Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Author Archives: Rachael Shillitoe

What Can Be Said About Religion & Young People? Ask Them!

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Guest blogger Rachael Shillitoe is a PhD student at Worcester University. Her research ‘Collective Worship: Foregrounding the Child’s Perspective’ is part of the wider Leverhulme Trust funded project, ‘Faith on the Air’.

Every day it seems, a new article or report emerges which questions the subject of religion and young people, and increasingly such attention focuses on the role of religion in schools. Matters of identity, practice, belief and faith are a constant source of media attention and a battleground for politicians and their political agendas. Such debates intensify when this involves religion and state education. Teeming with fears of indoctrination, questions over suitability and appropriateness of religion in schools; the increasing calls to protect children from radicalisation are a daily part of our media diet. But when reading such articles, how many times do we hear from the students themselves? With arguments and debates mainly based on “expert” perspectives and political agendas, are we really getting the whole picture or is there something drastically missing from such conversations?

When I started researching collective worship in schools, I was surprised by the lack of literature that demonstrated children and young people’s opinion on the subject. The voice of the child in research (perhaps especially in the study of religion) has for a long time been missing and at best marginalised. Now, this isn’t to say that the perspectives of adults are inherently wrong or inconsequential, but surely in order to have a well-rounded argument and proper insight into religion in schools (or religion and young people more generally), we need to listen to the very people we are talking about?

We need to take the opinions and thoughts of children and young people seriously and not rely on long held adult-orientated assumptions of what religion means to young people. These assumptions can sometimes be simplistic and neglect the nuanced and complex realities of young people’s everyday lives. Such accounts also run the risk of seeing children as purely vulnerable and passive subjects, rather than agents who have the capacity and ability to create their own meaning and affect change. Foregrounding the perspectives of children and young people forces us to push and change our ideas about religion in public life and re-evaluate the methods we use to study this topic.

Before starting my PhD, my career was mostly within youth work /social action sector. I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of young people on a variety of projects for the betterment of their community and wider society, and experienced first-hand the positive changes and action that young people are capable of when given the support and genuine opportunity to do so. The young people I worked with developed and implemented their own social action projects that made a positive difference to their communities. Such projects were youth-led which meant that from the very start, young people were given decision making power and provided with the resources which enabled them to develop and deliver innovative projects. A number of young people’s projects focused on issues relating to religion and community cohesion. Such projects resulted in a whole host of creative and dynamic activities, from community events to photography exhibitions. The impact was tangible; these projects enabled members of the community to come together. They were accessible, fun, engaging and allowed for increased participation on a big scale.

Working with young people on such projects not only resulted in positive and impactful projects, but also enabled them to develop the necessary skills and competencies required to continue to make a difference. I think that it is vital we engage with children and young people on such matters and provide them with the platform and tools to create social change. This way we can help to ensure that any changes or developments which affect young people are meaningful and put them first.

Increasing steps are being taken to make space and provide opportunities for young people to be heard. For example, in February I had the opportunity to attend RE for Real: A consultation on what works and what needs to change, organised by Westminster Faith Debates. This debate sought to explore the place and role of RE in schools and the various strengths and aims of the subject while considering the areas for development and change. A vital aspect of this event was the inclusion of young people who shared their thoughts and experiences of RE in school, as well as offering their ideas for the future; such as the importance of debates and discussions within RE. Research is also making positive steps in this direction. Within academia, there are some innovative and insightful research projects being undertaken. Much of this work is demonstrating the need to challenge assumptions as well as the need to understand the experiences of children and young people in the broader and often more complex context of their everyday lives.

Recently Nicola Madge, Peter Hemming, Kevin Stenson et al. explored the development of religious and non-religious identities among young people in Britain. This team of researchers utilised innovative methods which throughout the project ensured that the voices of the young people involved were heard. Uniquely, this study also pays attention to the importance and relevance of non-beliefs and how identities are negotiated and managed within a pluralistic and multi-cultural society. The findings of the Youth on Religion project, demonstrated the importance of personal agency and that the development or negotiation of non/religious identity is formed through a highly complex and nuanced interface between young people’s biological, physical and cognitive development, as well as their experiences of religious and non-religious beliefs and practices in a variety of settings and contexts. The study also notes the importance of liberal individualism, personal choice, rights, and tolerance for young people. Although the overall findings show a predominately positive picture of young people’s negotiation of faith and non-faith identity, the authors call for more attention to be paid to the experiences and opinions of young people.

Sociologist Grace Davie in the forward to ‘Youth on Religion’ stated that young people are ‘social scientists in their own right: their perceptions sharp and their comments interesting’. I couldn’t agree more. With religion in schools gaining increasing interest, it is crucial that we engage with and are listening to the views and opinions of children and young people, while ensuring that they have a genuine platform and opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions on such matters. After all, who can tell us more about religion and young people, than the young people themselves?


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