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Oslo, 2-5 September 2004 - The Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Intercultural Education and Religious Diversity:
Interpretive and Dialogical Approaches from England

By Robert Jackson


In England and Wales, at least until the late 1950s, religious education in publicly funded schools was a form of non-denominational Christian instruction that had moral and civic goals (Jackson 2004: Chapter 1). This view of religious education began to change in the 1960s. By the mid 1960s, religious education scholars were criticizing forms of religious education (RE) in state funded schools that fostered religious belief or a religious outlook, on the grounds of the increased secularity of society (Cox 1966) and because research evidence showed that young people wanted an open and undogmatic study of religions in schools (Cox 1967). By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Professor Ninian Smart and his team at Lancaster University had brought a global dimension to this ‘secular’ form of RE through their introduction of the study of the religions of the world, using theory and method from the phenomenology of religion (Schools Council 1971; Smart 1968). At about the same time, religious educators in some of Britain’s increasingly multicultural towns and cities were beginning to use local religious diversity as a resource for this new vision of the subject. They were also finding a role in promoting good community relations at the local level, and it is significant that one of the first books to explore religion in a multicultural and multifaith setting in Britain was published by a council for community relations (Cole 1972). Many teachers of religious education joined the National Association for Multiracial Education, and RE was commonly regarded as a valuable contributor to multicultural education, along with other fields and subjects.[1]


Then there was a dispute. This was between those with fundamentally ‘antiracist’ concerns and those emphasizing multicultural understanding (Mullard 1984). The antiracists argued that multiculturalists had treated cultural issues superficially, unnecessarily reifying cultures and inadvertently emphasizing difference (Troyna 1983). Rather than promoting understanding, it was argued, multiculturalists were playing into racist hands by creating stereotypes of distinct, separate cultures. These were allowed limited forms of expression by the beneficence of a tolerant national culture (McIntyre 1978). According to antiracists, multicultural education also avoided issues of power, explaining racism psychologically in terms of attitudes that could be changed through acquiring knowledge and learning tolerance, rather than through challenging accepted power structures within institutions. These inequalities of power were regarded as the real explanation for the perpetuation of inequality. Because of its concern with changing structures, antiracism gave limited attention to the curriculum, offering ideas to promote a critical awareness of ‘institutional racism’, for example, but not addressing issues of culture. Thus multicultural education, with ‘multifaith’ religious education as a subset, and antiracist education had an uneasy relationship for some years, although some contributors continued to pursue the interests of both fields (eg Richardson 1990).


It was not until the early 1990s that some writers began to heal the schism, recognizing the need for an antiracist stance, but criticizing antiracists for underestimating the importance of issues of cultural and religious representation, transmission and change. Multiculturalists were also urged to take a fresh look at these issues. These writers included Mal Leicester (Leicester 1992) and Ali Rattansi (Rattansi 1992, 1999) and Stephen May (May 1999) who appealed for reform through a synthesis of the two fields. Thus ‘antiracist multicultural education’ (Leicester 1992), ‘critical multiculturalism’ (May 1999: 33) and ‘reflexive multiculturalism’ (Rattansi 1999: 77) are critical of essentialist views of culture while acknowledging the role of power relations in cultural formation. In Rattansi’s words:


...the multiculturalists will have to abandon their additive models of cultural pluralism and their continuing obsession with the old ethnicities. Antiracists...will have to move beyond their reductive conceptions of culture and their fear of cultural difference as simply a source of division and weakness in the struggle against racism. (Rattansi 1992: 41)

Multicultural education and Citizenship policy in the 1990s

These developments, introduced in the early 1990s, remained unnoticed by politicians in government in Britain. Policy in England and Wales during the period of Conservative Government between 1979 and 1997 marginalized multicultural education. There was a change in atmosphere with the election of a Labour Government in 1997, and a push towards the development of citizenship education through the establishment of an Advisory Group on Citizenship. This group published the Crick Report during the following year (QCA 1998). The introduction of citizenship education in 2002, as an optional subject in primary schools and as a statutory part of the national curriculum for secondary schools, has given a new impetus to multicultural/intercultural education in England and Wales. Citizenship education in secondary schools requires knowledge and understanding of ‘the diversity of national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom and the need for mutual respect and understanding’ (DfEE/QCA 1999a), while the non-statutory advice for primary schools encourages children to ‘appreciate the range of national, regional, religious and ethnic identities in the United Kingdom’ (DfEE/QCA 1999b). Thus, at last, a form of multicultural/intercultural education has been incorporated into the curriculum, but it needs to be developed along the lines suggested by Leicester and Rattansi and must not lapse into the simplistic multiculturalism of the 1970s. There is a clear role for specialists in religious education to contribute to this form of education (Jackson 2003; 2004, Chapter 8).

