A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools – A Response

I had already written this blog but thanks to a new samsung phone that I couldn’t quite work out, I ended up writing it again. You might say it was cathartic, I might say it allowed a rethink. So apologies that this is a shorter, more frustrated post than intended.

I was interested to read Linda Woodhead and Charles Clarke’s recent report on Religion and Belief in Schools. The report is also useful in providing background knowledge to the context of RE in the UK. I am grateful for having read three blogs on it already, by Alan Brine, Charlotte Vardy and Lisa O’Connor.

image credit @faithdebates

For what it’s worth, I think the three most memorable points about the report are peripheral to teaching RE. They merely scratch the surface of the major issues, which I will deal with afterwards.

1. I am lucky to have taught in schools in which RE has been valued by staff and students alike. Although I do know of schools who have used a name change to rebrand the subject in an attempt to make it more popular. This playing around with names doesn’t actually affect the content we teach, and calling the subject Religious and Moral Education would carry as many misconceptions as Religious Education. I don’t think a name change will have a noticeable effect on the subject. If we were to agree on a name change, I would suggest it changed more towards Religious Studies than Religious and Moral Education, which gives more continuity between KS3, KS4 and KS5 as students in the UK will study Religious Studies at GCSE and A Level, and would reflect the more academic approach to the study of religion that I support. This concern I share with Charlotte Vardy. As long as we don’t go back to calling it Religious Instruction it’s all good.

2. On the Religious Instruction point, I think this is a red herring as in my professional life I’ve never met an RE teacher who thinks this is the way to teach students about religion. I’m not saying there aren’t any, I just don’t think it’s a major issue. RE is not confessional but encourages students to analyse and evaluate different belief systems, including their own. I think students can see through this sort of approach anyway.

3. Collective worship. Of course it should be separated from RE and written out of the law. Most schools are not faith schools and even those that are would struggle to meet this requirement – even in the Catholic schools I’ve taught in. That said, this does not remove the possibility of formative assemblies, but I think the content of these should be determined by individual schools, perhaps in reference to a non-statutory document.

So far, then, we haven’t really got down the the issues with the subject of Religious Education at all. The positives of the report: the nature purpose and content of RE and the parental right to withdraw students from the subject. More of which…

1. Religious Education is an academic subject. It teaches students to engage with belief systems – religious and secular- and to critique them. Given the current UK reforms in which RE can no longer be limited to one religion, it widens students’ perspective on the world. It can chsnge their views in the same way that learning about Shakespeare, the solar system, or Nazi Germany can. It gives students an understanding of the place of religion in the local and global context, and allows them to evaluate it.

Studying two or three religions in depth at school also gives students the tools to go on to study other religions for themselves. Students will continue to encounter religious and non-religious belief systems outside of the classroom, and if they do not have a firm basis of knowledge of some belief systems, they have no means of comparison. Worse, if they have a misconceived understanding of some belief systems that remain unchallenged, they will not engage critically with such beliefs, and therefore may be easily radicalised.

That said, I support the idea of a National Curriculum with flexibility  (say to choose which religions to study) as it promotes academic study but also consistency. This makes the curriculum more rigorous (more like the Religious Studies of GCSE and A Level) and also allows schools to choose different religions to study – I would say at least two – based on the school’s ethos and the local community.

2. Parents should not be able to withdraw their children from Religious Education. It is an academic subject like any other. It teaches students about the world around them and how to engage in that world. It is not confessional. I notice in the report that Linda seems to have changed her views on this since #NATREnorth – for the better.

Anyway, there is more to be said, especially about the content and purpose of Religious Education, some of which I said then accidentally deleted, but might add at a later stage. I am glad that I am no longer bound by an RE of obsolete laws and outdated mindsets. And don’t get me started on Ofsted!

Pretty Wild Daisies In A Grean Feild

image credit stokpic

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