The good, the bad and the ugly: Religious Education at a crossroads
In this post, Imran Mogra, Senior Lecturer in Religious Education and Professional Studies, reflects on the recent publication of a report from the Commission on Religious Education. Note the link at the bottom of this post to join the debate on these important issues.
Last month the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) published its Interim Report Religious Education for All. The CoRE wishes to engage the public in developing their thinking on Religious Education over the next academic year. The future of RE, it believes, is in the balance and they conclude that a timely intervention is necessary if RE is to continue making its significant contribution to pupils’ education. The Commission has made recommendations in four key areas which they believe will reinvigorate the subject. The consultation is open until 9.00am on 4th December 2017. In this article, I reflect and react to some of their proposals.
Whilst there will be points of departure with some of their recommendations, nevertheless, the first point to make is that for anyone passionate and concerned about RE in schools, the stark warning by the Commission, who were unanimous in their view, that “RE faces a perilous future without strategic, urgent intervention”, should welcome this report.
The interim report makes for some fascinating and encouraging reading. For example, in the 2017 GCSE exams, Religious Studies was the fourth most popular subject, after English language, English literature, and mathematics, and just ahead of science. Nearly 300,000 pupils took the examination. This is a clear demonstration that the subject is considered relevant, valuable, interesting and worthy of study by many youngsters.
The value and benefits of RE are widely conceived by the Commission itself. They state that RE continues to be a vital academic subject for education in the 21st century. It gives young people
- the knowledge, understanding, and motivation they need to understand important aspects of human experience, including the religious, spiritual, and moral.
- RE gives insights into the arts, literature, history, and contemporary local and global social and political issues.
- It provides young people with a space in the curriculum to reflect on their own worldview and to engage with others whose worldview may be different.
This standpoint is apt as it allows students to understand themselves, the subject itself, intercultural issues and to engage with global dynamics.
Crucially, it gives voice to young people who articulate an instrumental role of RE. They said that “RE enables them to have better friendships, and to develop greater respect and empathy for others.” The views from employers are also welcome. The Commission reported that “RE is highly valued by many employers, who increasingly understand that, in a globalised world, understanding others’ world-views and their impact on people’s lives is essential to success” (p.3).
The evidence base of the report is wide and being independent gives confidence. The report is based on the knowledge and experience of the Commissioners and on oral evidence from 53 individuals and organisations at five evidence-gathering sessions in Birmingham, Exeter, London, Manchester and York, though East Anglia could also have featured. They also received 1,377 responses to an online survey, and 49 submissions by email.
Some of the findings are unsurprising. In outlining the variable standards and some persistent low standards in many schools, the report noted that where RE was good or better, it was a result of strong support for RE from senior leadership and governors, effective training, and good subject knowledge on the part of teachers. By contrast, poor standards were often the result of a lack of confidence on the part of teachers, inadequate ITT and CPD, and the high proportion of lessons taught by non-specialists at Secondary and non-teachers at primary.
The Commission should be congratulated for recommending that pupils in Key Stage 4 who do not take Religious Studies at GCSE should have their work accredited.
They endorse minimal entitlement for RE which is also advocated by several key organisations. Pragmatically, this is appealing in the current political and educational climate. All schools could be held accountable in meeting their legal obligation and in making appropriate provisions. ITT may have clearly defined parameters. Heads would be able to show how their vision and mission is in line with national entitlement. Professionally, in a climate of academisation and the increasing autonomy of individual schools, it will provide a single reference point for the subject, increasing the prospects of accountability, which is also a key recommendation of the report. However, faith communities hitherto less prominent, humanist, and other groups have been campaigning for more time and space within RE provision. On top of this, the role of local authorities in determining the syllabus of RE is also under consultation. Thus, there are various stakeholders poised to make their viewpoints and be considered in these debates.
The report leaves me with some questions:
- Who will translate the entitlement into a detailed programme of study?
- What will the outcomes be?
- Changing the name is being proposed, what impact will this have on the quality of provision, if any?
- It recommends a minimum 12 hours’ initial training for RE. Should this be accepted, how will other subjects square up with this?
- As an option, it sees funding for SACREs to come from the Department of Culture, media and Sport or the Department of Communities and local government, what about the Department of Education?
There are some recommendations which are controversial. Resolving these may prove challenging:
- Removing the right of withdrawal from parents.
- Faith schools’ ability to teach their own confessional syllabus should end.
In summary, the report highlights the good, the bad, and the ugly elements of RE. The time is ripe for a discussion on RE and its structure, aims and outcomes, accountability, syllabus, funding and legal issues. It identifies specific gaps and offers reasonable propositions in the unfolding landscape of education. It has several features which are impressive and there is much to commend. It also appears to be defensive in some respects and rightly warns against some fears which resonate with some in the RE community regarding the subject.
The call for evidence is available here: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/CoREConsult1
Join in this important debate and highlight the issues emerging in your context.
A PDF of the full set of questions, can be downloaded here to allow you to think about your responses before filling it in online, if you wish. You are not required to answer all of the questions.