Paganism has been included in an official school religious education syllabus for the first time. Cornwall Council has told its schools that pagan beliefs, which include witchcraft, druidism and the worship of ancient gods such as Thor, should be taught alongside Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The requirements are spelled out in an agreed syllabus drawn up by Cornwall’s RE advisory group. It says that from the age of five, children should begin learning about standing stones, such as Stonehenge. At the age of 11, pupils can begin exploring ‘modern paganism and its importance for many in Cornwall’. The syllabus adds that areas of study should include ‘the importance of pre-Christian sites for modern pagans’. And an accompanying guide says that pupils should ‘understand the basic beliefs’ of paganism and suggests children could discuss the difficulties a practising pagan pupil might face in school. But the council’s initiative has dismayed some Christian campaigners, who are alarmed that a religion once regarded as a fringe eccentricity is increasingly gaining official recognition. Critics point out that according to the council’s own estimates there are only between 600 and 750 pagans in Cornwall out of a total population of 537,400. Mike Judge, Christian Institute spokesman, said: ‘Religious education is squeezed already – there’s barely enough time to cover Christianity and the other major religions. ‘Introducing paganism is just faddish and has more to do with the political correctness of teachers than the educational needs of children.’
However, Neil Burden, the council’s cabinet member for children’s services, said that the move would give children ‘access to the broad spectrum of religious beliefs’. The council said the teaching of Christianity still accounted for nearly two-thirds of religious education in its schools. Paganism encompasses numerous strands, from druids, who believe themselves to be practitioners of the ancient faith of pre-Christian Britain, to wiccans – modern witches who gather in covens – and shamans, who engage with the spirit of the land. Cornish pagans include witches Cassandra and Laetitia Latham-Jones, who dress in robes, own broomsticks and a black cat and cast spells. Their website says they offer baby blessings, psychic house cleansings and spells to suit particular situations. Cornwall Council’s initiative follows the 2010 decision by the Charity Commission to recognise druidism as a religion. Jailed druids and pagans are also now allowed to take twigs or ‘magic wands’ into their cells, although they are barred from wearing a hooded robe. According to the 2001 national census, there are about 40,000 pagans in England and Wales, though some estimate that the true figure is now far higher.