Latest challenges to RE and Relationships curriculum should be warning to Catholic schools that state partnership is changing, says Joseph Kelly

As the sombre final curtain fell on the second Elizabethan age, much of the outgoing narrative has focussed on the faith of the late monarch, and the hopes and expectations of her successor. Around her state funeral there were many gestures above and beyond the obligatory Christian references and much has been made of the Queen’s Christian faith, about which spoke candidly and regularly.

In her year 2000 Christmas message she said of Jesus: “In his early thirties, He was arrested, tortured and crucified with two criminals. His death might have been the end of the story, but then came the resurrection and with it the foundation of the Christian faith.”

In 2011 she expanded her thoughts further: “Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves — from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person — neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive … It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.”

And in her first ever Easter message, in 2020 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the Queen encouraged all Britons to remember what the celebration was truly about: “The discovery of the risen Christ on the first Easter Day gave his followers new hope and fresh purpose, and we can all take heart from this.”

Such uncompromising evangelisation would do credit to any cleric, but coming from the monarch of a modern, diverse democracy these words seemed particularly ebullient, even counter-cultural. But they concealed a dark and uncompromising history, and one which is undoubtedly about to come under the most rigorous of scrutiny.

As we all know, our new King Charles III has already tried to tinker with the phrase ‘Defender of the Faith’ (Fidei Defensor), only to discover that there were forces far greater than him with a contrary view about that. At the Accession Council Ceremony, seen by the public for the very first time, Catholics in particular will have felt the same chill wind as the separate declaration to “inviolably maintain and preserve” the Presbyterian form of Church government in Scotland was proclaimed, and even the independence-driven First Minister of Scotland had to ‘take the King’s shilling’ and sign this contentious proclamation that continues to bind Scotland to England.

Clearly King Charles recognises that the nature of religious liberty is going to be one of the hot-button issues of the Carolean age. Just a week after the Queen’s death he met very publicly with 30 religious leaders at Buckingham Palace and sought to affirm his longstanding commitment to be a representative of all faiths, rather than just the one Protestant faith he’s mandated to support.

The King said that in addition to protecting the Protestant faith in Scotland, he felt that as Sovereign of Britain he had an additional duty “to protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for faith itself and its practise through the religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals.”

Compartmentalising his Protestant obligations to commitments north of the border may seem a reasonable manoeuver, but sadly his wider ambitions towards diversity will be far harder to achieve.

As many have found, not least our political legislators, giving everyone an equal voice when many are contrary and antagonistic to each other is a near impossibility. (I’d even argue that trying to treat everyone as absolute equals is potentially to respect no-one).

The idea that there’s room in the ‘faith space’ for everyone, including those of no faith, is a tough brief, and poses particular difficulties for us Catholics. However much we might like to show respect for all our fellow humans, and the religious views of all, there inevitably comes a point where will have to state that others are either misinformed or in denial of certain inviolable truths. To do anything less is not only a denial of our faith, but is intensely disingenuous and pretty much negates the diversity process.

If our new king has decided that he wishes to play a central role in preserving the ‘faith space’ in Britain we would certainly welcome this and support his efforts, but it will serve us well to make it very clear from the outset that we represent Catholic interests well in advance of any loose confederation of believers. This may not sit well with some Catholic liberals, but there are profoundly urgent reasons for drawing our line in the sand now, rather than later.

Just yesterday a Research paper released from Ulster University’s Unesco Education Centre has called for the scrapping of laws that require schools in Northern Ireland to teach “Christian focused” Religious Education (RE) and the dumping of the requirement to hold a daily collective act of worship.

The paper sets out what it calls a “vision” for a single education system in the province and recommends that religious schools should be phased out.

Given the region’s turbulent and distressful history, it’s not surprising that any proposal addressing the elimination of segregation and discrimination on religious grounds has virtue and a ready audience.

“In order to be provided with state funding, all schools in NI must operate within a system of legislation that is underpinned by a specifically Christian world view,” the paper says.

“The influence of a Christian-centric perspective pervades not only the daily routine (act of worship) and timetable (the content of the RE syllabus) but also the operational day-to-day and strategic management of schools and, to some extent, the management of the entire education system.”

The document continues: “Church involvement in the drawing up of the RE specification needs to be revised in order that a genuinely pluralistic and inclusive programme of education can be developed, delivered and quality assured in practice.”

This comes hard on the heels of a High Court ruling in July that exclusively Christian-focused RE currently taught at primary schools in Northern Ireland is intrinsically unlawful.

