Religious Education is a statutory subject which must be taught in all schools. There are constant calls from those embracing the ideology of a secular state for it to be removed from the curriculum. But the vital question is not ‘Should we be teaching RE?’ but, ‘How should we be teaching RE?’ The Commission for Religious Education, the body which is responsible for advising on legal, education and policy frameworks, is currently seeking answers to that question through a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity to think deeply and broadly about the character, significance and role of religious education in our current local, national and global context’.
The importance of religious education and the compelling case for it to remain statutory is well argued by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead in their 2015 document ‘A New Settlement’ They present the case for children to be brought up with an understanding of the historical and social significance of religions, and how they have shaped diverse human behaviours and values. They write persuasively of the need for religious literacy as we navigate a multicultural society in a global context. They want to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach that reduces religion to a sociological phenomenon and they want all schools to follow a common curriculum, regardless of their religious character or ethos. Is that enough?
No, because studying religion as a series of cultural artefacts in order to improve cohesion and global communication is to miss the point altogether. Religions seek to answer the big questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? To deny students the opportunity to consider these questions and to pursue a search for truth is to deny them the path to personal answers.
There is growing pressure from various ideologues for RE to be diluted to the point where it becomes an amalgam of world religions. The result of this approach is people who know a range of facts about religion but have no understanding of individual belief. It is vital that the distinctive nature of each religion is taught: we all believe something and in believing something, we necessarily reject everything else. That is how we develop a personal system of belief and it is an opportunity that high quality RE teaching should provide.
In teaching the distinctive beliefs of each religion, it’s important that Christianity remains the core study. Although we live in a pluralist society, it’s a society founded on Christian values and principles. Many of our great thinkers, scientists and social reformers were motivated by their faith, so Christianity underpins our heritage – it would be quite simple to argue that Christianity is a core British value and as such, should be understood by everyone living in Britain, regardless of their personal worldview.
There are concerns, regularly expressed in the media, about the continued existence of church school RE curricula, which are determined by each diocese, rather than the local authority. Critics argue that church schools are successful because they cherry pick the brightest pupils, even though the evidence clearly shows otherwise. They are successful because their curricula are founded on a Christian worldview which focuses on human flourishing, not on test results. To impose a common RE curriculum on Christian schools is to entirely miss the point – faith is the DNA of each school’s ethos. Diluting RE will not change that, although it will deny pupils the opportunity to understand the Christian faith on which their education is founded and to make up their own minds about what they learn.
The future of RE teaching in our schools is at stake, so it’s important to make your views known. Anyone with an interest in religious education can respond to the call for evidence – simply click on the survey and answer the questions. A list of the questions is also provided so that you can take time to think about your responses in advance. The consultation closes at 9am on Monday morning (13 February) so you don’t have long. But it is vitally important that you log your views and argue the case for religious education to retain Christianity as the core religion for study; for the distinctive theology of each faith to be taught, and for the curriculum to allow time for pupils to evaluate what they hear and to reflect on their personal responses to belief.