The collecting of evidence and views on religious education in England got off to a good start at Grey Coat Hospital School in London on Thursday 23rd February. Commissioners Malcolm Evans, Anthony Towey, Denise Cush, Emma Knights (first half) and Juliet Lyal (second half) heard presentations from the following organisations: the Catholic Education Service, the British Humanist Association, the Church of England National Society, RE Today, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís, Christian Concern, and the following individuals: Fiona Moss, Deborah Weston, Dilwyn Hunt, Patricia Hannam and Andy Lewis, all well known in the RE world. Some presenters were invited by the Commission and others volunteered. The Commission will be inviting many more presenters to future sessions and also welcomes future volunteers. We also heard from seven students from Grey Coat Hospital School, who shared their own views on religious education in an impressively articulate fashion.
Many important issues were raised and useful evidence provided. One area that everyone who presented was agreed on is the need to improve recruitment and training for RE teachers. For decades RE has been taught by fewer specialist teachers at secondary level than other subjects, and training for primary teachers in religious education has declined to a completely inadequate few hours. A second area that was strongly supported by presenters was the need for accountability. In a situation where schools are judged on some criteria rather than others, RE is bound to be neglected if no-one is checking; it is becoming ‘a casualty of accountability’. This was considered particularly important in relation to academies and free schools, as statistics demonstrate a relative neglect of RE.
Many presenters were in favour of doing away with the right of withdrawal that gives the impression that religious education is confessional and deprives some pupils of an important part of their education, though there are reservations connected to human rights legislation. There was also a considerable agreement among presenters that content should include Christianity, other religions both large and small, non-religious worldviews, and philosophical and moral issues, though there is disagreement about the relative time spent on each of these elements, and whether depth of learning can only be achieved by limiting the religions/areas studied. It was interesting that the students themselves mostly argued for increased diversity in the religious/non-religious traditions studied from the early years onwards, for impartial presentation, and for philosophy and ethics also to diversify from its current focus on the views of ‘white males’. There was disagreement among students about how far Christianity should be privileged.
Although it is often claimed that a problem in RE is that the aims and purpose are unclear, there was actually agreement among these presenters that there is a variety of aims and purposes. When prioritising, there seemed to be considerable agreement about RE as an academic subject which enables pupils to understand the diversity of religious and non-religious worldviews, the place of Christianity in British history and culture, and space to reflect upon and develop their own beliefs, values, practices and identity.
On the possibility of changing legislation, in particular whether syllabuses should continue to be locally determined or whether some statutory national requirement should replace them, arguments and evidence on both sides were presented. This issue was separated from the continued existence of SACREs, with more agreement on their useful role in local communities. However, the uneven quality of SACRE provision and support from Local Authorities under increasing pressure was raised. The idea of some sort of national baseline entitlement for pupils, in all types of state-maintained schools, that could then be augmented and adapted by whoever is writing syllabuses gained quite a bit of support, but there is anxiety about what this might be, who would be responsible for designing it, and whether it would be appropriate to spell out content.
The possibility of a new name for the subject, avoiding current preconceptions, was raised by several presenters. Other matters included the sharp decline in short course GCSE, meaning that over 100,000 fewer pupils in 2016 when compared with 2010 gained a 16+ qualification in RE. On the positive side, A level entries are rising. The negative consequences of RE being excluded from the EBacc, and the desirability of a new body that could draw together RE researchers and practitioners were also raised. We were asked to sympathise with the plight of the secondary RE teacher who might be coping with a new GCSE syllabus, a new A level syllabuses and a new Agreed Syllabus in the same year. Glimpses into RE teacher social media revealed the variety of topics that teachers are including in the brief time given for the subject.
Overall, it was a very interesting and useful day, which clearly demonstrated the RE skill of being able to discuss controversial issues in a civilised and respectful manner, not devoid of humour. In spite of some disagreements, it was very encouraging to see the passionate enthusiasm of so many people for our amazing subject.
The Commission plans to run more of these sessions in different parts of the country, and welcomes contributors.
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.
The content of Andy Lewis’s presentation is available to read on his personal blog.
Jenny Lockwood and Lindsay Thorne’s presentation is available here.
The script of Jonathan Saunders’ presentation on behalf of Christian Concern is available here.