Professor Trevor Cooling’s Keynote Address “Knots of Inclusion?” Abstract

Association of University Lecturers in Religion and Education

Belief in Dialogue, AULRE Annual Conference

1 – 3 September 2015, St. Mary’s University Twickenham

Keynote Address Abstract

Professor Trevor Cooling

Professor Trevor Cooling

National Institute for Christian Education Research

Canterbury Christ Church University


Knots of Inclusion?

In a recent book about teaching religion in Australian public schools, Cathy Byrne looked west to the English education system for inspiration in proposing an approach which offered an “inclusive public education” (p. 5)[i]. She is not alone in doing this. To use John Keast’s engaging metaphor, we have long been celebrating the progress of the good ship English RE across the globe. However recent critics regard this applause as premature and misplaced and argue that we still have a way to go before we can really claim to have developed a truly inclusive approach which properly affirms diversity[ii].

This plenary presentation will examine this debate and suggest that we have rather tied ourselves in some knots in our grappling with inclusion that are in danger of throttling the life out of religious education. Starting from the premise that the direction of travel that the good ship has taken is indeed something to be celebrated, I will go on to ask questions about how well it is now rigged for the challenges of the 21st century. In particular I shall suggest that there is too often ambivalence towards its own subject matter which is undermining its ability to be inclusive and draws too heavily on unhelpful concepts of secularity. Religion can so easily be presented as the problem, rather than as a resource for inclusive approaches to education.

As a particular case study, I will examine the aspiration of the Church of England that its schools should be distinctively Christian and ask how that might influence its approach to religious education. Is the Church in danger of instigating a mutiny on the good ship? This discussion will lead me to revisit the concept of confessional education and to ask the question whether it is quite the monster that has been assumed to be for so many years. I will finish by offering a re-rigging of the good ship, which implies a model of inclusion that draws on the inspiration offered by religions rather than secularity. And I will suggest it might have something to do with the very English custom of drinking tea together.

My presentation will probably be controversial. As I take up the role of the Chair of the RE Council on 1st September, my hope is that this presentation might lead to debate and conversation at the AULRE conference that will help me in this new role.

[i] Cathy Byrne, Religion in Secular Education: What, in heaven’s name, are we teaching our children? Leiden: Brill, 2014

[ii] For example Philip Barnes, Education, Religion and Diversity: developing a new model of religious education, London: Routledge, 2014.