Religious Education and Brexit

Religious Education and Brexit

Implications of Brexit campaign in the UK for Religious, Citizenship, Moral, Intercultural, Political and Human Rights Education

Robert Jackson – Professor of Religious Education

The fact that the majority of young voters in the UK voted to remain in the European Union indicates some awareness of the inevitable pluralisation and globalisation of societies. It may also indicate some success from educational programmes – although the erosion of subjects like citizenship education and religious education in England through policies of the Conservative government (and largely the responsibility of Michael Gove) limits the effectiveness of such good work. I know that the quality of religious education (RE) teaching is mixed (and there are good reasons for that), but I am aware of wonderful RE secondary teaching and classroom discussion in response to incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks (an example reported in Jackson 2015), and of many primary schools where values relating to human dignity and care and respect for one another are fundamental to the life of the school.

The racism and xenophobia expressed during the Brexit campaign: 

  • Shows the need for more adult education about citizenship, politics and political discourse, human rights, and religious and cultural diversity. This needs to include education about the ethics of political discourse (the end justified the means for key politicians), and the idea of political office being an opportunity for service to other citizens;
  • Shows the need for collaborative and interdisciplinary work, involving educators in fields such as citizenship, religious, human rights, moral, political and intercultural education working together;
  • Illustrates the manipulative power of the right-wing popular press (and other media) – and therefore shows the vital need for better education for critical reading of media accounts of migration, religious plurality etc (there is a chapter about this in the Council of Europe Signposts book (Jackson 2014, ch6, and the Council of Europe has produced various resources to help students take a critical approach to media accounts []; there are also some research findings on media representations of religions and recommendations from the European Commission REDCo project, especially from the Norwegian researcher Marie von der Lippe; again some of this material is referenced in Signposts);
  • Shows the vital need for human rights education, especially exploration of the concept of human dignity, from a variety of perspectives (including, but certainly not confined to, religions). Again, the Council of Europe has various resources relating to human rights education as well as education for democratic citizenship and for intercultural dialogue;
  • Shows the need for discussion and reflection (by young people in schools, but also by adults) as well as for accurate information. From the point of view of studies of religions in schools, I have argued in various places for an inclusive form of religious education in publicly funded schools, which features well prepared teacher-moderated classroom discussion/dialogue as well as the sharing of accurate and well selected information (some recent publications are listed below); I have seen some really good examples of this (and know of many others recorded through European research), which illustrate that it is possible to do it;
  • Shows the importance of a collaborative, international perspective on human rights. Theresa May’s remarks on human rights are entirely focused on the UK and see no need for collaboration and interaction with others (Magna Carta rules…). This is totally against the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was so strongly supported by Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt, and which still permeates the Council of Europe and its educational work. Every project I have been involved in with the Council of Europe since 2002 has involved international and often interdisciplinary teams, working closely together with common objectives. It has been a privilege to take part in this kind of activity and it should be mirrored in school education (there are some good examples already, of course, but more needs to be done).

Further thoughts:

  • We need a critical approach to human rights education that recognises some of the contextual factors which helped to shape how the human rights codes are expressed. There needs to be space for the interpretation of certain requirements; especially, rights need to be linked to responsibilities. The right to freedom of speech carries with it some responsibilities. In the Brexit campaign, we saw very little responsibility expressed towards the electorate, and a good deal of manipulation through the use of fear. (Some aspects of the UK Prevent policy inhibit classroom dialogue unnecessarily – See Jackson, R. (2016)
  • there are also vital issues about funding, the supply of appropriate degree courses, , teacher training (including developing skills to manage classroom dialogue), in-service training and sources of advice;

Finally, to reiterate, I am convinced of the importance of collaborative work across different fields and across nations. The Council of Europe and the European Wergeland Centre set a good example.


Jackson, R. (2014) ‘Signposts’: Policy and Practice for Teaching about Religions and Non-Religious Worldviews in Intercultural Education, Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing. ISBN 9789287179142 (pdf freely downloadable)

Jackson, R. (2015) ‘Inclusive Study of Religions and Other Worldviews in Publicly-funded Schools in Democratic Societies’ in Kristina Stoeckl and Olivier Roy (Eds.) The Future of Religious Education in Europe, San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute, 7-18. Free to download ‘Open access’ e-book

Jackson, R. (2016) ‘Inclusive Study of Religions and World Views in Schools: Signposts from the Council of Europe’, Social Inclusion, 4, (2) 14-25 DOI: 10.17645/si.v4i2.493   ISSN: 2183-2803 free download

Note: I have written my own personal account of the conduct of the Brexit campaign which is online with a German translation.

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