE can be seen as an easy option.

Which is perfectly fine and, in truth, is a sentiment that I myself once signed up to. But if this is so then Gove should just come out and say it and let the debate be had on those terms.  However, by refusing to engage with the discussion on these terms, Gove denies RE the space to improve its standing in the curriculum and develop (where needed) its academic credentials, and in so doing denies children the opportunity to gain their EBacc accreditation through a route that can combine intellectual challenge with opportunities for social, spiritual and moral development – opportunities that might simply not be available in quite the same manner throughout the rest of the curriculum.

Quite apart from being ill-suited to the EBacc vision, RE, it seems to me, ought to be the very foundation of a broad-based, wide-ranging, and academically challenging classical liberal education. Quite why Michael Gove does not think so remains, even now, far from clear.

*I’m not saying this is necessarily the case, more that the conditions have been created for it to be so.

The contributory principle: a two-way street

People who take out of the pot should have to put something in. Seems fair enough to me. I mean, there has to be the flexibility to accommodate those who, without fault, find themselves on the sharp edge of that rule of thumb, of course, but the root sentiment is laudable: we’re all in this together. We all contribute, then we are all justified in taking something out, when the need presents itself.

This, though put more plainly than the sophisticates in the thinktanks would like to put it, is essentially the contributory principle. And the contributory principle has become central to so many new political oeuvres of late that one can be sure that it is here to stay. We’re told that it was a mode of thought that informed the creation of the first welfare state, that it is the transgression of this principle that has led to people falling out of love with the welfare state, and that it is at the very root of much opposition to immigration, with people seeing immigrants using ‘our services’ without ever having contributed much, either economically or socially, to the creation of that system. The reasoning is plain enough: you haven’t put in; you have no right to take out.

And it is this principle that the lies at the root of much Tory rhetoric on welfare, with its ever-present slogans of ‘welfare scroungers’, ‘welfare junkies’, ‘ending the free ride’ and ‘dependency culture’.

The tone of debate has proven popular, of course, and though the label has been long dropped, it all forms what was once diagnosed as the ‘Broken Society’, an illness to which the Tories never really prescribed a cure.  The success is understandable, since in trading in such logic the Tories connect at the most basic level with the frustrations the general public feel toward the welfare system and the way it is, at times, abused. (This is a good thing by the way, since frustration suggests people still care, and is therefore much more preferable to indifference).

In the face of such rhetoric, the left often does one of two things; it wrings its hands, knowing it cannot possibly argue with such reasoning, before making a goalpost-shifting response about people who dodge tax (such as the Guardian, for example), or else they deny the problem really exists and revert to calling the Tories the nasty party, coming up with some suitably emotional anecdotal evidence to drive the point home. With such responses the left aren’t exactly wrong, but they’re not exactly right either, and people will generally have enough capacity to reason or experience to recall to tell them that each of these responses are far from convincing. Thus, the issue has become a stick with which the Tory party can hit the Labour Party – and the Labour Party are either forced to play along with Tory rules, or to accept their beating and appear out of touch.

Of course, some on the left may feel that these responses are entirely legitimate, since the issue of ‘tax-dodging’ is far more substantial to the Exchequer than any sum taken out by welfare ‘scroungers’ or benefits fraud.

But such a response is ultimately unconvincing because for many people it falls on the wrong side of the dichotomy between those who do not contribute and those who take out unfairly, a moral miscalculation that puts the left at odds with the general sway of public opinion. For whatever reason, the act of dishonestly making claims upon the system simply irritates more than the act of tax avoidance, a practice which, let us not forget, finds a home in state accredited savings schemes. For reasons not entirely clear, the moral code underpinning the system simply appears for most people to be more under threat by the dishonest claimant than it is by the people who shift their money around in order to avoid having to put so much in. Some on the left may not like that, but that’s just the way it is.

But it leaves one with the question: does the contributory principle, and all attendant notions of fairness and justice, not offer an alternative playing field upon which the left could mount their own charge and turn the tables on the Tories?

Well, I think so. After all, the nub of the contributory principle is this: if you put in, you’re well justified in being able to ask for some back. The challenge is zooming out from the micro level of specific welfare systems on to the societal level, spanning the horizon of lifetimes rather than those specific bouts of joblessness and need.  Labour should be acknowledging that fraudulently claiming on the welfare system is wrong, but with it offer the corollary to that very same logic, that those who have put a good shift in should be entitled to ask for a little something back. It should readily accept that relying on the welfare system when other options are available is an abuse of the system, but it should also use the same language to make the point that those who have avoided such reliance, who have worked a lifetime and paid their dues, shouldn’t have to die in poverty worrying about end of life care. It should concede that taking out of the system without genuine need is wrong, but it should maintain that by the same logic those who work hard shouldn’t have to live with constant insecurity, wondering how they will find the money to cover the rise in fuel and food prices.

In short, the ideals of fairness and justice that the Tories have come to own, couched in terms of contribution the system, should be the stick with which Labour hit the Tories, not the other way round. The very same language and logic that has Labour floundering on the back foot when Tories make populist (and entirely legitimate) political points about benefits ‘scroungers’, can also provide Labour with an opportunity to broaden out the horizons and say:  ‘well if true with welfare, then true in society at large’. The Tories like the contributory principle because it provides a narrative that allows them to appear morally literate in the eyes of the public, able to connect with common understandings of fairness and justice, yet without unduly affecting their own natural constituency. Labour should grasp that principle and use it make much larger demands on the Tories, on the way they are managing the economic situation, and on the consequences their decisions are having for people who have put into the system.

The days are gone when smug young lefties could just screech slogans at trendy rallies about social justice and expect everybody to sign up without thought or question. Labour, for whatever reason, is often seen at odds with the priorities, concerns, desires and expectations of ordinary people. To reverse this, Labour needs to root its response to Tory cuts firmly within the ideas and moral norms of ordinary people. Labour, therefore needs to grasp those narratives that have proved so popular for the Tories and begin to use their tools against them.