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What is Religious Education? And Who Sets the Agenda?

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Our guest blogger Dr Joyce Miller is Chair of the RE Council.

All opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the RE Council.

In a recent speech at the RSA, shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt addressed the question ‘Who should have the power to create the school curriculum?’  His answer was teachers and head teachers, through the opening up of opportunities for them to be more creative and autonomous in curriculum design, employing new technologies to aid learning and thereby increasing pupils’ motivation and attainment. He also talked about the ‘social mission’ of education and the promoting of ‘social justice’.

This raises some very important questions about the purpose and aims of education as a whole: Is it about increasing opportunity? Raising attainment? Contributing to the economy? Improving society? All of these? And who decides priorities?

The place of Religious Education in the (maintained) school curriculum as locally determined puts it in a unique position in relation to the curriculum as a whole and who ‘owns’ it. By law, agreed syllabus conferences consisting of local representatives of religions, teacher organisations and the local authority have the task of agreeing what should be taught and to what end, for all pupils throughout their schooling.  It is a hugely complex and responsible task, the outcome of which is then passed on to teachers to use as the basis for their classroom planning.

There is on-going debate among educationalists and beyond about RE – its nature and its purpose- and sometimes there is evidence from research projects that takes us by surprise. For example, at a recent All Party Parliamentary Group oral evidence session into RE and community relations it was stated that only 27% of primary and 24% of secondary subject leaders rated learning about religions as very important in RE.  What those subject leaders did rate as important was character formation in primary schools and dealing with ultimate questions and thinking critically about religion in secondary schools. Other interesting evidence came from the recent major research project Does RE Work? conducted by the University of Glasgow which found no fewer than 13 different aims in the RE teaching they observed.

Are these worrying pieces of information? Do they suggest confusion about aims or do they reflect a plurality of purpose? Is this a subject in which teachers don’t really know what they’re doing and why, or is it effectively fulfilling many and varied purposes in different classrooms round the country?  We know from Ofsted and other sources that the quality of RE teaching and learning is not as good as it could be. On the other hand, we also know that there is a great deal of outstandingly good practice taking place led by committed and enthusiastic teachers.  Those good teachers will have differing understandings of their subject and its educational priorities.

The question of what should be taught and why are matters that we need to continually re-address. Every school and every teacher of RE needs to develop a philosophy of religious education that is coherent and rigorous and subject to scrutiny, which then underpins the approaches to RE adopted, within a whole-school context that promotes a holistic education for the children and young people in their care.

For many teachers and politicians, promoting community cohesion is one of the main aims of RE and there is an argument that it can prevent the radicalisation of young people – though, of course, these are not the responsibility of RE alone. By increasing young people’s understanding of difference, we can promote equality and respect; by teaching them how to think critically about texts and authority we can prevent others taking advantage of their immaturity or insecurity; by developing empathy and curiosity we can help them develop their potential as human beings who are responsible and informed members of society.

But some of this can be uncomfortable for RE professionals, particularly in relation to preventing violent extremism. Is our subject being subverted so that it is an instrument of the state?  Do we want to be part of a political initiative that is interpreted by some as contributing to fear of a religious and ethnic minority group?

There are many answers to these questions but perhaps two will suffice for now.  However much some might rail against the idea of education being an instrument of the state, it is the case that in publically funded schools, the state has the right to demand something for its money. Teachers and governors have to be accountable and there have to be broader social as well as educational benefits to society as a whole from the expensive provision of compulsory schooling.

The second answer is that in my experience as a teacher, young people do have a strong commitment to social justice and they both expect and need the opportunity to explore some of the complex socio-political issues that they see in the world around them. These inevitably include questions about race and equality, and about religion and violent extremism. The criterion to apply to the demands that are being made on schools is whether or not they have a sound educational purpose and then to be able to articulate a justification for their inclusion – or omission – from the curriculum. Addressing questions about society and conflict, engaging in dialogue about difference, asking questions about humanity – who we are and how we live together – these and other issues help schools to promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and it is essential that these are at the heart of educational endeavour if we are to avoid a reductionist view of education in which everything has to be easily quantifiable.

I have never met anyone who went into teaching in order that a school can reach its floor targets or that x% of pupils will gain five A*-C grades at GCSE.  If we are to liberate teachers and their pupils to engage in a joint learning endeavour that is broad and balanced, rigorous and relevant, challenging and fun then we need to open minds and hearts to some of the most difficult questions that life presents, and some of these will be part of the state’s agenda.

Some of the UK’s leading thinkers on religion and public life will be at our conference…will you? Book now!

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