Guy Hordern is Chairman of Birmingham City Council's Standing Advisory Council for religious education
Will faith continue to be a part of the fabric of this country as the Prime Minister predicted during the Pope's visit? Differing faith communities in Birmingham have taken heart from statements made by him and other members of the cabinet who emphasise the important contribution that faith makes to national life.
For example, Michael Gove has reiterated the same sentiment. For most young people access to reliable information about faith comes through Religious Education (RE) in schools. So what are education policies doing to secure a place for faith in the future fabric of this country?
The Government is robust in its support for faith schools but, no doubt due to unintended consequences, it is less certain that its policies will be as effective in other schools and academies. The exclusion of religious studies from the choice of humanities subjects in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) did little to help; consequent school timetable changes, cuts in staffing, and training places for RE teachers has only weakened RE.
Nick Gibb, the Minister for Schools, maintains that "RE is central to the aim of the school curriculum"’. He takes the view that being required by law is RE’s "key strength". So in other words, the Government is relying on the law to secure the future of faith through the teaching of RE in non-faith academies and free schools.
However, how does the Government's support for faith schools and this reliance on law dovetail with the Government’s strong commitment to developing free schools and academies? For it is becoming increasingly clear that this latter policy directly undermines the “key strength” of RE. The reason for this is simple. Free schools and academies are bound not by statute law, but by funding agreements. And any of the minister’s successors can change funding agreements at will, unlike statute law, which cannot of course be changed without reference to parliament.