Professor Jackson, in his keynote address at the Religion and Society conference at the University of Warwick, provided a context for the conference papers, which followed his opening lecture. He discussed current issues about religions and education in the UK and Europe, surveying both intrinsic and instrumental reasons why it is important to study religions and beliefs in publicly funded schools in democratic societies. He then focused on England and Wales, showing how the climate between the late 1960s and late 1990s was very much influenced by processes of secularisation and pluralisation as a result of the migration of peoples.
Since the late 1990s, and especially since the dramatic events of 9/11, the need for public understanding of religions has increased, and there has been more understanding of the need for religious voices to be heard in public discourse. Instrumental reasons for studying religion have focused both on social factors, such as citizenship and community cohesion, but have also continued to be concerned with the personal development of students. One striking development, post 9/11, is the attention given by European institutions to teaching about religions and beliefs in publicly funded education. Professor Jackson outlined the work of the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in producing important policy and standard-setting documents which should be studied and discussed widely in democratic societies.
Professor Jackson went on to consider some of the negative effects of current UK Coalition policy on religious education in schools, on the training of religious education teachers and the continuing professional development of specialist teachers. The combined effect of various policies is to signal to educational institutions and the general public that religious education as a subject has been downgraded.
He contrasted this attitude with the voices of young people interviewed and surveyed as part of a large European Commission study on religion, education, dialogue and conflict (REDCo). In this large-scale study, the majority of young people from eight European countries, wanted the opportunity to learn about religions and beliefs and to have dialogue and exchange with students from other religious and non-religious backgrounds, in a safe space provided by the school. The desire for the school to provide a safe space for dialogue and exchange expressed by young people entirely coheres with the recommendation from the 47 Foreign Ministers of the Council of Europe. Rather than reducing resources for religious education in schools, governments need to invest in the subject. They also should generate public debate around the recommendations of the Council of Europe and OSCE in order to develop policies tailored to the context of their own countries, while meeting the needs and aspirations of young people. Research findings give voice to many young people who want to deepen their understanding of their own religion or philosophy, to learn about the beliefs and traditions of others and to have the opportunity for skilfully facilitated dialogue in the context of the school.