The Light is shining on Religious Education in England

Imran Mogra is a Senior Lecturer in religious education and professional studies, and a member of CSPACE. He is Departmental Research Co-ordinator of the Department of Early Years and Primary Education. In this post, Imran discusses a recent report proposing a national plan for religious education. Follow Imran on twitter @imranmogra.

Religion and Worldviews The Way Forward A National Plan for RE 2On September 12th 2018, the Commission on Religious Education (RE) launched its final report Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward: A National Plan for RE, making eleven far-reaching recommendations for the future of the study of RE. The report is an important step in promoting further debate about the purpose, structure, legal framework and organisation of this important subject.

The review was undertaken as a response to major concerns expressed over the years regarding the overall dwindling status, quality and provision of RE in schools. Of the varied and broad recommendations, probably the most significant, innovative, and perhaps controversial, is the creation of a statutory national entitlement for all children in public schools. The Commission conducted a two-year period of consultation, evidence gathering session and engaged with individuals and interested parties, which resulted in the publication of Interim Report.

This important report is welcomed for highlighting some of the issues troubling the RE community, schools and teachers. Its significance ought to be considered in light of the vision it sets out for the new National Plan for RE so that RE is retained as an academically rigorous and a knowledge-rich preparation for life in a world of great religion and belief diversity. The Foreword highlights that the report:

  • Offers a new vision: The subject should explore the important role that religious and non-religious worldviews play in all human life.
  • All pupils should have access to high quality teaching, whatever school they attend.
  • There should be significant investment – finance, teacher development and local structures

It recommends that the name be changed to Religion and Worldviews. This is certainly going to prove irksome for some, but will be welcomed by others. Perhaps it is intended to indicate a new aspirational dawn for RE. However, I am not wholly convinced about the impact that the change might have, should it hinge solely on the idea of being inclusive, i.e. of ‘worldviews’. The QCA 2004 had recommended that for a broad and balance RE, there should be opportunities for all pupils to study secular philosophies such as humanism and many local syllabuses do include secular philosophies. Nevertheless, as with previous questions raised about the breadth of scope in terms of which religious should be included, I see the use of ‘worldviews’ leading to a similarly problematic debate about which non-religious worldviews to include and for what purposes. It is important to ask what the inclusion/exclusion criteria will be.

According to recommendation 2, a national entitlement to the study of Religion and Worldviews should become statutory for all publicly funded schools. Since the beginning of the process, I have found my position in relation to the proposal of a statutory national entitlement moving in a pendulum-like swing. How will such an entitlement guarantee a significant increase in the quantity of high-quality teaching? Is it so with history and geography, for example? On the other hand, it might strengthen assessment and monitoring, which may impact positively on school attitudes to valuing this subject. It can certainly guarantee a curriculum for ‘all’ pupils in all types of schools so that a situation can be created whereby a baseline of religious literacy is delivered nationally. Of course, it is important to temper this with a note of caution. How will such a programme be enforced through Ofsted inspections?

It says that a programme of study should be developed by a national body of a maximum of nine professionals, including serving teachers. The emphasis on professionals appears to be a clear message for the determination of the nature of the subject to be within the confines of education, which is vital for addressing misunderstandings and the myth about RE being confessional and indoctrinatory in schools. The inclusion of serving teachers is also welcomed, as there is the clear potential for the body to be kept informed by insider viewpoints and from those working on the ground. It states that this body ‘could choose’ to take advice from other organisations where appropriate, though some might perceive this as watering down the role of faith communities, stakeholders in this debate?

There has been considerable debate and concern about the removal of the right of withdrawal from the subject. Currently, parents can withdraw their children from RE. The report recommends that the DfE should review the right of withdrawal and provide legal clarification. Calling on the DfE ‘to review’ seems that a softer approach has been taken by the Commission. It presents a clear indication that the removal of this will remain a thorny issue. To alleviate concerns related to withdrawal it expects the DfE to work with school leaders to develop a code of good practice for managing the right of withdrawal. Unfortunately, the report offers very little in terms of evidence and direct voices of those who wish for this right to be retained.

There is much to commend in this independent report: the proposals to raise the profile and significance of the subject, the need for well-trained teachers, improvements and funding in CPD, the continuation of the statutory nature of the subject up to KS4, incorporating the subject into vocational qualifications.

The eleven recommendations are significant for moving this debate on and stimulate a different kind of conversation about this important, yet often neglected, subject. It remains for the government to consider them thoroughly at a time when there appears to be a decline in religious literacy, seemingly in correlation with increasing levels of prejudice, fear, hatred and violence.

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