The Campaign for Paganism to be taught in UK schools

Claire Dixon —  October 6, 2016 — 20 Comments

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UNITED KINGDOM — A petition has been launched in the UK in the hopes of making Parliament debate the teaching of Paganism in schools. The petition was the brainchild of Paul Sefton, a Pagan from Manchester who set it up last month. He said: “We need to change people’s attitudes towards Paganism and it was with that in mind that I thought of the petition. We need to educate the young to give them an overview of Paganism so they can make an informed choice about what religion they may wish to follow, if any at all.”

Outdoor classroom [Photo Credit: Peter / Flickr]

Outdoor classroom [Photo Credit: Peter / Flickr]

“Paganism is having a resurgence in popularity so now is the time to act. Pagans are still looked upon as devil worshippers, which is certainly not the case.”

In the UK, Religious Education (RE) currently consists of learning about the big five mainstream religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. However, the majority of content is given over to Christianity.

Since 2012, the county of Cornwall in South West England, an area long synonymous with Paganism, has included Paganism as part of its religious education provision. This is due to each local county being responsible for its own RE output under the Local Agreed Syllabus framework. Although the UK does have a national curriculum, there can be much regional variation as to what is taught and how.

Sefton notes: “This was a huge leap of faith and much thought was needed to bring this to fruition.”

The Pagan Federation’s regional co-ordinator for Cornwall Eve Salthouse, adds: “Paganism has been part of the agreed local syllabus for some years. Schools can choose to do this and generally approach the Cornwall Faith Forum (CFF), of which I am trustee.” The CFF arranges a time and venue to hold “workshops on several different faiths, including Paganism”, according to Eve. The general age range begins at “seven to eight-year-olds right up to tertiary college, 16 years and over.”

The workshops have been a great success apart from “the odd spot of bother from some more zealous Christian types,” adds Salthouse. Parents can withdraw their child from the workshops but she says it is very rare that they do.

Salthouse says: “The CFF is very firm on all faiths or none. If Paganism is refused as a workshop, then the CFF refuse to give any workshops.” However, Eve remains ambivalent about the current petition. “We’d have to put up with whatever/however it was decided it should be taught – and in an academic way. By holding workshops with people who live/practice each faith, students get a different take on it, not the teacher regurgitating something from a book.”

This comes on the back of a wider discussion within RE provision in schools including “non-religious world views” such as Paganism and Humanism. Paganism falls under this, as some argue, because it does not necessitate a belief in any form of deity.

In November 2015, a ruling at the High Court addressed this very issue. It is first important to note that the High Court is not equivalent of the US Supreme Court, as the UK also has a Supreme Court that has parity with the US version.The High Court, as part of the Senior Courts of England and Wales, is a tier below this. In addition, the UK judiciary does not experience the same domestic acknowledgement as that of the US, partly due to the UK having an unwritten Constitution – meaning the limits of Parliament are less defined and the Supreme Court has less influence over Parliament as a result.

High Court of Justice of England and Wales, London (commonly known as the High Court) [Credit: Wikimedia]

High Court of Justice of England and Wales, London. Commonly known as the High Court. [via Wikimedia]

Returning to the November ruling, the High Court determined that the UK Government had acted unlawfully by omitting non-religious worldviews from the General Certificate of Education (GCSE), the basic qualification taken by 16-year-olds. Five core GCSE, including Math, English Language, English Literature, Science and RE, are seen as baseline and roughly equivalent to a US High School Diploma. In Wales and Northern Ireland, the Welsh and Irish languages are also respective core subjects.

The High Court case was brought by three Humanist parents and, as a result of the ruling, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales announced in July that an Independent Commission would be established to overhaul RE in schools.The Commission is due to publish its findings and recommendations in 2018.

Most recently, the Pagan Federation has been involved in contributing to the material for the RE:Online Resource, which is being created for UK religious teachers. However, it can be used globally. It was written by Professor Denise Cush, former Head of Study of Religions at Bath Spa University. In order to ensure that as many Pagan voices as possible were represented, she consulted extensively with the Pagan and Heathen Symposium. Professor Cush is also a member of the commission panel.

Sefton appears to be picking up on this wider demand for change in the way that RE is defined and taught in the UK in hopes of it better reflecting modern needs. As Sefton says: “Since publishing it has caused much debate in the online Pagan community, which I also felt was a good thing, we need people to talk about it to keep chipping away, little by little. As the old saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.’

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Claire Dixon


Claire Dixon is a Bardic level druid with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and a member of the Pagan Federation. She is a married mother of three based in Worcestershire, England. Claire is an avid astrologer, having studied the subject since her early teens, and has written extensively on astrology/astronomy for Pagan publications. She also loves researching British and Irish history and mythology. Claire is also an 80s TV boxset freak (Kip Carpenter’s Robin of Sherwood is a particular favourite) and Earl Grey tea fan.
  • Tauri1

    If anyone in the US brought a petition like that to the local school system, especially in the South, the Religious Right would have apoplexy.

