The second regional evidence gathering session took place in Birmingham on Thursday, 4 May. The Commissioners attending were: Denise Cush, Emma Knights, Joyce Miller and Anthony Towey. Three members of the Secretariat were in attendance: Amira Chilvers, Rudolf Eliott Lockhart (Chair) and Jon Reynolds.
The day began at King Edward VI High School for Girls in Edgbaston where we were warmly welcomed by Rachael Jackson-Royal, her colleagues and her pupils. After an interesting tour of the school and a very pleasant lunch, the first formal session took place where we received evidence from: Guy Hordern (Birmingham SACRE), Judith Everington (Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit), Sarah Hall (University of Birmingham), Lat Blaylock, Mark Chater and pupils from the school. The second evidence-gathering session then took place at the University of Birmingham’s School of Education where we heard from Lisa O’Connor and three of her students from Kings Norton Girls’ School, Sarah Lane Cawte (Free Church Education Committee), Gill Robbins, Allan Hayes and Rachael Jackson- Royal (King Edward VI High School for Girls). Some members of the public were also in attendance at this session.
It is always a pleasure to listen to students who are enthused by religious education and want to share their opinions on the subject and its benefits. It was very evident that they found the subject rigorous, relevant and interesting and that they were benefiting from it in a variety of ways. Learning about religions was important to them – including a broader range of learning (‘small religions’) – but they felt the skills they were developing through RE were equally valid. The opportunity to discuss and debate what they called ‘ultimate questions’ was of great value to them because it increased their ability to think for themselves and then transfer those skills to other areas of their lives.
Unsurprisingly, the passion their teachers had for RE also shone through and this was one of the themes that emerged from a number of our speakers. Despite (or sometimes because of) the problems that face RE, the commitment and energy of teachers has resulted in much excellent practice across the country. That professionalism, innovation and creativity, developed in their schools and their local groups, must be able to flourish in any post-Commission world.
A number of the key questions that face the Commission were addressed by our speakers.
On the question of changing the current legal situation, there were several views expressed: a national syllabus/ a minimum entitlement/ a new law with maximum flexibility / leaving the law unchanged. Should faith groups have a say in any new syllabus? Should SACREs be reconstituted?
How we articulate the aims of RE was also raised. Is it possible to find agreement? Where is the balance between understanding religions and beliefs on the one hand and pupils’ (human) development on the other? The language used to explore these questions also differed: are we talking about ‘religion’ or ‘faith’?
The question of what has become known as ‘the nones’ was also raised and the importance of RE being relevant for all pupils, whatever their background or views. If non-religious worldviews were to be included in RE (and there was some dissent on this from the speakers) then the Commission was urged to consider the need for further research and a significant amount of curriculum support. The ways in which religions are presented was also questioned with a plea for a more sophisticated approach to the diversity within Christianity, for example.
Initial teacher training and continuing professional development emerged as vitally important areas for improvement. Strong pleas were made to support primary school teachers but the lack of subject knowledge of beginning secondary teachers was also highlighted. Speakers complained of too much focus on assessment in schools and that pedagogy has been side-lined by a narrow emphasis on teaching and learning. There were concerns about the structures of examination courses and the impossibility of teaching GCSE well in one hour a week. The status of RE is low is many schools and the public’s perception of RE needs to be enhanced. This links to failure in government policy to recognise the negative impact on RE of, for example, the EBacc. There was general agreement among those presenting that RE should remain compulsory and a plea was made for a return of subject inspections by Ofsted.
These two sessions gave Commissioners a great deal of food for thought. The task before us is large but no-one doubts its significance.
Associate Fellow in the Religions and Education Research Unit at the University of Warwick, formerly Head of Diversity and Cohesion at Education Bradford, and Senior Lecturer in religious studies at the University of Wolverhampton. Former Chair of the RE Council, AREIAC, Bradford SACRE and the Schools Linking Network.
The content of Sarah Lane Cawte’s presentation is available here.
The content of Gill Robins’ presentation is available here.