Why French secularism doesn’t have to be anti-religious, and what the English education system could learn from it.
Jonathan James, PhD candidate at the UCL Institute of Education, examines the concept of laïcité, and what English schools can learn from this particularly French form of secularism when it comes to preparing young people for life in a pluralist society.
The concept of laïcité, a particularly French form of secularism, has provoked much debate since the murder of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty in October 2020. In its strictest sense, laïcité refers to a set of laws separating church and state that were passed in the late 19th century and early 20th century. In their original conception, these laws aimed to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church on public institutions such as schools, to guarantee freedom of conscience and religious expression, and to give equality to all faith traditions in the eyes of the law.
When many British people think of laïcité, however, they think of the seemingly endless controversies around Islamic dress in public spaces. These include the 2004 law prohibiting students from wearing Islamic veils in schools, and the attempts by several French municipalities to ban women from wearing burkinis in 2016. Many people outside of France – and a fair few within France – associate laïcité with hostility toward religion and Islam in particular. In the wake of the murder of Samuel Paty, some commentators have gone as far as to suggest that a particularly hostile form of laïcité may be fuelling Islamist terror.
My PhD research investigates the impact of Islamist terrorism on education policy and practice in England and France. I have spent the last three years observing lessons, meetings, teacher training, and interviewing teachers and school leaders in the two countries. I would argue that while this anti-religious conception of laïcité definitely exists, the picture on the ground is often more complex.
Firstly, the political climate in France has become increasingly favourable to teaching young people about religion. Religious Education was removed from the French curriculum when the secular state education system was established at the end of the 19th century. French children typically learn about religion through the history curriculum, which emphasises the contribution of religious traditions to culture and civilisation, rather than their significance in contemporary France. This emphasis has shifted in recent years, with a greater focus on contemporary religious beliefs and practices. Somewhat euphemistically, this is referred to as ‘the teaching of religious facts’, making a clear distinction between teaching young people about religion, and teaching young people to be religious.
I observed a sequence of lessons on laïcité and freedom of conscience which involved in-depth discussion of the major faith traditions in France today. In the same region, 1000 primary students took part in workshop highlighting the similarities between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. These activities were organised as part of the civic and moral education (EMC) curriculum but would not be out of place in an English Religious Education classroom. Professional development activities aim to empower teachers to address religious ideas in the classroom.
The context of Islamist terrorism seems to have fed into this trend. As is the case in England, there is a common-sense belief among some teachers and policymakers that teaching young people about religion – and about Islam in particular – could help them make sense of terrorist atrocities and may even build resilience to radicalisation. In France, this thinking has found its way into the philosopher Regis Debray’s report on the secular teaching of religious facts, published just after 9/11, and more recent government anti-radicalisation strategies. More broadly, the new EMC curriculum, introduced in 2015, lends itself to the exploration of contemporary religious beliefs and practices as a way of preparing students for life in a pluralist society. This is also key objective of the English Religious Education curriculum, and the RE teachers I interviewed saw this as an important part of their role. In this sense, teaching and learning about religion in the two education systems serves increasingly similar purposes.
Some of the teachers and school leaders I have interviewed are actively trying to push back against anti-religious interpretations of laïcité. The idea that laïcité is not against religion is a message I have heard repeatedly in lessons and training activities. Some respondents showed a particular concern for reassuring students and parents that the school system and the French Republic were not anti-religious. A repeated refrain from one regional laïcité coordinator was that teachers should emphasise the freedoms laïcité allows for – such as freedom of conscience – rather than the things it prohibits.
In spite of these efforts, it is clear that many teachers in France still interpret laïcité as a total ban on religion in school. In a study carried out in 2015, 37% of the primary school teachers surveyed were actively hostile to the teaching of religious facts. A further 24% were favourable to the idea, but lacked the time, knowledge or skills, to put this into practice. In my interviews, I have heard tales of teachers shutting down conversations on religion in the classroom or even denigrating students’ religious beliefs.
There is also a tendency among some teachers to interpret more and more student behaviours as ‘violations of laïcité’ that should be challenged or even sanctioned. In one lesson I observed, students complained that teachers told them off for using Arabic interjections such as wallah (I swear by God). While their teacher felt these common expressions had no religious significance for the students who used them, he thought that some of his colleagues interpreted them ‘as a sign of radicalisation’. This points to the ways these hard-line interpretations of laïcité are fuelled by anxieties about Islamist terrorism, and about Islam more generally. Such excessive interpretations of laïcité, and a wider media and political climate that often presents Islam as a threat to the French republic, are likely to undercut any efforts to convince students and their parents that laïcité is not anti-Islam.
While hostility toward Muslim populations seems to drive more exclusionary forms of laïcité, laïcité does not have to be anti-religious or anti-Islam. I would also argue that the British might have something to learn from the French approach to teaching young people about religion. Since the French state endeavours to treat all religions equally, the teaching of religious facts should in theory give equal weight to all faith traditions. This stands in contrast to the English education system, where in Religious Education, the daily acts of collective worship have an inherently Christian bias. Even in non-faith schools, collective worship must be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ and Religious Education must ‘reflect that the religious traditions of Great Britain are in the main Christian’. In the words of one school leader in London, this ‘anachronistic’ quirk of the English education system ‘harks back to a time when we had much more of a national religion’. It fails to consider the plurality of religious convictions in contemporary British society and the increasing proportion of British people who do not regard themselves as belonging to any religion. These concerns have been raised by Humanists UK and several teaching unions and faith groups, but successive governments have been resistant to change. In 2018, the Commission on Religious Education recommended replacing RE with a Religion and Worldviews curriculum in which students would study non-religious worldviews alongside the major faiths. A more secular approach to the teaching of religious beliefs and practices, inspired by France’s laïcité, might better prepare young people for life in a pluralist society.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.