Teaching Paganism in British Schools?

Teaching Paganism in British Schools? April 15, 2012

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).

The Daily Mail: Your source for sensationalism on Paganism.

“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 syllabusAgreed 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.

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32 responses to “Teaching Paganism in British Schools?”

  1. Jason, I’ve been enjoying your increased amount of snark and pop-culture references lately.
    Also, tho living in America and not knowing how it is across the pond, at least the Daily Mail is raising awareness that pagans exist.  That’s certainly something. 

  2. This policy seems designed to get the majority of the kids up to speed on the religion of any Pagan classmates they may have. There’s a clear implicit goal to preclude ngative kid-on-kid interactions based on religion. We read about enough of those on The Wild Hunt, we should be applauding a school system willing to devote 40% RE time to this in a country that most definitely does NOT have separation of church and state.

  3. I’m sorry but I can’t help give a very American response.  What the hell are they doing teaching religion is public schools in the first place?

  4. While that is a laudable point, that isn’t exactly what I got out of it.  What I got out of it was that all other religions of the world added up are to be 40% or less of the curriculum.  It could be 10%, for all they know.  The 60% Christianity is the bare minimum.  So the general impression that yeah yeah, all these other religions exist, but even if you add them all up they’re still nowhere as important as Christianity is.  Everything non-Christian becomes “the other” in that equation.  And chances are they’re going to devote more time to the bigger religions, and ones that are more relevant to global events.  Islam, well obviously.  Judaism probably deserves a mention because of Israel.  Gotta throw Hinduism in as well because of Britain’s close historical ties with India.  Once you get those three their screentime, plus Christianity, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of time left over to Pagan topics.  Which… I mean, I guess that makes sense in numbers, but coming from a Pagan perspective, it just reinforces the idea that Pagans have a long way to go before we really “matter” on a global scale.

  5. I can’t debate seamless pessimism. I only note that it’s reasonable for a public school to teach Christianity 60% of the time in a country that not only doesn’t have separation of church and state but has a state church that is Christian.

  6. Because that country has a Christian state church. It’s not American.

  7. Fair enough.  Though I will say that I didn’t write my post in a spirit of pessimism.  And you’re right, it does have a state church.  I suppose the question raised in my mind is what does that mean, exactly?  Historically it meant that if you didn’t agree with the state religion, you’d be risking death.  What exactly does it mean today?  I’m not from the UK but I’ve known loads of people from there and never once did I raise that question to them, never occured to me to do so.  If it means taking the holidays off publicly and seeing the royal family go to church and teaching it in schools, fine.  But how far does that go?  I’m mostly musing here, I don’t know the answer, and I imagine I’ll look into it a bit more as I have time.  On the other hand, my post wasn’t saying “bad UK for wanting to teach Christianity” – more that, realistically, while it’s nice that other religions are being taught, chances are that Paganism still isn’t going to be front and center.  That’s all. 

  8.  if that upsets you, you should come see how many UK non christians go to a Christian church for a couple of Sundays to qualify for the non state guided Christian school which claims better results in fatuous tables. In recent years the ‘faith based schools are your best bet for a good exam result’ crap has been as good a tactic as the ‘behead anybody who doesn’t practice this weeks favoured version of Christianity’ thing!

  9. Well, if you aren’t seamlessly pessimistic, I’d point out that the folks were specifically talking about Paganism and Pagan students, which is at least a hint that it might get some air time.

    As to what the UK situation is, I live in Ohio. We need UK commenters to address that.

  10. If the claim to better results proved untrue wouldn’t it be splashed all across the British tabloid media? They love that kind of stuff.

  11. As I understand it, it’s more along the lines of a world religions class.  Many schools in the US teach the same sort of material, but it’s usually done as part of a history class.

  12. Heck, it’s hard enough to get education about Cornish culture and history into the curriculum in Cornwall!  I’ve known Pagan RE teachers in Cornwall, and I am betting that some teachers absolutely cover it within the scope of the curriculum.  Paganism is even on the BBC education website. One thing to keep in mind in general is that the British press LOVES to make Cornwall look stupid.  Anything wacky going on that they can pin on the Cornish, they will. This topic is clearly a twofer for the Daily Mail.  Aside from the challenges of penetrating the National (sic) Curriculum in Cornwall,  there are a number of really excellent examples of Pagan visibility in the Duchy, many of which are very respectful.  This can only help what some in SACRE are trying to accomplish. 

  13. I know a couple of Pagan religious-education teachers in British secondary schools. They might like to work in more than one day’s worth of teaching about Paganism, if they had the go-ahead.

    By the way, the new Patheos layout is not too pleasing. What’s with all the dead white space above your banner? At least that is how Firefox 11 is displaying it.

  14.  Hi there; British Pagan here 🙂
    What impact does a state church have on religious minorities in the UK?
    Well, not a lot, truth be told. “[T]aking the holidays off publicly and seeing the royal family go to church and teaching it in schools” is about the extent of it and, although it *does* have an effect on our law-making process, we certainly aren’t living under Church rule 🙂

    In the last decade or so, there’s been a big drive towards acknowledging and accepting multiculturalism, especially in large cities. The other day, I learned that Leicester plays host to the largest Diwali festival outside of India, due to the number of English Hindus in in UK, so there’s definitely no problem being at theological odds with the majority.

    In schools, RE classes (Religious Education) are a facet of “the Humanities” (which also includes History and Geography) and, while Humanities classes are compulsory, RE is not.

    I hope that answers your question, TQ.

  15. My daughter’s school (in Scotland) did cover Paganism on one occasion: it was a cross-curricular day on religions, at which they also covered 3 other religions.

  16. YES!!!! 

    Er.  Ahem.  Me, too. 

    (American Pagan who’s moved to Scotland, and finds many American friends of mine think the Mail’s a newspaper…)

  17. Across the pond it may not be much, but it is a start . Britain after all , does have a real pagan history of it’s own . Those of us in the American Dispora have more of a uphill battle to get recognised .Other than American Indians there is no true native pagan religions to speak of here .The only thing we have going for us is growing numbers and European roots . If paganism as a true European religion gets widespread recognition this will eventualy help us pagans on this of the pond as well. If they would be willing to deal w/ us , the American Indians , a cooperative meeting with at least the recon community in America could benifit both groups . United we are stronger , more a force to be reconed with.Pagans worldwide are already making friendships and  forging ties with the Hindu community . We non monothiests need to be united in a loose confederation.  As i said earlier united we are stronger, to the benefit of all  Kilm

  18. When doing the news, I’m finding all kinds of articles and features on public school celebrations of Pagan and Polytheistic holidays, customs and folkways, offered as cultural tradition, throughout Europe, including the UK.  Many of them are older Pagan customs which survived into the present day.

    Soooo, next time that someone states these traditions aren’t oldline, or that they’re all reconstructed,  or that they’ve been invented… I’ll post a few oldline, unbroken, consistently practiced Pagan traditions straight from the public press.

  19. Maybe not. When I look at your blog in Google Chrome, the ad shares the Pantheos blue bar and then the Wild Hunt banner is right up against the blue bar. On Safari and Firefox there is a broad band of white space between the blue bar and your banner.

    There is also an annoying video of people in lab coats.

    Ah, I remember when The Wild Hunt was proudly ad-free….

  20. I’m getting audio for some commercial whenever I switch from one story to another, or from the Comments in one section to those of another. That’s a little annoying (and the commercial’s a little loud).

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