Faith in schools and education in general may be under the microscope, but there should always be a place for religion in education, writes the Headteacher of Stonyhurst College

Religion in education all too often gets a bad press. Critics argue that it has no place in schools, which should be ‘neutral’ – free from the intolerance, extremism and illiberalism which they say religion engenders. Faith is irrelevant in everyday life, they claim: keep it in church for the few who attend. In a pluralist and diverse society, religion offers only segregation and ignorance. On the contrary – religious education is more important now than it has probably ever been.

Religious education emphasises respect for others, regardless of their beliefs, race or social status. In our diverse society, children need an understanding of other principal religions and other world views. In teaching about the beliefs and traditions of other people, the subject promotes discernment and enables pupils to combat prejudice. Such tolerance is vital in a world that is increasingly fraught with extremism, division and hatred.

Too often, it is assumed that religious education is hijacked as a sinister means of indoctrination; of imposing a set of beliefs upon children. Of course, we are all, to some extent, the product of our environments, absorbing the views and traditions of our families, schools and communities. Education, however, is by definition about intellectual enlightenment, concerned with opening minds, not closing them.

stonyhurst pupils

Pupils at Stonyhurst College

Even in faith schools, which promote the tenets and values of a particular religion, pupils are encouraged to question rather than to accept passively any given creed. The majority of faith schools do not teach from one single faith perspective, but incorporate an element of comparison between religions. Far from being self-regarding, segregated institutions that deepen division, faith schools encourage openness to others, emphasising that the thing we all have in common is our humanity, which is of infinite value.

Without religious education, how can children acquire a knowledge of Christianity, the religion that has played such a central part in this country’s cultural heritage? Any study of literature, history, or art is impoverished without an understanding of this context. Children also need the opportunity to discuss challenging questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, and what it is to be human, about death, about why people believe in God, and the difference between right and wrong. Religious education is perhaps one curricular subject which asks more questions than it answers.

It is only when young people have grappled with these enormous questions that they can begin to make sense of what they themselves believe and think. As education becomes increasingly utilitarian, viewed often as a means merely of contributing to a skills-based economy, religious education can encourage pupils to think, and to develop their own sense of identity. And if young people are encouraged to recognise their own uniqueness and value, they will flourish both as individuals and as citizens in a pluralistic society and global community.

Andrew Johnson is Headteacher of Stonyhurst College, Clitheroe, Lancashire BB7 9PZ; 01254 827073;