Fourth Evidence Gathering Session 20/6/17 Exeter University, St. Luke’s Campus
On a very hot day in Exeter, Commissioners Anthony Towey and Denise Cush heard eleven presentations from Jo Backus, Ed Pawson and Tatiana Wilson, John Keast, Duraid Rifai, Geoff Teece, Dave Francis, Linda Rudge, Katie Freeman, David Lundie, Emma Brennan and four students coming to the end of their PGCE in Secondary RE teaching.
As in the other evidence gathering sessions, the Commissioners were impressed by the passion and commitment of so many people to the importance of high quality religious education for our children and young people, by the knowledge and wisdom of RE professionals and also by the remarkable insights of the children and students themselves.
Nevertheless we heard about the many threats to RE, with the example of the decline in provision in Cornwall since 2010, illustrating the problems caused by changes such as academisation and reduction in funding for Local Authorities. Fewer schools are offering GCSE RS. Other (familiar) issues included the lack of specialist teachers, SACREs lacking capacity, academies without a religious character neglecting RE, Dharmic traditions such as Buddhism being misrepresented from being squeezed into models of religion taken from Abrahamic religions, and the diversity within traditions being ignored.
There appears to be general support for a clear national entitlement for all pupils, but whether this should entail a National Curriculum or whether the detailed curriculum should be created at a more local level is disputed.
We heard much about the strengths of support for RE at local and regional level, not only from SACREs where they are working well, but also grassroots initiatives where teachers are ‘doing it for themselves’, but with support from funding from charities and from professional advisers/consultants, such as Learn Teach Lead RE and NATRE hubs. Local RE works well because of the human relationships, including with faith communities. Support for SACREs is strong, but to some extent is being disentangled from support for their responsibility for locally Agreed Syllabuses.
Many would like to see the end of withdrawal where RE is academic and non-confessional. There is evidence that it is being used to create division, especially withdrawal from anything to do with Islam. It is important that RE includes the values that are shared, for example that unite Muslims and non-Muslims. Engaging first hand with religious communities through visits and visitors is vital. We need a clear picture of what counts as progression in RE. The contested meanings of terms such as ‘religion’, ‘worldview’, ‘secular’ were discussed in depth – it is important that we know how these terms are being employed in RE. The Commission was warned to avoid suggesting changes that are not necessary and might risk making things worse. We were reminded of the importance of getting political support for anything we recommend.
Everyone – including primary children – is concerned about the lack of specialist and /or well-trained teachers in RE and sees this as a priority.
We were given clear guidance from primary children who had experience of RE (or no RE) in a number of schools – RE is bad when it is only about one religion, when the teacher doesn’t know the subject, when the teacher expresses only their own opinion, or where there simply isn’t any RE. RE is good when you find out about a range of different religions and non-religious worldviews, when there is time to study in depth, when the teacher is a specialist, when different methods are used, and when children’s views as well as teachers’ are listened to.
Some interesting solutions were offered for our consideration. Perhaps the problems caused by GCSE RS not being in the EBacc, and the decline of the short course due to it not counting in performance measures, could be solved by making GCSE full course (with lots of options) compulsory for all? Perhaps the strengths of local provision when not all local provision is good, could be retained by forming regional curriculum groups where stronger and weaker SACREs, academies, and teacher networks like LTLRE could join together to develop more detailed curricula which ensure that all pupils receive the national entitlement? Perhaps Regional Commissioners currently responsible for academies could oversee this? Perhaps pupils withdrawn from RE could follow a course in Ethics as an alternative?
The issue of a new name to express what contemporary RE is now elicited a number of suggestions. We heard of schools doing SPACE (Spirituality, Philosophy and Citizenship Education or PEARS (Philosophy Education and Religious Studies). PGCE students suggested Religion or Philosophy and Religion Education. Worldview Studies or Sophology (the search for and study of wisdom), were suggested by academics/consultants professionally engaged with RE.
As the Commission collects its evidence, we have become increasingly aware that the current situation is that some children and young people benefit from excellent RE, taught by teachers with a good grasp of both subject knowledge and pedagogy, and a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve. Other children are suffering from poor provision or none at all. This is an equality issue – it is simply not fair. The message to the Commission from primary children in the South West is clear – make sure children have good RE rather than bad RE and their bottom line:
‘Please make sure that all schools teach RE.’
Recently retired as Professor of Religion and Education, Bath Spa University, Deputy Editor of the British Journal of Religious Education, and once upon a time RE teacher and trainer of both primary and secondary teachers.