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 http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/3115541. 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 http://tinyurl.com/3xnkdvo .
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:
- 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.
- 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.