  • I’m American so obviously I’m biased. I’m also not quite sure how the UK schools are run and funded.

    But here in the U.S., I don’t think any religion should be taught in public schools. Neither help nor hinder.

    • Charles Cosimano

      It really is hard to read this as an American and not sort of blow up yelling, “Why would any religion be taught in a public school?” That is our national custom, and prejudice. The UK is obviously different but such a proposal would be unthinkable here and it would not only be the religious right that would have a fit. Any school that tried it would be in court so fast it would have to hold onto its rear end to keep it attached.

      • In the UK, Religious Education (RE) lessons are *supposed* to be about teaching kids about a range of different religious viewpoints, so that they can be better aware of religious diversity and how it relates to living in a multicultural, multi-faith society, rather than indoctrinating kids into one religion or other. Of course, this isn’t always how it works out, especially in church-run schools, but that’s the ideal. It isn’t necessarily about teaching any religion as true, just teaching about the existence of these different religions with different ideas.

        In principle, I think RE in schools is a good thing, and if done right can improve relations between people of different religions. Religion, like it or not, is a big part of society, politics etc. so teaching kids about it in a non-dogmatic way helps equip them for life. And if that includes minority religions like Paganism too, then so much the better.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          I agree that it is perfectly constitutional to teach about religion in a US public school, but the outcry from both the religious right and left would preclude it.

        • Rhoanna

          There are public schools in the US that teach about religion. My high school, in a relatively liberal East Coast suburb, had (and still has) a comparative religion course. I don’t think think it touched on paganism, but I don’t really recall.

    • Dave Spring

      The article is, I believe, poorly worded. What it should say is this is a campaign for teaching ABOUT Paganism in UK schools – not encouraging active Pagan religious observance.

      • That’s a good point.

        Even there though, it’s risky. For example, it’s common to say that religion evolved from polytheism to monotheism.

        • Tauri1

          “devolved” would be more like it.

          • *grins*

            Well, in all honesty, that’s an opinion.

            Just because I agree doesn’t mean it can be used as fact.

          • Franklin_Evans

            “Morphed” would cover both “directions”. 😉

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Thing is, it didn’t. Abrahamic religions all have angels and other godlings, not to mention the triune god and the saints of the Christians.

          • Franklin_Evans

            [friendly sarcasm] Now you’re nitpicking trivial details, Baruch. Besides, they stole many of them from Pagans of the day, especially saints, who used to be full-blown deities. Talk about demotion! [/fs]

            Seriously, though, has any academician of any credibility ever studied these connections? Seems to me, just from my layperson’s reading, that humans have always had a need for pantheons of some sort.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Talk about appropriation! By conquerors, yet. Empires in the old days followed an “as below, so above” rubric and put gods of conquered peoples in subordinate positions in their pantheons.Since all the religions claiming to be monotheistic, aren’t, I would say the evidence for your suspicion covers 100% of the human race.

          • Franklin_Evans

            Appropriation is more a tool of conquest than a consequence of conquest, which may seem like too fine a distinction but it’s one I think about a lot. Religion, in my never humble opinion, is by definition appropriated by the power elite as a tool to manipulate their masses, ranked first above nationalism and tribalism.

            When it comes to propaganda, no belief system of any sort is ignored as easy access to the minds and motivations of “the people”.

          • There we agree.

            One of my favorite sayings:

            “Too many people are into religion for the politics.”

  • Mustangofold

    Problem with this is always whose version of which sect of which branch gets the seal of approval and who gets marginalized.

  • Julia Traver

    I will say that there is NO SUCH THING as “Paganism” being anything other than a hit-or-miss variety of modern Nature related spiritualities, if that. Are we going to speak about traditional African polytheist religions which still exist and the ancient Egyptian practices; how about all the various ancient religions which surrounded the Mediterranean Sea and Black Sea? The Polynesians? The varying cults between the differing tribes of Celts (Yes, boys and girls, they had different Gods). I could go on and on. It really is a lot, isn’t it? Now, I do not want to hear that stupid word paganism ever again.

    • Franklin_Evans

      Respectfully, what term would you put on it? Language is a process as well as a cultural and societal attribute. Lexicons shift with usage shifts, and words will have a long list of meanings the longer they’ve been around. The Oxford English Dictionary is an examination of the lexicon trail of words.

      Isaac Bonewitz made brilliant (IMO, of course) use of qualifiers by splitting “paganism” with paleo-, meso- and neo-. If the unqualified “Paganism” represents a hodge-podge — and I can agree that it does — then he offered a way to clarify it.

      • Julia Traver

        I disagree with the late Mr. Bonewitz on many issues. The terms he created just continued to create confusion for a modern movement which was not an attempt to actually reconstruct or revive real ancient religious practices. I will admit that ADF does a lot of research; but, it still uses a synthetic structure of holy days that did not exist together in the cultures which were amalgamated. In fact, for a while, an attempt was made to include Greek and Roman practices — forget about Egyptian etc. Thank goodness that never happened! Just call it what it is: Anonylmous Nature Religion, Version 1.2 or whatever.