Earlier this year, I asked if we should still be teaching RE. During the course of this year, RE Commissioners have collected evidence and points of view about Religious Education from a wide range of contexts. After visiting many schools and sifting through mountains of written and oral evidence, the Commissioners recently published their interim report Religious Education for All. This is to be followed by the full report in September 2018.
The overwhelming conclusion from the process to date is that we should certainly still be teaching RE – that question is no longer being debated. But the Commissioners now have the difficult task of determining what that should look like in a multicultural society where many think that religion is merely an historical artefact. To help in these deliberations, a period of consultation has just started, during which anyone is free to register a view – you can check through the consultation questions here.
First, the history of RE teaching in this country, which is best understood as an eccentrically English phenomenon. Religious Education is a statutory subject – every school must teach RE to the age of 16 and every school should be inspected for its RE provision. Faith schools write their own curricula, teaching RE through the lens of their particular faith. Before the state got involved in education (and compared with Christians, they were very late to the party) this was essentially either Anglican or Catholic. The Jewish faith also has a long tradition of education in the UK. These schools not only provide their own curricula, they are also inspected by diocesan inspectors – Ofsted cannot inspect RE provision in a school with a religious designation. One suggestion is that this should be standardised and under some form of central control.
All other schools used to follow a Locally Agreed Syllabus, produced by their Local Authority’s Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE). As academies and free schools are able to design their own curricula, they don’t have to use the Agreed Syllabus. In fact, the evidence shows that many academies and free schools have taken advantage of this freedom and don’t teach any RE at all. They are breaking the law with impunity and Ofsted is doing nothing about it.
One solution to the range of provisions that have evolved is to establish a National Entitlement to RE by which all schools, regardless of their status, would be bound. You can find the proposed entitlement on page 12 of the consultation document. It would certainly offer cohesion and clarity, whilst still allowing faith schools to teach according to the tenets of their own faith. Questions 53-57 give you an opportunity to comment on a National Plan, which relates to training and provision. You can also comment on how schools should be held to account for RE teaching. This is important to ensure that all schools actually offer effective RE teaching, and that no faith school exclusively teaches its own faith.
Another of the points from the Commissioners report relates to expanding the role of SACREs, which they suggest could take a key lead in RE teaching. You can comment on the structure of a SACRE in the consultation (questions 44-49). Currently, every Local Authority (LA) has to fund a SACRE. Some are excellent; others less effective. They consist of 4 groups of people. There are Christian denominations and other religions, which each provide one representative: this group should reflect the local religious context. The Church of England nominates its own representatives from the diocese. Teachers and heads are invited to join by the LA, and the LA itself provides members which should reflect the political viewpoints of the area. Governors can also be included.
A contentious issue on which you may wish to comment is that of parental opt-out (questions 50-52). The advice of the Commission is that removing the parental opt-out would prove legally very difficult, but there are strong views on both sides of the argument. The provision is open to misuse –there is growing evidence that parents are removing their children from parts of the curriculum with which they disagree – this simply reinforces negative stereotypes and deprives children of the chance to understand the multicultural society in which they are growing up. On the other hand, removing parental opt-out completely brings its own problems and it’s impossible to guarantee that what is taught will always remain non-confessional. There is also a powerful argument in favour of retaining opt-out simply because any further erosion by the state of parental rights and responsibilities should be opposed.
When you have finished reflecting on how best to structure RE in contemporary, pluralist society, share your thoughts with the Commissioners by submitting evidence. This is an exciting opportunity to express your views on the shape RE teaching for the future, to ensure that it is a vibrant, relevant part of every school’s provision and every student’s entitlement.