A reflection on Government policies on the subject of religious education: misunderstandings and the way forward.

or my working title was

Even when Michael Gove gets it right, he still gets it wrong!

Given at Subject and Subjectivities Conference, Edgehill University, 10/7/13

This is a couple of years old and some of the changes have been halted (eg bursaries, etc) but it still highlights the need for people to understand the nature and purpose of RE.

Religious Education in English schools has taken a battering from some of the policies of the coalition government. The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove tacitly acknowledged such last week; speaking of its compulsory nature he said:

I think, if I’m being honest, over the last three years I’ve thought, ‘well that’s protection enough’, and therefore I’ve concentrated on other areas. Therefore, I think that RE has suffered as a result of my belief that the protection of it was sufficient and I don’t think that I’ve done enough.

I am not convinced that this was little more than a pragmatic statement faced by a group of Church of England Bishops, but I may be proven wrong. What have the Government’s policies been that have contributed to the increased marginalisation of RE? The recent All Party Parliamentary Group Report on RE highlighted some of the challenges that have been faced in the secondary phase in particular:

  • Chief among these is the loss of a national adviser for RE at QCDA. In addition to analysing annual SACRE reports, this adviser had helped Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs) perform their task knowledgeably and provided key information and curriculum materials on a level and with a consistency that could never be matched locally.
  • For RE to keep abreast of other curriculum subjects its inclusion in the 2011-13 national curriculum review was essential. On 18 July 2010 the Secretary of State in reply to a question from Chris Bryant (Rhondda) gave his assurance that ‘As part of our curriculum review later this year, we shall address…religious education'(ii). However in the event RE was excluded from the review and no alternative measures were taken to ensure that, for the sake of schools, RE’s place in the curriculum was considered alongside the other subjects to facilitate the school’s overall planning.
  • After 2014, short course GCSEs will not be recognised in the headline measures of a school’s performance.
  • In 2011 RE was excluded from the English Baccalaureate (EBacc). In some schools that I have visited this has meant that there is no RE provision after Year 9.
  • Government targets for recruiting RE trainee teachers have been significantly reduced. As a result several university departments, including some outstanding providers, have closed. They had not only trained new RE teachers but also contributed to local RE through SACRE membership and by providing continuing professional development.
  • From 2013 bursaries for RE trainee teachers have been withdrawn. Over my four years in Higher Education this means that my numbers have dropped from 25 to 6; and without bursaries it is now more difficult to fill those 6 than it ever was to fill 25.
  • All but the strongest SACREs are now struggling to meet their responsibilities. The extension of the academies programme together with local authority cut backs have resulted in the loss of funding and of time for advisers and consultants who provided professional support to SACREs. SACREs’ role has been undermined by the decision to allow academies not to teach the locally agreed syllabus, or indeed any agreed syllabus.

A further discussion point is the way that the DfE measure the number of RE teachers. The APPG importantly makes the point that ‘The DfE meanwhile is undermining RE by giving tacit approval to the extensive use of non specialists by including them in its workforce data about RE teachers.’ If I use my own experience as an example; I worked in a school where twelve people contributed to the teaching of Religious Education. Only two of us were qualified to teach Religious Education, however, in the DfE statistics the school would have had twelve Re teachers (even though the main specialism and teaching focus of the others would have been classed by the school and the teacher as either psychology, sociology, history and the like).

Why has there been such a marginalisation of a subject that has such value. Indeed, in the same week that Michael Gove acknowledged RE might have suffered in England, we have reports of record numbers of school pupils taking RE GCSE in Wales; and also a report of a project that sounds remarkably similar to RE in Kosovo established by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.  Charlotte Keenan, chief executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation which has developed the projectproject, says they want to support efforts to counter religious conflict.

We believe that in order to truly understand the modern world, you must understand religion’s impact upon it.”

So why is there a question about its importance? With so many unfriendly policies to RE it has led some in the profession to question the Department for Education’s, and in particular Michael Gove’s, understanding of the nature of RE. In some ways Mr Gove is like the school teacher who is asked by the pupils; ‘Why do we have to study RE?’ The flippant and uninformed answer is ‘You have to, the law says so.’ This answer misses so much of the richness and value that RE brings to the students’ lives. Why is this the answer that Mr Gove and others give? It is because they have a flawed understanding of the nature of RE. It seems as though Mr Gove may well have been basing his view on RE on the experiences he had when he was in school, or on some archaic understanding of what RE is all about; he seems to be working from a faulty research base. Recently, however, in lauding the importance of Inter-faith week he has said:

Without doubt the constructive working and mutual understanding between faiths in this country is one of our greatest strengths. Educating children about different faiths is of immense importance in leading children to understand the history that has helped shape the values and traditions of this country, and of other countries and cultures. The extended Inter Faith Week that will take place in November this year gives even more opportunity for schools and young people to participate, and I hope they will take advantage of this to build new partnerships and celebrate the diversity that exists across the UK.”

