Monkey business in the scripture class – archive, 9 July 1974

Over the last few months, with very little national attention, a controversy has developed over religious education in Birmingham which is provoking local comparisons with Tennessee’s celebrated “monkey trial” in 1925.

At least, that is the perspective in which some humanists and Communists hope it will come to be seen. A new RE syllabus – due to be taught this autumn – which includes self-contained sections on both these secular philosophies is on the point of being thrown back at its astonished planners after four years of work.

The syllabus has fallen foul of the 1944 Education Act which, as read by lawyers, makes it illegal to teach non-religious subjects as part of RE – unless this is done “for the advancement of religious knowledge.”

The five working parties of a total of 40 people who prepared the syllabus fell straight into this trap, apparently by accident. Their agreed document listed communism and humanism as “non religious stances for living,” to be studied as an “area of investigation.”

Birmingham education committee’s barrister has given the opinion that it is not legitimate for these to be presented as “subjects for themselves” or “taught for their own sake.” The committee, barred by law from making piecemeal changes in the syllabus, then took the unprecedented step of seeking DES guidance. The Department, at non-ministerial level, broadly confirmed the barrister’s judgment that the syllabus was invalid in a letter sent on June 28.

The irritated and confused committee considered this guidance last Thursday. Understandably, it took refuge in further seeking its barrister’s advice on the DES suggestion that it should refer back the whole syllabus to the conference.

It was not clear, as this report was written, how much of the syllabus can survive this process. The DES guidance seems chiefly worried about the absence of specific headings of topics of instruction for the syllabus. This point must relate to an understandable concern over the licence open to teachers in using the syllabus.

Communism and humanism are at present understood to be meant to occupy a half-term each during four years of adolescent RE, with a full year given to Christianity. Presumably, it would not be within the intentions of the authors of this or any sane syllabus if a teacher found himself able to reverse these proportions.

The Communist section of a handbook of suggestions for teachers runs, according to the Birmingham Post, onto 40 pages, longer than the Christian section and far more generous than the 15 words given to the subject in the Inner London Education Authority RE syllabus or the 10 words in the West Riding syllabus.

While communism is reasonably presented in the syllabus as an important part of the globe in which children are becoming citizens, the party gained a derisory vote in Birmingham at the last general election. Communists have not been noticeably articulate in championing the syllabus. For one thing, it lists for modern reading material the expanding Trotskyist newspaper Socialist Worker on a par with the Morning Star, a step which is not calculated to win friends and influence people among orthodox Communists.

Someone who does champion the syllabus replies to the page counters who criticise its “details of execution” by saying that they ignore the “matter of principle” – the importance of the right in the modern world to teach non religious stances for themselves.

But undoubtedly it was the broader issue which concerned the committee’s barrister and the issue of communism which angered the Conservative minority who started the controversy. Even Mr Heath has stepped in to argue that, while communism can be taught meaningfully in a political philosophy syllabus, it does not belong within religious education. When did a Tory leader last risk embroiling himself so deeply in a religious row?

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