The Religious Education Council of England and Wales
Where does the REC come from?
The simple answer to this question is that it was established in 1973 following informal consultations between the many national organisations with a direct interest in RE. From the start these included the education bodies of the main Christian denominations and of the other faith communities and humanists, plus the academic and professional associations with an involved with the study of religion and education. Their common priority was to find ways to work together to promote their common interest in a stronger and richer provision for RE at all levels of public education. It remains so.
Although from time to time there have been points of contention, for instance in regard to how inclusive its membership should be, or over the future of the local agreed syllabus, it is committed to operate by consensus. Its working principle remains that of 'wider ecumenism': no pretend ignoring of difference, but not to do separately what can possibly be done together.
The deeper answer to the question of where the REC comes from is rooted in the RE legislation of England and Wales and even the constitutional relation between church and state. Throughout the world there is a long-standing public sponsorship of education on often singular religious premises. There has also come to be a varying amount of mutual distancing and separation. Here within the UK however, since schools first became funded from public taxation, some degree of partnership and plurality has been acknowledged.
From 1870, responsibility for public education was shared by church and state in what was called the Dual System. That the system was already a plural one was reflected in the existence of schools of the different Christian denominations, plus those of the Jewish community. Acknowledgement of plurality was reaffirmed in 1944. To address the challenge of difference in belief on the ground, schools not linked to one religious denomination were required to rely on the inter faith bridge of a locally agreed syllabus. Recognition of greater plurality was then reinforced in 1988, with the explicit inclusion of all the principal religions of the UK in syllabus expectations, local ASCs (Agreed Syllabus Conferences) and SACREs (Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education).
Here the inherited constitutional relation between church and state is relevant. The potential anachronism of an established church (in England though not Wales) might be perceived as antagonistic to this provision. In practice it is quite the opposite. In accord with encouragement from its national board of education, the local Anglican voice within SACREs is attentive to the interests of other faiths and professional voices. And the heir to the throne referred to on its coins as fid def - Defender of Faith - is known to favour an interpretation which prizes the importance of faith and faiths in human life, for him personally rooted in Christianity but inclusively open to the faith of others.
As an aid to sharing and developing best practice, the RE Council at a national level brings together all these many interested parties and interests. Alongside the insiders to communities of faith and belief there are the other public agencies whose primary purpose is with religions in education. These are independent of particular faith allegiance – secular, but not secularist. Together they and the REC witness to the promise of a theistically open liberal democracy.
The nature of the partnership between REC and government education departments
The RE Council for most of its existence has been dependent solely on an annual subscription of less that £100 from each of its member organisations, plus the voluntary energies of its elected officers. This has changed since 2006, at least in part and temporarily.
For much of its history, its relationship with government educational agencies was that of critical foe, rather than friend. Representations were repeatedly made to successive governments regarding the mismatch between a rhetoric of support for RE and a reality that was characterised by underprovision in schools and colleges. Lack of primary and secondary RE specialists and resources compared badly with priority and funding to virtually all other other subject areas.
In 2003, the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, responded sympathetically to this evidence. To address the local variability in provision, he resolved on the worth of developing a nationally normative vision for RE across the maintained system of education as a whole – LA/community schools and voluntary/faith schools. This emerged as the DfES-QCA National Framework for RE (2004). It was the work of a writing group and steering committee drawn largely from colleagues drawn from the REC and its member organisations. It was signed up to by each of the faith community organisations and BHA (British Humanist Association), and though non statutory, provides a reference point for thinking about the learning process in RE for all schools, pupils and teachers throughout England.
It was during this development that the value of the RE Council as an effective partner for engaging with the RE community in all its diversity became more fully recognised by the DfES, and subsequently DCSF. In response to REC proposals for a national strategy for RE in 2006 (arising from its Report of the RE Teaching and Training Commission), DCSF agreed a million pound RE Action Plan to be delivered in a partnership with the REC and its member organisations. Although this was only one sixtieth of the investment which REC had estimated as needed to ensure effective provision for every child in every school, it was the first strategic financial support for RE in decades.
From this emerged the three year RE Action Plan (REAP) which has included some boosting of the REC's organisational capacities. In addition, the REAP has included:
- collaboration with DCSF officials in the production of the new RE Guidance to replace Circular 1/94, including the writing and steering groups, plus the national QCA consultation
- consultative advice to the DCSF on a range of RE issues and the development of a round-table process for CPD in RE
- strengthening the capacities of the National Association of Teachers of RE and its local teachers groups
- the Warwick Research project on material resources for teaching world religions
- the NASACRE recruitment and training programme for representatives from minority faiths on local SACREs
- the preparation with AREIAC, AULRE and Shap of this CPD on-line handbook for RE
- the development of an RE self-evaluation form for use by schools for return to SACREs
- the ongoing pursuit of a more collaborative and inclusive portal for RE websites and organisations which in its signposting and searchability works to the advantage of all its users.
Another major national initiative is the REsilience Project. Initially funded by the DCSF Community Cohesion Unit and the CLG, the first CPD project ran until March 2011. It is now being managed entirely by the REC and is currently being developed and trialled to evaluate its sustainability. Its focus is on increasing teachers' competence and confidence in tackling contentious issues in the classroom, including that of appeal to religious roots in promoting extremist violence.
What lies ahead?
Political and economic uncertainties rule out reliable prediction, however in REC perspective there are several points of relevant principle which will in part be determinative.
- every child and young person 3-19 deserves opportunity within their public educational experience for good quality RE which will equip them with knowledge and understanding of the meaning and significance of religions nationally and globally, help them refine the beliefs by which they will live, and deepen their own moral sense in relation to others
- the REC exists to promote the shared interests of its member organisations and those of the extended RE community throughout the country
- partnership with government and its relevant agencies is mutually desirable
- ways and means need to be found to enable the REC to be able to sustain itself so that its partnership work is carried out from a position of relative independence; it is not in anyone else's pocket.
As a major opportunity towards achieving all these ends, the REC organised a month-long National Celebration of RE in March 2011. The Celebrating RE website contains a legacy of the events and materials developed to support these.