This year has been a busy one for Religious Education nationally. The publication of A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools in June has thrown into the spotlight the fact that RE is sometimes brilliantly taught, is essential to the curriculum; but its quality is too often undermined by a range of factors. The RE community cannot allow these factors to continue damaging the subject’s quality: we need change.
This article was originally published in the December 2015 Edition of our UKEdMagazine
Those looking to lead and support the development of the subject were united at the ‘Energise RE 2015’ conference in Reading over the first weekend of October. There, Culham St Gabriel’s Trust brought together over 200 teachers and other RE professionals for a unique opportunity: to hear and respond to outstanding speakers and national leaders in RE, to network and form new alliances.
In the opening address led by Mark Chater a weather report for RE was offered; there is a lot of rain, mist and thundery spells. Current rules on RE are complicated; RE is statutory but not national curriculum; compulsory, but you can withdraw; local, but not that local; different if you are an academy or independent school; populated by 151 syllabuses, all broadly similar in content, but in form and structure, so different and complex that it takes an army of advisers and consultants to interpret – an army we no longer have. Indeed, being left out of curriculum reform, finding ourselves side-lined by the Ebacc and still waiting for new GCSE and A level qualifications to be approved by Ofqual means there are uncertain times for RE ahead.
But, it is not all overcast. There are some sunny patches to be found in the great work being done by schools, universities and faith groups around the country. The conference offered delegates insights into what we can do to facilitate a heatwave for RE in three key areas:
1. How is religion and belief changing in the UK and what impact should this have on RE?
There is a widespread opinion that congregations are shrinking, the UK is becoming increasingly secular and that religious belief is no longer relevant in modern society. In her keynote, Linda Woodhead highlighted research in sociology of religion which shows that belief paradigms are shifting, but it is not the case that faith is a thing of the past. She highlighted that the 2011 census simply gave the illusion of a decrease in Christianity and an increase in secularism, when the reality is that those who might describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ are simply not conforming to what might be fit into ‘traditional’ categories.
The consequence of this is the perception that religion in the UK is ‘slowing down’ and that we are at odds with what can be seen in the rest of the world. This is an argument for the continual relevance of spirituality and religious belief for our young people despite appearances of secularism, as well as a suggestion that with such extraordinary change to our religious landscape, the legal structures underpinning a Religious Education of 1988 are no longer relevant today. Put simply: ‘The place of religion and belief within our education system should change to reflect modern realities. But there is absolutely no case to remove it, as some suggest. In fact we need a more coherent and effective means of increasing the quality of religious education throughout our school system’ (Clarke and Woodhead: 2015, p35). RE is still as important to our young people as it ever was, but it needs to serve them better.
2. How is RE developing and where does its future lie?
Dilwyn Hunt gave a powerful and pacey talk about developments in assessment and progression within RE. He argued that data-obsession has hurt the process of pupil learning and highlighted that levels in RE had not delivered the ‘coherent basis of assessment’ they promised but, in fact, merely generated ‘unreliable and spurious information’. He argued that this problem, coupled with the massive amount of material available for RE teachers to deliver, had resulted in some very poor RE. It is true to say that over a child’s school career, they may well encounter a wide-range of different faiths. Instead of spreading teaching thinly over some grand, all-encompassing scheme, Hunt suggested that we might consider devoting more curriculum time to teaching a core curriculum of Christianity and Islam with space remaining for teachers to then select others areas of investigation most relevant for their learners. His argument for ‘fewer things, taught well’ is a sound one. Taking steps to reduce the amount of content and establish a core curriculum in RE was a cogent suggestion which, coupled with a focus on formative, rather than summative, assessment, might well be the way forward to genuinely rigorous RE provision. Indeed, highly specific learning journeys that can be clearly assessed and built upon across the Key Stages is a valuable endeavour already working well in the sciences.
3. How can we best strengthen our collaborative networks in order to improve standards in RE?
Meeting other RE professionals in person is clearly the best manner in which to collaborate, share, develop and improve our own teaching. Making the effort to connect with others is an important part of improving standards in RE and online networks are a great way to strengthen existing partnerships and form new alliances. With the hashtag #EnergisingRE trending within the first hour of the weekend, it was clear that many teachers are already united in the desire for something better; RE which has real intellectual integrity, reflects the reality of religion and belief in the modern world, and makes an excellent contribution to pupils’ education. However, if we want to improve provision, there is still important work to be done.
At present, RE faces a genuine threat of marginalisation. The current structures and standards in place are not working. The observations made by Clarke and Woodhead in A New Settlement reflect the sense of crisis felt by the RE community as it was left off national curriculum reform in 2013:
‘Overall, the whole area of religious education has suffered from being treated very differently from other subjects. Sometimes it has been treated as less important, sometimes as more important. It has been freighted with too little significance or too much. The consequences have been negative and have inhibited reform. We believe that the subject should be put on a similar footing to other subjects, and no longer as the exceptional case’. (Clarke and Woodhead: 2015, p7)
It is fairly unbelievable that the Religious Education Council’s Non-Statutory Curriculum for RE was brought to Westminster having been put together without public funding, even though RE remained a subject required on the curriculum of all state schools. This, for me, truly reflects a need for reform. One of the most energising moments of the two day conference was seeing two-thirds of the packed room raise their hands in agreement to the recommendation to do away with the 151 locally-agreed syllabuses and replace them with one National Curriculum for RE.
Indeed, a National Curriculum does present itself as one possible solution to the crisis facing RE. Whether you agree with this approach or not, it is clear that teachers need to engage in positive discussions about change in order to ensure that there is a promising forecast for RE learners: high status, modern structures, rigour and engagement, and better alignment with the exciting real world of religion and belief in the 21st Century.
To achieve this we need to take a resilient view. If we can recognise that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing, we can look forward to a great future for RE. Just as faith calmed the storm for the disciples, faith in positive changes for RE can enable a heatwave to come. It is change in RE which is our raincoat; we need to wear it well.
Arabella @MissAVECarter is a Teacher of Ethical and Religious Studies at an independent school in Derbyshire. She is an advocate of Philosophy in schools and a supporter of the importance of good Religious Education. She contributes regularly to discussions on those themes on her blog missavecarter.wordpress.com and for @BlogSyncRE.
Featured Image Source: Via Vincent Brown on Flickr under (CC BY 2.0)