SACREs and the Learning Society

by Bill Gent
(Senior Adviser, Advisory and Inspection Service, London Borough of Redbridge)

This article is based on a talk given at Bradford InterFaith Education Centre on Wednesday 13th October 1999. Thanks are given to the Centre to reproduce the talk in this form.


My father, a soldier, once told me that there was a rule in the army mess that anything could be talked about apart from politics, religion and sex. The reason for this unwritten rule is not difficult to fathom out. Each of those three things – politics, religion and sex – touches on people’s core values, attitudes and beliefs. In speaking of them, people do not remain cool: they get worked up. Each, then, has the potential to be divisive and to lead to strife. Not the sort of thing, we guess, that is conducive to a good atmosphere in the military mess. Best, then, to leave them alone.

Let’s try a slightly different combination: politics, religion and education. If both politics and religion can be divisive, then undoubtedly so too can education. Imagine, then, bringing together a group which consisted of individuals from a range of political, religious and educational backgrounds. A recipe for disaster, you would think?

But this is exactly what a local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education – a SACRE – is!

A SACRE is a unique body which every LEA has had to have since the Education Reform Act of 1988. Its role is largely advisory, though it has several executive powers (such as requiring its LEA to convene an agreed syllabus conference).

It is not surprising that the style and effectiveness of local SACRE varies enormously. Indeed, it would be true to say that each SACRE has its own individual story to tell.

The story of the SACRE in the London Borough of Redbridge is, undoubtedly, similar to many others. Its slow start in 1989 was in part due to people’s uncertainty over its role and limits: some meetings were over before they had hardly started! But an identity began to form with the decision to hold an annual SACRE lecture. Both its identity and reputation were also enhanced by the production of a series of publications (including, since 1996, the text of the annual lecture) which have been well received and widely distributed.

For all this, Redbridge SACRE is also still feeling its way and trying to make sense of its role in an educational world where “Improvement! Improvement! Improvement!” seems to be, in one breadth, a battlecry and, in the next, a sacred mantra. What, for example, of SACRE’s role in reviewing OFSTED reports on local schools? Is simply reviewing enough? Should SACRE send a comment to each school whose report has been reviewed? In the case of reports which are exceptional, should SACRE take matters even further? This is an issue which Redbridge SACRE, for one, is presently trying to form an approach to.

The Learning Society

The term ‘the learning society’ is being increasingly used – and, of course, like most increasingly used terms, it has a certain chameleon-like quality, taking on the tone and ideological shading of each user.

There is much talk of the school itself as a ‘learning community’ or, as some would have it, a ‘community of enquiry’.

The image here is of a school where there is ongoing discussion about teaching and learning – about what works. (Some have contrasted this to a previous age where, it was said, the school was a ‘secret garden’, where questions were not asked about what the garden wall enclosed.)

But, the notion of the learning society is broader still than this and is intimately connected with the growth of ICT – information and communications technology.

At root, the idea is that everyone could and should have access to the means of continuing their learning throughout life; learning is not confined to that stage of life we have traditionally called ‘schooling’.

A number of reasons are given for this startling claim, the focus depending upon the direction from which it is being approached. Some stress that the changing nature of the economy (at least in the developed world) needs a workforce which is adaptable and flexible. Being flexible means learning to adapt and repeatedly taking on new skills and information. It requires, in other words, ‘lifelong learning’.

Others are uneasy about an undue stress on economic forces. For these, lifelong learning is also seen as offering possibilities of personal growth. Economic well-being is all very well, but what about personal happiness and fulfillment?

There has been a spate of government publications on lifelong learning, on the learning society and on projects such as the ‘university for industry’. They contain some stirring insights which try to marry the economic necessity approach with that of personal fulfillment.

