The Chief Rabbi has led a chorus of concern over plans to force Religious Studies students to learn two or more world religions. 

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis

Community leaders reacted to the plan by saying that requiring faith-school students to learn the details of a faith other than their own would be like forcing German-language students to learn Spanish.

It comes after the Mail on Sunday revealed new Education Secretary Nicky Morgan wants RS students to gain “different perspectives” in the wake of the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal in Muslim schools.

The idea, which is reportedly backed by Home Secretary Theresa May but opposed by Communities secretary Eric Pickles, provoked concern among Jewish community leaders.

A spokesman for the Partnership for Jewish Schools (PaJeS), said the move would “likely impact on performance in a subject which is already being marginalised in many schools”.

While supportive of Morgan’s “desire to see students learn about comparative religions and show respect for diverse cultures”, PaJeS said: “The introduction of an additional religion in RS GCSE is like incorporating Spanish into the German GCSE and our teachers feel that GCSE examinations are not the right medium to promote a Government’s agenda.”

Communal leaders, including Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Board of Deputies’ Senior Vice-President Laura Marks, said the objective was admirable but that compelling faith schools to teach another religion would backfire.

“I enthusiastically support efforts to ensure British values are taught to all,” said Mirvis. “But forced changes to the GCSE, through which so many learn about their own faith, is not the right way to achieve these shared goals.”

Similarly Marks said: “Making it a requirement is just one way to do it, but there are other ways too, such as twinning, cultural events and talks from faith leaders. What suits one school might not suit another. Making it a requirement could quickly prove counter-productive. 

She added: “The aim is not to turn out children who understand Islam, but to promote tolerance and to have children who understand the world and who can interact with it. We share that aim.”

Others were far more open to the idea of increasing faith-school children’s exposure to other religions, and said it should be encouraged.

Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner said: “It is vital that in a multicultural society children learn about other religions. This applies to all communities including our own.”

Currently, most Jewish secondary schools teach Jewish Studies at GCSE level, with some schools – such as JCoSS – placing more emphasis on teaching different world religions than other institutions.