The ruling came after a legal challenge by a father and his seven year old daughter who attends a school in Belfast. Lawyers argued that the complete focus on Christianity in RE and collective worship, to the exclusion of all other faiths, violates education entitlements protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

They said that “the core curriculum needs to be changed so it teaches children about Christianity, as opposed to being Christians – that is not the job of a school.”

If you were going to bring a test case to challenge the place of faith schools in society, Northern Ireland was inevitably the place to go, as few would likely challenge the need to bury old religious divisions and bring the next generations together in a common-held view of nationhood and their place in the world. And laws passed in the regions can be passed readily into the wider legislation of the United Kingdom.

On a not dissimilar agenda, the new Welsh RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) curriculum has been the subject of legal challenges over recent weeks. The Curriculum for Wales – Relationships and Sexuality Education Code, which was rolled out in schools across Wales this earlier month, mandates that children from age three will be taught about “acting with kindness, empathy and compassion to others; an awareness of diversity in families and relationships; the use of accurate terminology for body parts; recognising trusted adults who can help them when they feel unhappy or unsafe; and an awareness of how to keep safe online.”

A legal challenge by a campaign group Public Child Protection Wales has led to a judicial review this November, but the High Court threw out the group’s request to have the plan halted until the review has delivered it findings. Legislators in the Senedd have made no secret of their wish to have Wales leading Europe in such matters, with the country being seen as an exemplar in promoting diversity, gender equality and inclusivity. Again these are principles that have an inherent secular social merit, as well as legal implications for the rest of the United Kingdom. But where this leaves Catholic education in the future is anybody’s guess. Whilst it’s worth mentioning that Catholic schools actually tend to be more inclusive than their state counterparts, a clock is clearly ticking.

In decades past the Catholic Church in these islands has adopted a strategy of working closely with secular legislators and the monarchy in an attempt to secure a place for Catholic education. Whilst the relationship has had it’s had its moments, the bottom line has been that both sides have been content to ignore the wider issues whilst the Catholic sector filled gaping holes in our national education system.

But times are changing rapidly, as are political and social norms. What we have seen in Northern Ireland and Wales could well be the first moves in a more comprehensive drift away from faith-based schools.

During the period of mourning for the Queen, and especially at the lying in state and funeral, there was a lot of commentary about a national desire for the kind of certainty and permanence that a Christian country might offer. In the face of the social and financial uncertainties that lie ahead, and especially in our increasingly unstable and warlike world, the need for ritual and other realities is more than understandable – for sure there are few atheists on a sinking ship.But however honourable his intentions, and however extensive his power, it seems increasingly unlikely that our new King is going to be able to persuade others of the benefits of a faith-based, and especially Christian-based, society; we’ve simply become too complex and too disparate a society to understand or tolerate that.

Neither will we be able to sustain the old narrative that Catholic schools and education is somehow indefinably ‘better’ than secular. It’s not actually that our Catholic schools are better, rather that they have maintained a common standard whilst the state education system has withered and collapsed.Under such circumstances the future relationship between Catholic education and the state seems destined to drift rather than solidify, as secular imperatives increasingly consume the public space. This may be no bad thing, and it might even benefit Catholic education to be outside of state control, rather than beholden to it.

On my regular visits to the city centre of Liverpool I often find myself wandering through St John’s Gardens, and past the statue of one of the city’s most revered social reformers, Fr James Nugent. When Nugent set up his ragged school and Catholic institute at 26 Hope Street in 1853, only five per cent of Catholic children in Liverpool were receiving any form of education at all.His project was not without its powerful objectors, but by 1867 records show that in that year 48,000 boys received an evening meal and 3,000 had a night’s lodging at Hope Street, whilst his residential certified industrial school in St Anne Street was teaching shoe-making, tailoring, joinery and printing – as well as being the local distribution hub for the UK Catholic press!

I may be wrong but I think Fr Nugent’s statue may be the only one ever raised to a Catholic educationalist, and it’s easy to understand why he was so revered by the people of his city. In his day Nugent had no doctrine of Catholic Social Teaching as a guide, but his Catholic sensibilities alerted him to the needs of the poor and marginalised, and he saw that their redemption lay through education. In simple terms he provided something where there was nothing, and in turn he lifted aspirations and society benefitted.

If we’re looking for a pathway upon which to set the future of Catholic education, a renewed and determined commitment to educating the vulnerable and marginalised might be a far better strategy than attempting to lever ourselves into the increasingly complex jigsaw that is an increasingly secular state.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and publisher, and is founder of