British think tank Civitas has published a report called Exploring Religious Pluralism in the Classroom on May 25, featuring work of its visiting professorial research and former Head of Middlesex University's School of Philosophy and Religious Studies, David Conway.
"Given the problem of violent extremism and the backlash of retaliation from xenophobic white nationalists, trying to approach the problem through religious pluralism discussion would stand a much better chance," Professor Conway told Sputnik.
The academic suggests that classes should read and discuss the 18th century play Nathan the Wise, in which characters from each of the Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — come together to transcend their differences.
He argues that the approach would work better than commitment to the so-called "British values," promoted under the administration of former PM David Cameron. In a 2014 article the former British leader wrote that failure to promote "British values" in a muscular way allowed extremism to flourish in the UK. It was a response to the allegations of extremism at schools in Birmingham.
The then Home Secretary and now Prime Minister, Theresa May, argued that Britain needed to "tackle extremism head on" and "pull back against the influence of extremists," who may have gained influence in the UK due to Britain's cultural cringe of not wanting to question minority groups, for fear of being rude.
The government has then issued a Guidance on promoting British values in schools in November 2014.
"Until now schools have been required to 'respect' these values, but as a result of changes brought in earlier in the year all schools must now have a clear strategy for embedding these values and show how their work with pupils has been effective in doing so," the government website explained.
Among the advocated "British values" were freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, and respecting and upholding the rule of law. In his paper Professor Conway says that "such values are by no means peculiar to Britain and the British, and so presenting them in schools could very well be deeply alienating to those whose families have only recently settled here from countries of origin with very different cultures and lifestyles."
"The four 7/7 bombers came from Leeds. Most of them have been through British school system. It was not like they went to separate faith schools. They've been through the machine and they've come out alienated," Professor Conway told Sputnik.
On July 7, 2005, a series of coordinated suicide bombings took place in London, when four Islamist jihadists detonated bombs in three London Underground morning rush hour trains at points across the city and on a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square later in the day. The attacks killed 52 and injured over 700 people.
Religion classes have been made a compulsory subject in schools in England and Wales, following the passing of Education Act of 1944, when "it could be taken for granted in the country that everyone going to school would be essentially Christian," Professor Conway explained.
"Frankly, schools these days don't know what to do with the subject," he told Sputnik.
Parents are able to pull their children out of religious education (RE) lessons by drawing on the 1996 Education Act. In 2017 the Commission on Religious Education was established to review the matter. The Commission has heard statements from schools across the country that parents would withdraw their children from RE classes, not prevent them from learning about "that terrorist religion" of Islam. Such action conflicts with the duty of schools to promote "British values" of tolerance and respect.
The Commission is set to publish a final report in 2018 setting out recommendations on development of RE in schools across Britain.
Professor Conway told Sputnik he has revisited parts of his paper to make it more relevant to the classroom in order to contribute to the debate led by Commission on Religious Education.