Consensus and coalition in education: epistemological reflections on the use of the term “religion and belief” in the Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (CORAB).

Trevor Cooling

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The phrase religion and belief is now widely adopted as the appropriately inclusive term for talking about the contested role in publicly funded education of what had previously only been referred to as religion (para. 3.17[1]). Its major significance is that it affirms the importance of including non-religious worldviews. Given the changing religion and belief demographics identified in the CORAB report, the inclusion of non-religious worldviews in education seems entirely correct. However the Report recognises that there is some ambiguity in this phrase (paras 2.9-2.12). The question raised is whether belief is an oppositional alternative to religion reflecting Enlightenment progress over religion (para. 2.11), or another form of the conviction that characterises religion (para 2.10)? In this brief paper, I argue that the oppositional understanding is unhelpful because it does not adequately promote living well with difference and offer an alternative.

Consensus or Coalition?

A recent blog from Alan Brine, the former Ofsted Chief Inspector for RE, illustrates the issue.  In this Brine says, “I fear that the notion of a shared RE community rooted in a consensus around the purpose, nature and value of RE is collapsing”[2]. His stress on consensus is significant. It is revealing that the title of the blog is “The Enemy Within – the real threat to RE”. That enemy is, according to Brine, associated with the rise of so-called faith schools and the demise of “the influence of the community school agreed syllabus model of RE driven by QCDA, local authority advisers and inspectors”. The community school model, it appears, reflects the consensus whereas the faith school model threatens it. Here Brine appears to be adopting an oppositional model of religion and belief in which living with difference requires enforcing a non-religious consensus and “othering” a religious voice. I suggest that we need an alternative model for constructing a properly inclusive approach for public education in diverse societies – namely that of coalition[3].

“Plurality, not uniformity, is the expectation.”

The coalition approach recognises that consensus is not possible because of the diverse nature of the worldviews present in society. It does, however, affirm the need for a secular educational space and accepts some basic principles that make living well with difference possible. One such principle might be the basic pragmatism expressed in this quotation: “The lesson to be learned is that if people with different sets of religious and non-religious beliefs cannot learn to live together, the results are appalling for all parties”[4].

Paradigms of Knowledge

Underlying these two models are, I suggest, two different paradigms of knowledge[5]. The consensus model draws on what I shall loosely call positivism, by which I mean the notion that it is possible to know in an uncontroversial way such that it is legitimate to assume that all others do, or ought to, agree with the identified consensus. Positivists can be both religious and non-religious. Religious positivists are often called fundamentalists. I suspect I do not need to point out the threat of such a religious paradigm to the common good.

Non-religious positivism generally rests on the belief that rational thought leads to consensus. In this paradigm, religious belief is deemed as unnecessary clutter – a private matter[6]. This, I suggest, is not a healthy approach to living with difference because ultimately it seeks to marginalise that difference in the cause of finding a consensus[7]. The consensus model too easily becomes one where neutrality is the desired goal and religion is privatised, only to be studied as a sociological phenomenon. It is assumed that that religious belief should play no shaping role in conceptualising publicly funded education as it does not count as consensus-based knowledge.

The coalition model, in contrast, draws on an interpretivist paradigm of knowledge. This recognises that knowledge is the product of human interpretation. It leads to the expectation of diversity in public spaces as interpretations rest on prior assumptions about the nature of reality and humans differ fundamentally on these. Plurality, not uniformity, is the expectation. Some find it hard to see how that can promote the common good; does it not lead to ideological conflict and power struggles? If, however, the fact of human interpretation in knowledge creation and the inevitably resulting diversity is accepted alongside a critical realist emphasis that embraces listening to evidence, reason giving and criticality, then knowledge creation in the public space can become a coalition activity where certain agreed principles provide the framework for living with difference in education[8]. The strength of this interpretivist paradigm is that it supplies an epistemological rationale for this pragmatic, coalition approach. It acknowledges the role of interpretation in knowledge construction, but affirms the importance of the shared human enterprises of seeking truth and living well together. Objectivity is not then to attain a neutral consensus, but is rather to learn to be listening, reflexive and self-critical in knowledge construction. The aim of education in the public space becomes to promote wise interpretation in the midst of diversity, rather than to impose a consensus on that diversity.

Concluding Remarks

My argument is then that a positivist knowledge paradigm problematizes religion in education, either by encouraging fundamentalism or by privatising it in the name of neutral consensus, because it is deemed to have no right to shape public spaces. I have further argued that the consensus approach harbours othering tendencies, which are not conducive to living well with difference. My counter suggestion is that a critical-realist, interpretivist paradigm offers a better model because it encourages co-operation in the midst of diversity and supports a coalition model of dealing with difference in public spaces. People’s religious and non-religious beliefs then become a resource from which they draw as active participants in education.

This paper commenced with consideration of the CORAB use of the religion and belief phrase and noted the ambivalence about its implications. In conclusion, I suggest the phrase does not achieve its inclusive objective because it is too easily interpreted as oppositional. A more inclusive phrase less prone to accommodation to othering tendencies is religious and non-religious beliefs.


Trevor Cooling is a former secondary school science and RE teacher. He is now Professor of Christian Education at Canterbury Christ Church University. His latest book is Christian Faith in English Church Schools: Research Conversation with Classroom Teachers (Peter Lang, 2016). He is Chair of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales.



To cite this article, please use the following: Cooling, Trevor. (2017) ‘Consensus and coalition in education: epistemological reflections on the use of the term “religion and belief” in the Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (CORAB)’, Public Spirit , January, 2017:


[1] All paragraph references are to the CORAB Report


[3] I first floated this idea in my book A Christian Vision for State Education, SPCK, 1994. Jonathan Chaplin develops a rationale in “Liberté, Laïcité, Pluralité: Towards a Theology of

Principled Pluralism”, International Journal of Public Theology, 10, 2016, pp. 354-380.

[4] Humanist Philosophers Group, The Case for Secularism, BHA, 2007, p.14

[5] I have discussed these at length in Christian Faith in English Church Schools: Classroom: research conversations with classroom teachers, Peter Lang 2016.

[6] See my Doing God in Education, Theos, 2010.

[7] See my article “What is a controversial issue? Implications for the treatment of religious beliefs in education” in Journal of Beliefs and Values, 33(2), 2012, pp. 169-181.

[8] See Brad Shipway, A Critical Realist Perspective of Education, Routledge, 2011.

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