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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.”“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.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.’