The headteachers of all 84 Catholic schools in Wales have written to the First Minister asking him to rethink his Government’s proposed changes to religious education saying they “strike at the very identity of Catholic schools”.
In an unprecedented move they have signed a joint letter asking Mark Drakeford, to stop the proposed legislation on RE which they say “specifically targets the Catholic ethos of their schools”.
Under its new curriculum the Welsh Government plans to expand traditional RE to “Religion Values and Ethics” and parents will not be able to withdraw their children from these classes.
In their letter the head teachers say: “This will do little to improve community cohesion or foster tolerance of world religions.”
The Catholic headteachers said the change in emphasis removes the academic rigour of RE and “reduces it to an over-simplistic comparison exercise which fails to understand the fundamentals of faith and religion”.
Almost 28,000 pupils attend the 84 Catholic schools in Wales, all of which are Voluntary Aided and employ a total of more than 1,500 teachers.
The head teachers said the proposed changes uniquely affects their schools and ask Mr Drakeford for reassurance that it is not the Government’s “specific intention to damage Catholic schools ”.
In a statement they said: “The new proposals, published in May, specifically penalise Catholic schools, placing additional and unreasonable legal requirements on them.”
Their letter adds that the proposed changes to RE “fail to recognise the heritage and deep connection Religious Education has within church schools, including Catholic schools, which dedicate 10% of curriculum time to the subject”.
A majority of respondents to the Government’s consultation on the changes said they were against the name change of RE and that they supported the continuation of parents’ rights to withdraw their children from RE.
“On both of these, the Welsh Government have ignored popular opinion”, the heads add.
Paul Barber, Director of the Catholic Education Service, which represents Catholic schools in Wales, said: “I hope this letter from all of the headteachers makes the Welsh Government realise the overwhelming strength of feeling against these proposals to the Catholic community.
“They strike at the very identity of Catholic schools and at the heart of the principle that that parents, and not the State, are the primary and principal educators of their children.”
Dear First Minster,
As headteachers of Catholic schools across Wales, we wish to express serious concern regarding the recent positions the Welsh Government is taking on education, which we believe has an unintended consequence of compromising the ethos of the Catholic education sector in Wales.
We have largely been supportive of the widespread changes being undertaken to the new curriculum and the reasons behind it. We remain engaged as to how we will play our part in delivering the new curriculum and are confident that we can achieve this while maintaining our distinctive nature.
However, we would urge caution that a singular approach risks diluting the diversity of provision in Wales.
The recent announcements made by the Education Minister to change the name and nature of Religious Education towards a wider Religion, Values and Ethics area of learning, fails to recognise the heritage and deep connection Religious Education has within schools of religious character, such as ours.
It is after all the core of the core of a Catholic curriculum, forming ten per cent of teaching time. The move away from RE also fails to appreciate the significant benefits a theological based approach to RE gives to students in their everyday lives, as well as to their longer-term academic studies.
We know our parents also believe in the current approach, given the negligible levels of withdrawal by parents of their children from Religious Education. This is important to us, given the role of parents and carers as the primary educators of their children which is enshrined in the Catholic tradition.
In seeking to enforce so-called “neutral values” curriculum, which we would argue is impractical and undesirable for today’s Welsh society, the risk is that the Government is moving towards a homogeneous education system which will no longer recognise the importance of allowing children to pursue a deep knowledge and spiritual understanding of faith.
This will do little to improve community cohesion or foster tolerance of world religions.
We believe Wales is a pluralistic, diverse and tolerant country built on respect for people with or without faith. It can only be through continuing to support a diverse provision of education facilities, that we can ensure this remains the case.
We would seek your reassurance that it is not the Government’s intention to damage the distinctive Catholic nature of our schools.
We also hope you will work with the Education Minister to revise these provisions before legislation comes to the Senedd later this year.
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “In implementing their curriculum, the default for these schools, as now, will be for learners to receive RVE in line with the trust deeds or tenets of the faith of the school. “However, where a parent requests RVE in accordance with an agreed syllabus, it would need to be provided.
“We continue to work closely with the Catholic Education Service in the development of the new curriculum and a number of Catholic schools have been directly involved in the co-construction of the Curriculum for Wales (CfW) framework.”