Monday, 23 July 2012 10:11

How is Religious Education changing?

A fourteen year old pupil once said to me, ‘You know, RE is a great subject, but you should really change its name.’ I asked why, and he said ‘Because it contains the two words that young people hate the most.’

This hardly amounts to empirical research, but it does give an interesting sidelight on how RE has already changed a great deal, and how it is continuing to change.  

In this article I’d like to say something about how RE needs to continue changing, and where the support for this is likely to come from. 

But first – the current context is pretty bad for RE. We are living in a period of rapid educational change – particularly to the structures of schools and the curriculum. RE has been left vulnerable because of those changes: the imposition of the so-called English baccalaureate on secondary schools, as a measure of progress, has excluded RE and, as a result, encouraged some schools to squeeze their RE department. The explosion of different kinds of schools – academies, free schools – has left many of them confused about the rules governing RE. This is hardly surprising, since the guidance coming from the Department for Education itself is sometimes confused and inaccurate. The changes to initial teacher education are having a bad effect on the supply of RE teachers. It is fair to say that the government has washed its hands of RE, and expects to do nothing to help. 

So after a 25-year period of growth in RE’s numerical strength and quality, and deepening consensus about the aims, educational rationale and design of the subject in schools, the considerable gains of this sustained progress are now threatened. The combined effect of these threats has already weakened the provision and development of RE. In church schools, RE is not likely to disappear, but it can still suffer from the backwash effect of these government policies. 

I have heard many people saying that they don’t think RE is worth saving, because (they say) it was taught so badly when they were in school. Anyone over the age of about 40 is likely to have been taught RE by someone who was not professionally trained for the purpose – that has changed, as we now have specialist qualifications and continuing professional development, including our own online courses. More mature readers are also quite likely to have been taught RE in a rather dry way, covering facts and content about one or more religions – that has also changed, as we now have approaches to philosophy and ethics that engage pupils’ minds very well on matters of importance to them and their world. Some readers may have had the feeling that RE was ‘trying to convert them’ or ‘shoving religion (or faith) down our throats’. I’m pleased to say that this, too, is changing, and even in church schools the teachers are very strongly aware of the need to be respectful of all views, and to avoid ‘selling’. Even so, we also have to acknowledge that there is no such thing as objectivity in religious education, though we strive for it. In these and other ways, RE is constantly evolving and improving, and has certainly changed beyond all recognition from the time when I (now aged 56) was learning it in school. 

RE can keep developing during this difficult time. The new freedoms being offered to schools could lead to innovative new approaches to RE. Teaching schools, responsible for training teachers, could become new open environments for the creation of models of professional development in RE – and we urgently need church schools to step up to this particular plate. New science on how children’s and young people’s brains work in learning could refresh the practice of many RE teachers. The new emphasis on rigour and excellence could help writers of RE syllabuses and resources to focus on the right level of challenge through the central knowledge, concepts and skills of RE as a discipline. Parents, as empowered partners in the creation and leadership of schools, could become key advocates for RE. The Christian Churches and other faith communities that run schools could enrich their understanding of RE as part of their educational mission. 

The Trust which I lead, Culham St Gabriel’s, gives grants for research, development and innovation in RE, and runs a programme of events, websites and training opportunities for those who teach RE. I am convinced that the energy, faith and optimism we bring to supporting and challenging the RE community can make a difference to its survival and improvement. We cannot do it alone: there is much to do in our commitment to excellence, working with partners is key to achieving the best learning in RE.

Mark Chater, Director of the Culham St Gabriel’s Trust 
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