Following on from threads on Calpundit and Crooked Timber, and given that Europe seems to be at the centre of the debate over religious education in schools at present, what with the French headscarf debate and the proposals to add atheism, agnosticism and humanism to RE in British schools, I thought it would be interesting to get a picture of how the teaching of religion is handled in education systems across Europe.
Below the fold of this post, I’ve given my experiences of religious education at school in Britain and what I understand to be the present position. What I’d like is for our commenters and other contributors to add their experiences or knowledge in the comments box and we’ll see what sort of cross-continental picture we come up with. I’ll admit to being quite ignorant of the position outside Britain (though I know some of the system in France and Ireland) and hopefully we can all enlighten ourselves!
Firstly, my position is slightly different from most other Britons as Worcestershire, where I grew up, has a three-tier school system rather than the two-tier system used in most of the rest of the country. We attended primary, sometimes called ‘first’, school from 5 to 9 (years 1-4 in the current nomenclature), middle school from 9 to 13 (years 5-8) and then high school from 13 to 16-18, depending on when you chose to leave (years 9-11 or 13) as opposed to the more common system of primary from 5 to 11 and secondary from 11 to 16 or 18.
At my first two schools (primary and middle), religious education was pretty much limited to school assemblies (the daily act of supposedly ‘collective worship’ enshrined in law) which rarely went beyond the singing of a hymn or two and the occasional talk on a moral theme. My middle school was, and still is, a Church of England school but even then, religion was not a major part of the curriculum which was probably because the local vicar, whose responsibility it was, was the sort of person who felt he should lead by example rather than theology. Indeed, any time he came in for a class was usually welcomed by us children as it would normally be a fun example. This may be surprising to regular readers of my blog, but I was actually a member of a youth group he ran at the local church.
High School was a different matter, mainly because I went to the local Catholic school, though that was mianly because my eldest brother had had a bad time at the C of E school I was meant to go to, and my parents didn’t wish me or my other brother to go there, rather than for any religious reasons. Religious education was a much larger part of the curriculum here, though not to the extremes the Catholic school caricature often depicts. There was a school priest (shared with other Catholic schools in the area) and a chapel within the school, but only one of the teachers was a nun, and she had been a teacher before becoming a nun. However, unlike my friends at other schools, we were required to take Religious Education to GCSE (16 year old) level and school assemblies had a much more religious flavour than there had been at my previous schools. We were also expected to attend Mass (though not fully participate if we were not Catholic) at school on certain feast days and the like (approximately monthly, IIRC) – the school did relax this requirement slightly during my time there, and during my final two years non-Catholics were not required to attend at all, which did cause some resentment from my Catholic friends who had to attend no matter how non-practising they might have been outside school hours.
Of course, this was almost fifteen years ago, and the situation has changed since then. Schools that were nominally C of E back then now have a more religious character to them, and in many areas are regarded as good schools to get into. However, while religion is required to be taught in British schools, from my experience there was usually, even in a Catholic school, a ‘wall of spearation’ between the religious and secular parts of education. The only time I can recall an overtly Catholic tinge to any class outside RE was one Geography class, taught by a teacher who was a pretty devout Catholic. The syllabus required us to learn about world population and the methods taken to control it. What it didn’t cover, but our teacher informed us, was which methods were deemed sinful by the Pope. This, though, was the same teacher who informed us in an assembly that ‘heavy petting with your girlfriend or boyfriend makes you no better than a copulating dog in the street’, so perhaps the surprise is that he managed to leave it to the one lesson.
And on that note, I shall open the floor to everyone else.