Intercultural understanding, religion and social cohesion

The need for including the dimension of religious diversity in a critical multicultural education was reinforced by riots in the northern English towns and cities of Oldham, Burnley, Leeds and Bradford in the summer of 2001 in areas inhabited mainly by people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim origin (Home Office 2001a and b). The causes of the riots, which mainly involved young men, include social and economic deprivation in the areas involved as well as the political activity of the extreme right wing British National Party, which has for some time been expressing racist views in religious terms, especially through its vilification of Islam (McRoy 2001: 18-19). The Parekh Report on the future of multiethnic Britain draws attention to the use of religious categories in extreme right wing propaganda circulated in Britain, including a document appealing to the government to use the army to remove all mosques, temples and synagogues from ‘this Christian land’ (Runnymede Trust 2000 para 17.3: 237). This equation of national and Christian identity, associating all other religious identities with difference and otherness, is a version of what Tariq Modood has called ‘cultural racism’ (Modood 1997). Racism directed towards religious groups, or justified on religious grounds, prompts the writers of the Parekh report to argue that strategies for countering it need to recognize the distinctive and powerful nature of religious identity.


There had been riots in Bradford in 1995, and Lord Ouseley’s report on the city of Bradford happened to be published at the same time as the 2001 riots. The Ouseley Report depressingly describes a city ‘fragmenting along racial, cultural and faith lines’, and the ‘virtual apartheid’ of education (Ouseley 2001). Two reports on the 2001 riots were commissioned by the Home Office. The report of the Ministerial Group on Public Order and Community Cohesion concludes that lack of communication contributed to the unrest, and it appeals for the promotion of dialogue between the different groups (Home Office 2001a: para 2.16: 13). The second report, by an independent review team into Community Cohesion (the Cantle Report), specifically recommends educational programmes promoting cross-cultural contact (Home Office 2001b, para 5.8.18: 36).


On a global scale, events such as those of September 11, 2001 in the United States of America and their aftermath, including the atrocities in Bali in 2002, in Casablanca and Jakarta in 2003 and Madrid in 2004, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have also put religion on political, social and educational agendas internationally. Such events have prompted the Council of Europe project on ‘intercultural education and the challenge of religious diversity’ and the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief’s development of a global interdisciplinary network ‘to encourage school education that increases understanding and respect between people of different religions or world views and that fosters knowledge about and respect for freedom of religion or belief as a human right’ (Jackson 2004: Chapter 10; Larsen and Plesner 2002).


Thus, the needs of citizenship education and responses to civil unrest in Britain, reactions to international terrorism in Europe, and attempts to apply codes of human rights globally, all invite forms of intercultural education that take full account of issues in religious diversity, promote communication and dialogue between pupils from different backgrounds, and foster social cohesion through the encouragement of tolerance, understanding and respect between peoples.

intercultural education and new pedagogies of religious education

As we saw in relation to the work of Rattansi and Leicester, a critical or reflexive intercultural education needs to present more sophisticated analyses of culture than the reifications found in the multicultural education of the 1970s. Numerous ethnographic studies have informed academic discourse on the concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘cultures’, and this thinking needs to be reflected in intercultural education and religious education (Jackson 1997: Chapter 4). Such studies reflect an analysis of plurality that incorporates both ‘traditional’ aspects, such as overt religious diversity, and ‘modern’ elements, such as competing rationalities and epistemologies and easy interpersonal contact by means of new technologies (Jackson 2004: Chapter 1).


Gerd Baumann’s analysis of cultural discourse, based on his ethnographic research in Southall, England, is particularly illuminating. Baumann distinguishes between what he calls ‘dominant discourse’ in which people reify views of cultures, religions and ethnic groups, and ‘demotic discourse’, the language of interaction with others at the personal level, which creates new culture. Of course, ‘dominant discourse’ in relation to culture and religion is habitually used by politicians and the media. However, Baumann found that, in certain contexts, individual inhabitants of Southall, in their own interests, also used ‘dominant discourse, sometimes identifying themselves with categories such as Punjabi, Sikh or Asian. In different contexts, they interacted with others, creating cultural fusions and new cultural expressions. ‘Southallians’, says Baumann, ‘engage the dominant discourse as well as the demotic one. They reify cultures while at the same time making culture’ (Baumann 1996: 31). The reified categories are useful reference points, but they obscure the diversity, interaction and change that is the underlying reality. As Baumann puts it, ‘ not so much a photocopy machine but a concert or indeed a historically improvised jam session. It only exists in the act of being performed, and it can never stand still or repeat itself without changing its meaning’ (Baumann 1999: 26). This second view of culture – culture as process – was absent from the multicultural education of the 1970s, and indeed from much religious education to date.


