RE – we’ve always had it. Can’t imagine Victorian schools without it. And yet it has only been a compulsory part of the curriculum since 1944. It was perceived at the time to provide a unifying force – all Blighty could join together in Christian worship and understanding.

Except Blighty has changed. Yes we are more multicultural but we also live in a more secular society. A BBC poll in  2004 suggested approximately 40% of the UK population considers itself to be non-religious Google for information on atheism and you’ll be presented with a range of possible statistics, but the UK is certainly one of the most non-religious nations.

And yet it is still a compulsory subject taught in all UK state schools. The Government has announced that RE will be included in its curriculum review later this year following on from Ofsted’s recent review of the subject Transforming Religious Education .

But that was a frustrating document in many respects as it ignored what is for me the key question in the debate – should we be teaching RE at all? It’s all very well saying the provision is patchy and unfocused but the unquestioning acceptance of the place of RE in the overcrowded curriculum is, in my opinion, a mistake.

What is the purpose of RE? Ofsted say most children questioned saw value in the subject but that:

  1. Pupils usually saw the value of RE in terms of how it contributed to their understanding of and respect for religious and cultural diversity. They often commented on how it helped them to understand others and contributed to a more harmonious society. Pupils recognised that RE provided a context in which issues related to the ‘spiritual’ were raised. However, it was only when RE was at its most effective that they had genuine opportunities to explore and reflect on the meaning and purpose of their lives and on the more intangible aspects of their experiences.

RE works best in explaining religion – crikey! A context for bunkum spiritual discussion. But that assumes the intrinsic worth of the spiritual.

  1. In the secondary schools, RE generally contributed positively to students’ personal development. However, this tended to focus on the moral, social and cultural aspects of their lives. In about six in 10 of the schools visited, there were few opportunities for students to explore the more spiritual aspects of the subject. For example, they rarely engaged with challenging or evocative material drawn from religious and belief traditions that might stimulate more profound feelings or ideas.

This sounds like a lack of spirituality is intrinsically a bad thing. But if you don’t accept that premise and prefer to ‘ make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values’ (BHA), then you may as well be teaching astrology.

There is always the argument that it helps promote community cohesion and mutual tolerance and respect. Except I have yet to see evidence of this. A multicultural multi-faith school is integrated, respectful and harmonious because of the relationships within it at all levels, not because of the hour spent doing RE alternate terms, unless there is a play rehearsal going on and a trip to the zoo that week. To suggest otherwise is to do a great disservice to what many schools achieve day in day out.

The truth is that children grow up with the religious views of their parents. If those parents are tolerant, the kids will be, if they are Islamophobes or anti-semitic the kids will walk out of RE lessons seeing the differences rather than the similarities, whatever the lesson objective.

But what I find most troubling is that  we hold on to the view that RE is the conduit for our teaching on ethics and morality . . . despite the introduction of PSCHE and citizenship lessons. The implication remains that religion and morality are inextricably linked.

And don’t get me started on the ‘but it’s just nice traditional stories to share with kids’ – I’ve heard that and . . . no, don’t get me started.

I am in favour of talking about religion at school. We need to grow up knowing that people live different lives to us. And religion has had a huge historical and cultural impact on all our lives regardless of our own religious beliefs. The understanding of this is certainly part of a broad and balanced education.  But I would suggest that the impact and nuances are not readily available to, at the very least, primary school children. That’s why it should be there, but as a small part of PSCHE – along with topics on racism, bullying, ethics etc.

Don’t get me wrong, the Ofsted report isn’t all bad – the standardisation of RE teaching should ensure greater clarity of purpose. But best of all it refers to the need to formalise the inclusion of humanism in the teaching of RE (oh the irony!). At the moment it is only if the teacher is aware enough to mention it (often because of their own beliefs) that humanism gets mentioned at all as we take a religion a term, or how different religions peceive a particular theme – in my borough at least there it is quite possible for a child to get right through primary school without the slightest hint of humanism or atheism being mentionned. Many (most?) teachers do not remember to say ‘and some people believe none of this, but believe in science and evidence.’ At secondary level the scrutiny needs to be greater – after all it’s a fairly self-selecting category of teaching – although I could find no figures on what percentage of specialist RE teachers would call themselves atheists, I would suspect it is pretty low.

Religious parents will bring up their children with an understanding of their faith and, if you want to teach your kids religion, be my guest – after all what you do in the privacy of your own home is your business. I just have an issue when you start bringing my kids into it, and you inevitably do when they go in to RE lessons.

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8 Responses to RE/SchmRE

  1. Rossbalham says:

    Good blog. For me teaching of RE is beneficial from cultural point of view and as comparison but that isn’t how I was taught, nor is it what my kids get. My eldest age 15 has apparently made it his mission to raise the Flying Spaghetti Monster in most RE lessons which makes his report amusing but guarantees a crap GCSE.

    Another example I dislike though not in schools is that to join the Scout movement you can make your promise before any god but not as an atheist., I expect juvenile paramilitary organisations to be more all-embracing

    Come the revolution ….

  2. Bee says:

    I thinking focusing on diverse religions in RE lessons is an important part of social cohesion and learning about the way people live their lives and what is important to them, despite the fact that, as you say, these things are also accomplished in other parts of the curriculum and in every day aspects of school life. But I do agree with you that it leads to the implication that religious and spiritual life is something everyone chooses one way or the other. On the other hand, the lack of regard that most teachers, in my experience, have for teaching RE leads it to often be sidelined and children learn a lesson from that too.

    My main gripe though isnt so much the learning ABOUT religion, but the practice of it. My daughters non demoninational state infants school is full of praying and talk of God and Christianity and it really hacks me off! If I want her to practice religion (which I don’t) I would send her to a faith school. The last straw was a whole day event they had on the 10 commandments run by an outside Christian organisation whose acronym is FACT. Argh!!! I complained to the head, but it makes little difference. Most parents just accept it as part of school life, but it seems so wrong to me. I realise that most children will get their beliefs from home (their is lots of talk of evolution and evidence in this household ;)) but it does stick in my throat that the state is endorsing religion, particularly Christianity in our schools.

  3. Zeno says:

    We will have to wait and see, but why is it I have little confidence that the forthcoming review will move RE in the right direction – we may just end up with yet more religion being pushed onto children?

  4. It seems to me they are trying to kill two birds with one stone: teaching religion as a way of understanding different cultures and our own history, which IMHO is vital, versus addressing the “space” in which one finds morals, ethics and the components of good citizenship. Until they remove the assumption, which many non believers drift into, whereby religion has some monopoly over that “space”, the confusion will continue and lessons will under-deliver on both fronts. Humanism has as good as claim on that space as any other – indeed one could argue that it’s vital for people to grow up with some set of values, some ethical framework, even some level of -irituality, whatever that is. How much of that should be down to schools and how much is down to parents is another matter, but as a matter of principal schools should not be trying to enforce one framework into that space, be that a Christian framework as per the Victorians, or a vaguely monotheistic framework, or a New Age framework or a general “spiritual” framework. Nonsense, by which one could include anything that is not universally accepted, should be a personal and not a private matter.

  5. Oops, I mean “personal and not a /public/ matter”. Sorry.

  6. Pingback: Religious Studies – A Religious Studies Teacher Responds « Ron's Blog

  7. brandnewguy says:

    I was interested to see that Michael Gove has partly answered your query re atheist schools:
    No mention on the status of RE in such schools, but I suppose it would be one of the parts of the curriculum that ‘free’ schools could ‘set aside’.

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