Muck-raking (and hugely successful) British tabloid The Daily Mail reports on the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education’s (SACRE) syllabus for schools in Cornwall, saying that it encourages the teaching of modern Paganism alongside other religions (sorry, I still don’t link directly to them).
“Cornwall Council has told its schools that pagan beliefs, which include witchcraft, druidism and the worship of ancient gods such as Thor, should be taught alongside Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the Daily Mail reported. The requirements are spelled out in an agreed syllabus drawn up by Cornwall’s RE advisory group. It says that from the age of five, children should begin learning about standing stones, such as Stonehenge. At the age of 11, pupils can begin exploring “modern paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall.” The syllabus adds that areas of study should include “the importance of pre-Christian sites for modern pagans.” An accompanying guide says that pupils should “understand the basic beliefs” of paganism and suggests children could discuss the difficulties a practising pagan pupil might face in school.”
Something about this story tickled my memory, so I did a quick search of my archives and found a very similar story from 2010 about religious education in Lincolnshire County (also reported on by The Daily Mail). Beyond the misleading headline, “Schools get go-ahead to teach Paganism alongside major religions,” you find a quote from the Assistant Director of Children’s Services making it clear that there is “no direct guidance about whether [Paganism] should be included in the school curriculum and it is left to individual schools to make a decision about whether to include it.”
“So, in essence, individual schools could, if they wanted to, teach Paganism alongside other faiths. But it isn’t a mandate from on high, nor are there any concrete plans reported from any school to start including Paganism. It’s a story about a possibility, one that seems inspired by the recent Charity Commission approval of The Druid Network‘s application for religious charity status (both articles mention it).”
So how about this new story? Are schools in Cornwall mandating the teaching of Paganism? Well, first off, before we even read the syllabus, you should know that advisory councils are, well, advisory.
“The agreed syllabus is a statutory document for Cornwall LA community, trust, foundation and controlled schools. It can be adopted by aided schools, academies and free schools with the consent of their governing bodies or board of directors to support the delivery of the syllabus. Agreed syllabus implementation booklet sets out how the syllabus may be implemented, but it is for schools to implement the syllabus, as they decide, as long as they are meeting the statutory requirement. The booklet should not be used as a definitive guide to how schools must use the syllabus.”
So lets go to the posted syllabus itself. Here’s the first thing it says about Paganism.
“It is clear that Christianity should predominate at each key stage and should feature in no less than 60% of the religious education taught. The other religious traditions should occupy no more than 40% of RE time over the key stage. [...] At times schools may wish to teach religions not in their key stage or not in the syllabus at all. This teaching should be clearly identified in the scheme of work, it must be for a specified amount of time and it may occur in an academic year where Christianity and one other religion are already being delivered. An example of this in the past has been the desire to teach primary aged pupils about modern Paganism where there are the children of Pagan parents at the school. Schools are free to do this but must be clear about two things: 1. that the teaching of such a religious tradition is not at detriment to the programme of study and is at a level which clearly links attainment to the expectations of the syllabus; 2. that the school has clear justification for doing so based on evidence from the school. It should not be the case that teachers focus on religions that they feel most comfortable with or that appear to be more relevant in their estimation.”
So not exactly a “rah, rah, let us teach Paganism to children” moment. Let’s go to the second and only other mention in the main syllabus.
“Cornwall as a place of spiritual inquiry: The development of modern Paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall. The importance of pre-Christian sites for modern Pagans. How modern Paganism is diverse and how this diversity is expressed in Cornwall.”
That’s it. A mere mention, and dwarfed by every other religious tradition mentioned. I would be surprised if this lead to even a full day in any British school on modern Paganism. So fantasies of Miss Rose teaching about phallic symbols and the rites of May Day are just that, fantasies.
This story is hung around the idea that a school might dare to take the advice of SACRE and include Paganism alongside other British religions, and The Daily Mail quotes the Christian Institute for reaction who (naturally) call it “faddish” and “political correctness.” They apparently lost the number for the local Pagan Federation chapter.
If a serious journalistic resource covered this story they might give more than a soundbite to the local SACRE members, or interviewed some Pagans, or perhaps spoke with historian Ronald Huton, who’s hosting an upcoming documentary about how Wicca is a religion born in Britain and given to the world. Why would a responsible British religious education class not spend at least a few minutes on that subject? Or on the Charity Commission approval of The Druid Network‘s application for religious charity status, and the long history of Druidry/Druidism in the British Isles? Modern Paganism and esoteric religion has been interwoven with British history for generations now, acknowledging that isn’t “political correctness.” That the mere possibility of inclusion sparks tabloid headlines, one wonders what will happen when a school actually follows through on the council’s advice and includes Paganism in a religion education class.