In combating the stereotypes that characterize racist language, intercultural education needs to ensure that generalized cultural and religious categories are not taken to be uniform ‘wholes’. The complexity and diversity of cultural interaction needs to be represented. Baumann gives the following advice:


Try to unreify all accepted reifications by finding crosscutting cleavages. Whenever the reifying discourse talks about citizens or aliens, purple or green ethnics, believers or atheists, ask about rich or poor citizens, powerful or manipulated ethnics, married or sexual minority believers. Who are the minorities within majorities, who are the unseen majorities right across minorities? Combine every method of questioning to every possible category around you, for the permutations are endless when it comes to questioning reifications (Baumann 1999: 141)


There are several recent pedagogical approaches to religious education that are consistent with Baumann’s observations about cultural discourse and with critical and reflexive approaches to intercultural education . These have been developed in England and in several other northern European countries, although some related work is going on in countries such as South Africa. Here I will draw attention to two approaches developed in England (Jackson 2004, Chapters 6 and 7).


The interpretive approach, developed at the University of Warwick in England, aims to help children and young people to find their own positions within the key debates about religious plurality (Jackson 1997; Jackson 2004: Chapter 6). Drawing on methodological ideas from cultural anthropology, it recognizes the inner diversity, fuzzy edgedness and contested nature of religious traditions as well as the complexity of cultural expression and change from social and individual perspectives. Individuals are seen as unique, but the group tied nature of religion is recognized, as is the role of the wider religious traditions in providing identity markers and reference points. Pedagogically, the approach tackles issues of the representation of religions, develops pupils’ skills of interpretation and provides opportunities for reflexivity. Reflexivity includes giving pupils opportunities to make a constructive critique of the material studied at a distance, to re-assess their understanding of their own way of life in the light of their studies and to help to design and to review their own methods of learning.


The Warwick RE Project is a curriculum development project that applies the interpretive approach in a particular way, converting ethnographic source material into resources for use by children in class (eg Barratt 1994a,b and c; Jackson, Barratt and Everington 1994; Mercier 1996; Wayne et al 1996). In designing experimental curriculum materials to help teachers and pupils to use this approach, the project team drew on ethnographic research on children related to different religious communities and groups in Britain, and on theory from the social sciences, literary criticism, religious studies and other sources (Jackson 1997, Chapter 5). The children’s texts present individual children and young people from different religious backgrounds, drawing on interviews and ethnographic observation and presenting the children in different social contexts such as home, school and place of worship or meditation. The children and their parents assisted the writers in editing the texts for publication and in selecting original photographs. Community leaders were also consulted, but the editorial process was very much a matter of negotiation between ethnographers, curriculum developers, the children represented in the texts and their parents. The intention was to provide a methodology that was epistemologically open, that reflected the real lives of children from religious backgrounds in Britain and which, within the limits of using books as learning resources, was conversational in tone. The framework for teaching and learning encouraged sensitive and skilful interpretation, opportunities for constructive criticism (including pupils’ reflections on their own use of interpretive methods), and reflection by students on what they had studied. The materials include books for primary age children (the Bridges to Religions series), including young children of 5-7 years. The Warwick RE Project is just one way of applying the interpretive approach. It is equally possible to start with children’s reflections on their own ways of life and family traditions, with children designing methods of studying someone else’s religious culture or with an analysis of newspaper representations of religions. Some adaptations of the interpretive approach to meet particular classroom needs are reported in Jackson 2004: Chapter 6.


One of the developments from the Warwick interpretive approach is a dialogical approach developed by Julia Ipgrave, initially for her PhD degree at Warwick. Other valuable dialogical approaches have been developed independently by Heid Leganger-Krogstad in Norway and by Wolfram Weisse and his colleagues in Germany (Jackson 2004: Chapter 7). All claim the relative autonomy of the individual, but recognize the contextual influence of social groupings, such as family, peer, ethnic and religious groups. There is common agreement that the personal knowledge and experience that young people bring to the classroom can provide important data for study, communication and reflection. All also introduce further source material; religious education does not only consist of the analysis and exchange of personal narratives.


Julia Ipgrave conducted research on the inter-influence of children from Muslim, Hindu and Christian backgrounds in her multicultural primary school in the city of Leicester (Ipgrave 2002), and developed an approach to RE based on her findings and on the process of conducting the research. Her pedagogy capitalizes on children’s readiness to engage with religious questions and their ability to utilize religious language encountered through interacting with children in school. The teacher often acts in the role of facilitator, prompting and clarifying questions, and considerable agency is given to pupils, who are regarded as collaborators in teaching and learning. Ipgrave finds that her approach raises children’s self-esteem, provides opportunities to develop critical skills, allows underachievers to express themselves and generates a climate of moral seriousness through the discussion of basic human questions (Ipgrave 2001, 2003; Jackson 2004: Chapter 7).