Take, for example, the DfEE document The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain, published in February 1998.1 This speaks of a new age – the ‘Learning Age’ – which we are entering and in which the key to success will be “the continuing education and development of the human mind and imagination”.2 On the one hand, its says, “It will mean changing the culture in many homes and workplaces where learning is not seen as having any relevance. It is a social as well as an economic challenge”3 On the other, though, “learning offers excitement and the opportunity for discovery. It stimulates enquiring minds and nourishes our souls”.4

The rise of the learning age is, then, intimately connected with the rise of ICT but few, if any, can comprehend the change which ICT will bring – indeed, is bringing – not only to our lives, but also to our perceptions.

In addressing this, the 1999 BBC Reith Lectures – on The Runaway World by Professor Anthony Giddens – are well worth reading. He gives some telling vignettes, including that which begins his first lecture, ‘Globalisation’:

“A friend of mine studies village life in central Africa. A few years ago, she paid her first visit to a remote area where she was to carry out her fieldwork. The evening she got there, she was invited to a local home for an evening’s entertainment. She expected to find out about the traditional pastimes of this isolated community. Instead, the evening turned out to be a viewing of Basic Instinct on video. The film at that point hadn’t even reached the cinemas in London.”

The content of the five lectures is stimulating, but the process through which the lectures were delivered and used was equally as fascinating. The lectures – there were five in all – were delivered in London (first and last), Hong Kong, Washington DC and Delhi. But, more than this, a website was set up and, upon accessing it (from anywhere in the world), you were given the choice of reading (or printing out) a lecture, hearing the lecturer’s voice or both watching and hearing him. And what’s more: there was an email facility though which comments or questions could be sent directly to Professor Anthony Giddens in order to encourage an online debate.

The rise of ICT does bring with it changes that few of us can yet comprehend. In education, as well as in many other spheres, it is clear that it is leading to a blurring of boundaries: between school and not-school, for example. At one time, the school was the geographical location at which learning took place – the people and the equipment were ‘there’. But, when a secondary school teacher sends emails to students at home, and receives them in return, where is ‘there’? Again, if a student can now gain information and ideas from people and institutions world-wide, what of the traditional link between student and teacher? And what of the notion of ‘experience’? Will GCSE geography students need to go on ‘actual’ field work trips when they can do this ‘virtually’ sitting in from of their computer monitors?

SACREs and the learning society

Could it be that, within the larger evolving ‘learning society’, an individual SACRE can conceive of itself, not only as a body of learning, but also as a learning body – a learning community, in its own right?

In Redbridge, in hindsight, the notion and the reality of SACRE as a learning community has been promoted in three major ways.

First, there has been the creation of texts through what, technically, is called the ‘iterative’ method. The background to this was the decision that SACRE committee A, plus co-opted members, should produce a series of briefing papers to assist schools in general, headteachers in particular, in responding knowingly and sensitively to religious and cultural issues which sometimes arise. Three briefing papers have been published to date: Ramadan and Implications for Schools, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the School and Sikh Appearance and Identity.5 Each paper provides background information but the heart consists of a series of questions and answers, the former having been raised by schools themselves.

A member of the group begins by producing a first draft of part of the text – on Sikh beliefs, or a brief history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, perhaps. But what often happens when something written by one person is discussed within a larger group? There can be a certain defensiveness; a reluctance to point out problems in case it causes offence; the use of circumlocutions such as, “I’m not getting at you, but …”. The result is that energy is absorbed in dealing with relationships and individual sensitivities – rather than the truth or correctness of the text.

Within the SACRE religious and cultural issues sub-group, however, the practice developed of focusing on the text itself. Was it technically correct? Were the nuances right? Were there cultural biases or assumptions that the writer was unaware of?

After the first interrogation, a second draft was produced and this was once again looked. And so, step by step, the text was discussed, shaped, reworded, corrected in the drive to produce the best possible wording: the iterative method.

Now, of course, this method requires a number of preconditions such as trust amongst editing group members and a common wish to produce the best text possible for the purpose for which it is intended. But, though slow, the result is a polished text, great pride amongst group members and a great sense amongst those members that they themselves have been through a rewarding learning process.

