RE IN THE 21ST CENTURY – Christians in Education

The RE Commission is currently in the process of gathering evidence as part of a significant review of the legal, education and policy frameworks for RE teaching. Below is my presentation to the Birmingham session.

Should we still be teaching RE in the 21st century? In a recent ComRes survey, conducted just last month, 46% of those asked said they believe in life after death, 46% did not and 8% didn’t know. Surprisingly, 25% of people identifying as Christians did not believe in the resurrection of Christ, but 9% of non-religious people said they did. In 2015, a YouGov survey showed that 65% of British adults believe in God or some form of higher power.

Although various interest groups have each made claims for their cause from these statistics, what they prove beyond doubt is a significant interest in spirituality. It is by no means the simple binary issue of religious versus non-religious worldviews that it is often made out to be and we shouldn’t accept without question the assumption that the ‘nones’ are therefore indicative of the replacement of a Christian society with a humanist or secularist one. These, too, are belief choices and it’s a logical fallacy to suggest that ‘don’t know’ means anything more than just, ‘don’t know’ – which in itself is a powerful argument for nurturing religious literacy in our schools.

In the light of this, should Christianity be privileged in a pluralist society? Yes, I think it should. The argument of Christian heritage has been well made elsewhere, so I will just add to the debate a thought from T S Eliot, writing in The Idea of a Christian Society. He posited that, ‘A society has not ceased to be Christian until it has become positively something else’. We haven’t yet become that ‘something else’.

And because of that, it makes the question of common entitlement a vital one. I think it would help to build cohesion across our education service, management of which is becoming increasingly diverse and disparate. It would create common ground in the public square. But that, however, is as far as statutory requirement should go. I strongly defend the right of governors, school leaders and managers to determine their own local curriculum content. The imposition of a single, centralised curriculum is many steps too far towards totalitarian control and the possibility of state indoctrination by a government of the day.

Turning to RE teaching and learning in the primary sector, you don’t need me to tell you that the situation in many schools is dire. Not only is it the Cinderella subject of the curriculum, with many teachers lacking training, confidence, interest (or all of the above) in its teaching, it’s also a casualty of the curriculum narrowing which is an inevitable outcome of the prevalent culture of measurement. As heads and governors grapple with funding cuts and as teaching styles move inexorably towards a didactic, transmission model, Cinderella’s neglect is likely to become more entrenched.

So should we let primary RE quietly demise? Absolutely not – we should address the problems and find solutions. Although the role of SACREs is under scrutiny for a raft of reasons, they’re a lifeline to many primary school teachers and with only about 13% of primaries converting to academies, Agreed Syllabus still forms the basis of much primary RE. SACREs also reflect local context and community, which is vital to the teaching of belief in any meaningful way.

While we can request better training and more funding for CPD, it’s unlikely to be substantially forthcoming, so we need to explore other ways to support primary RE, even if that means redefining the structure and role of SACREs, creating a network of outreach schools, and looking to secondary schools for support.

The challenge in primary RE is to ensure that there is rigour in its teaching. It’s not just about stories (although these are a vital ingredient of all good primary phase teaching), or about exploring or creating artefacts. Nor is it only about philosophy (what is believed?) or sociology (what impact does this belief have on community, culture and therefore society?). It must also be about the essence of belief – what does this person believe, why do they believe it and what effect does it have on their personhood? To achieve this, we have to retain the distinctiveness of each belief system we teach and avoid syncretism either as a solution to a shortage of curriculum time or to avert charges of indoctrination.

Let me conclude with a couple of examples of practice which explain what I mean. It’s common for Key Stage 1 pupils to make Diwali lamps; to listen to the story of Lakshmi; to draw rangoli patterns, and to learn about Hindus spring cleaning, wearing new clothes, exchanging gifts and sharing meals in celebration. It may well link with learning about light in science. These are all perfectly valid teaching activities which develop manual dexterity, mathematical skills, language, social interaction and understanding of the physics of light. But they offer no spiritual content. For that, pupils need time to reflect on good and evil; light and darkness; knowledge and ignorance. They need to explore why it’s important to Hindus to celebrate goodness and knowledge with a festival of light and why it might be important to them personally to similarly value goodness and knowledge.

In Key Stage 2, questions about existence start to emerge in discussion. How did I come to be? Where do I belong in the world? What is my potential? Martin Boroson’s book Becoming Me, A Story of Creation, is a powerful resource for considering our origins. Likewise Hello? Is Anybody There? by Norwegian philosopher, Jostein Gaarder for upper Key Stage 2. They don’t proselytise. They don’t indoctrinate. They teach in the best possible way – prompting questions about the meaning of existence, whether we are part of something greater than ourselves, and how we are connected both to things and each other. They allow pupils to reflect and form their own opinions. They’re excellent starting points for considering the Judaeo-Christian understanding of our created world, because they move from the world of the child to the world beyond and back to the world of the child for personal response.

So, whatever it takes to achieve it, we must aim for better training, strong subject leadership, a curriculum designed for local context and, above all, the opportunity for pupils to learn about, reflect on, and personally respond to, the distinctive nature of beliefs.