Ipgrave’s research project developed a threefold approach to dialogue which has been incorporated into the pedagogical work derived from it. Primary dialogue is the acceptance of diversity, difference and change. Secondary dialogue involves being open to and positive about difference – being  willing to engage with difference and to learn from others. Tertiary dialogue is the actual verbal interchange between children. The basic activity here is discussion and debate. Throughout, the approach encourages personal engagement with ideas and concepts from different religious traditions and children are encouraged to be reflective about their contributions and to justify their own opinions. They are also encouraged to consider how they arrived at their conclusions, to recognize the possibility of alternative viewpoints and to be open to the arguments of others. Ipgrave has now extended this approach through the use of email communication between children from different backgrounds, initially in schools in Leicester and currently in schools in Leicester and East Sussex.


The interpretive and dialogical approaches share stances on the analysis of cultural and religious discourse and views about the agency of pupils with writers on critical or reflexive multicultural education. Such approaches can make a direct contribution to the goals of intercultural education. There is, however, scope for further creative collaboration between specialists in religion and in intercultural education.

Teaching for Tolerance

I will now attempt to draw some general conclusions from the above discussion and to add a few new points. Firstly, if the presentation of the religious dimension to intercultural education is to avoid the weaknesses of early multiculturalism, then flexible representations of religions and cultures are needed in teaching and learning materials. These should take close account of the ongoing debates about the portrayal of religions and cultures. Religions can be represented, not as homogeneous systems of belief, but in terms of a relationship between individuals, groups and wider contextual traditions. Cultures can be pictured as dynamic, internally contested and fuzzy edged, while individuals can be shown as reshaping culture through creating new syntheses which utilize cultural ideas and expressions from a variety of sources, including their own ancestral traditions. 


Secondly, pupils should be taught skills of interpretation and should be given opportunities for reflexivity, considering the impact of new learning on their own beliefs and values and applying critical judgements in a constructive, rational and informed way. Moreover, pupils should be given a role in selecting topics and in designing and reviewing methods of study used, being treated as co-learners with the teacher. There is an increasing amount of research evidence (including evidence from projects on children’s dialogue) showing that children and young people are motivated to learn if they are given agency.


Thirdly, pupils should be provided with materials that reflect the real lives of children and adults from a range of religious and cultural backgrounds and, whenever possible, should be given opportunities for personal interaction. Strategies for this include classroom dialogue, email dialogue, outside visits and welcoming guests into the school.


I have argued that it is important to establish effective approaches to teaching and learning – such as the interpretive and dialogical approaches – that are informed by research in the social sciences. However, I would add a cautionary note about the relationship between knowledge and attitudes. It is a mistake to assume that understanding and knowledge necessarily foster tolerance. There are some very well informed racists and bigots. I would argue, however, that knowledge and understanding are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the genuine removal of prejudice. Moreover, not everything learned about and understood will command respect. A reflexive intercultural education requires an analysis of the negative as well as positive influences of religion (Gearon 2002).


Furthermore, there is little point in modifying the curriculum if the ethos and general policies of the school do not value plurality and promote positive values. Schools need to confront racism of all kinds, including institutional and cultural racism, recognizing the equal worth of all members of the school community. They need to promote the tolerance of difference, mutual respect and encouragement of rational argument, helping individuals to confront prejudice. In achieving such goals some schools employ strategies to resolve conflict (eg Bodine and Crawford 1998) and to explore positive values in different aspects of school life (eg Farrer 2000).


Finally, while education and schooling can do a great deal to promote inter-religious and inter-cultural understanding, we must not expect too much from schools. Other institutions in society must play their part. In particular, especially in acknowledging the plural identities and transnational and global commitments of many citizens, governments need wisdom in their social and foreign policies.




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The author

Robert Jackson is Professor of Education in the Institute of Education at the University of Warwick, England, where he is also Director of the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit ( He is Editor of the British Journal of Religious Education. His books include Hindu Children in Britain (with Eleanor Nesbitt) (Stoke on Trent: Trentham, 1993); Religious Education: An Interpretive Approach (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1997); International Perspectives on Citizenship, Education and Religious Diversity (ed.) (London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003) and Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Religious Diversity and Pedagogy (2004) also published by RoutledgeFalmer. He was project director of the Warwick RE Project which produced three series of books for children and young people using the interpretive approach.

[1] The term ‘multicultural education’ gained currency in Britain and in the USA, while ‘intercultural education’ has been used more in continental European literature. Although the expression ‘multicultural education’ has been criticized for its suggestion of closed and reified views of culture, in Britain it has remained the preferred term by some of those having much more sophisticated views of cultural discourse than the early multiculturalists. ‘Intercultural education’ is being used more widely now in the UK, partly under European influence through Council of Europe projects.