Second, Redbridge SACRE decided to begin an annual SACRE lecture. The terms of reference for this lecture made clear its contribution to learning. As well as creating an occasion at which the previous SACRE year could be reviewed and bringing together SACRE members with the wider community, the purpose of the lecture was to “contribute to the ongoing debate about religion and education through inviting someone of national repute to deliver a lecture”.

Four years ago, it was decided to publish the text of each lecture and the booklet is annually distributed not only to Redbridge schools but also further afield.

Third, and perhaps most interestingly of all in the light of what has already been said about the learning society and its links with the growth of ICT, has been the creation of the Redbridge RE Network website.

Those not familiar with websites on the world-wide web might find what follows difficult to comprehend. But even those who have some experience of this find difficulty, not only in understanding the technological processes involved, but also in grasping more ephemeral things such as motives and purpose. Why, for example, would anyone want to create a website on which material (and links with other websites) is placed so that anyone, anywhere, at any time can gain access to it? In short, a leap of imagination is needed together with reflective experience of using information technology.

There is not space here to write fully about the experience of creating the Redbridge RE Network website6, but it has been extraordinary. I, for one, have had to catch my breath time and time again in order to grasp what is happening.

An example might illustrate this. A well-known writer and speaker in the field of religious education was asked by a joint infant-junior school governing body in Redbridge to give its annual Governors’ lecture in June 1999. Following the lecture, with the permission of the lecturer, the text of it was placed on the Redbridge RE Network website7. An account of the lecture, written by a teacher/SACRE member was also placed on the website. The lecturer was informed of the account of the lecture which he accessed and sent an email to say how much he was pleased with the account. He also said that he had set an ICT task for his PGCE RE students of accessing the Redbridge website and reading his lecture. Meanwhile, I had written to the chair of governors of the schools to congratulate him on the event, enclosing the text of the account of it which could be read to the governors or distributed to parents in the school newsletter.

A simple example, perhaps, but one which demonstrates how the website is not only a spur to creativity – the account of the event would not have been written without a ‘home’ in which to place it – but also a means of making connections, often of a very positive, affirming and satisfying nature.

But, even more than this, the website has given physical expression (‘virtual expression’?) to the fact that there are many people in the community, some members of religious groups and some not, who have a continuing interest in learning about religion and education. The website is their ‘home’ too. They can learn about what is happening, read text (such as the lecture referred to above) and contribute their own material: a local Methodist minister’s account of research he carried out in a Redbridge primary school on stories can also be found on the website.

So, to repeat, electronic communication is promoting lifelong learning as well as blurring a whole series of boundaries. In Redbridge, it is creating a strong sense of a local RE Network, but also giving it a national and international dimension. This year’s SACRE lecturer, a Parsee college principal from Bombay in India, was able to browse the Redbridge RE Network website, and leave a message on the message board, before ever setting foot in England or North East London.

Concluding thoughts

A local SACRE, then, is a unique local body which can develop in any number of ways.

One way is to break the traditional sense of being a ‘mere’ committee and to become, in its own right, a learning community. In this guise, it could be suggested, it has far greater potential of affecting what is happening within schools locally.

But, more than this, joining a SACRE could become an invitation to join a community of learners within the larger learning society. Individually, this can only mean enrichment. For, as was once suggested, “The purpose of an organisation is to help ordinary human beings to do extraordinary things”.8


1. The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain, The Stationery Office, February 1998

2. ibid, p9

3. ibid, p13

4. ibid, p10

5. A list of Redbridge SACRE and other RE-related publications can be found on the Redbridge RE Network website

6. The address of the Redbridge RE Network website is: /

7. The text of Professor Terence Copley’s lecture, What they never told you about spirituality, can be found on the Redbridge RE Network website, together with an account of the occasion at which the lecture was delivered

8. Peter Drucker, quoted in Schools Must Speak for Themselves, John McBeath (Routledge 1999), p7

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