At first glance, Mr Gove does seem to “get” RE, as he outlines the “immense importance” of learning about different faiths. However, on closer examination Mr Gove’s comments highlight the same lack of understanding of the nature of RE as shown in the policy missteps of the last couple of years. He suggests that learning about faiths is important “to understand the history that has helped shape the values and traditions” of the United Kingdom. Religious Education is about far more than a historical examination of religions; yes, the impact of religions on values and culture is of importance, but in today’s world understanding the impact of religions and religious beliefs on people’s lives is of far more immediate relevance.

This same lack of understanding was shown by, then School’s Minister, Nick Gibb when he spoke to the RE Council of England and Wales last year. He spoke positively of religion as a “Rosetta stone” to help understand different subjects. Then, to exemplify his point he continued:

A pupil who understands the religious context can walk into a nation’s great art collections and appreciate the nuanced iconography of paintings by men like Giotto and El Greco. A pupil who understands the restrained faith of the Quakers can appreciate the growth of London today as a financial powerhouse. A pupil who understands the great mathematical advances and discoveries under the Caliphs can appreciate how the first great European explorers navigated to new worlds.

In response to this point Ed Pawson, then chair of the National Association of Teachers of RE, welcomed the sentiment but extended it to include the use of a Rosetta stone to help understand people today. Religious Education does not just seek tolerance which may come through the knowledge that Mr Gove and Mr Gibb suggest, rather understanding which can only come through an exploration of the impact of religion today on the lives of people and society. Multi-faith Britain cannot be celebrated if religious education is limited to the study of history and facts. As my students begin their training to be teachers of Religious Education I highlight the point that we are not preparing pupils for a pub quiz: being able to recite a list of facts is secondary to understanding and celebrating the impact of religion on a person’s life. For example, is it more important to be able to list the times or positions of prayer in Islam, or to understand the reasons why Muslims pray and why it is such an integral part of a large number of Muslim’s lives? Is it more important to be able to decode the imagery in Christian art, or to understand the impact that such art can have on a believer?

The Department for Education, and the coalition Government, seem to miss the point of RE. If I were to list my aims as a teacher of RE I’m sure that history would not make my top five:

  1. To stimulate interest and enjoyment in Religious Education.
  2. To prepare pupils to be informed, respectful members of society who celebrate diversity and strive to understand others.
  3. To encourage students to develop knowledge of the beliefs and practices of religions; and informed opinions and an awareness of the implications of religion for the individual, the community and the environment.
  4. To give all students equal access to Religious Education and provide enjoyment and success.
  5. To develop pupils’ own responses to questions about the meaning and purpose of life (see Holt, Religious Education in the Secondary School, Routledge, 2015)

As a side note the word tolerance is nowhere to be found in these aims. We could rephrase number 2 as ‘To prepare pupils to be informed, tolerant members of society.’ I personally don’t like the idea of the word ‘tolerance’, and it is beginning to be replaced by celebration and respect. I do not want people merely to tolerate religious views, rather to understand and respect them. I tolerate things that I dislike. RE brings so much value to the pupils that study it and consequently the society in which these children live. In 2008 the Independent discussed the role that RE plays:

Whenever I come out of RE my head is exploding with questions and my whole body aches – this is not because I don’t understand – it is because I’m buzzing with new thoughts,” one 12-year-old girl told the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) in answer to a website survey.

It’s easy to see why. Today’s children are growing up in a world beset by problems, and yet have few opportunities to consider the big questions of life. They are under pressure from tests and targets in school, and bombarded by commercial messages outside. They are growing up in a world in which the consolations and certainties of church-going have faded, but where fears about climate change and terrorism stalk the headlines. In such choppy waters, RE can be the steadying influence pupils badly need…

Religious education has been a part of classroom life since before state schooling began and has gone through many incarnations. Dull Bible lessons slowly gave way to lessons that introduced pupils to the Five Pillars of Islam or the Five Ks of Sikhism. These have led to more flexible and interactive courses of study, in which pupils examine how religious beliefs interact with moral, ethical and cultural issues.

Consider my own experience teaching a group of Year 7 pupils on September 12 2001 last period in the afternoon. The children were distracted and anxious. We were supposed to exploring the Hindu belief in God. This normally angelic class struggled to maintain focus. I asked them what was wrong. Their reply was that they were worried about further terror attacks, and they did not understand what was going on in the world around them. They had spent the previous 24 hours in such a state, fuelling one another’s worries. We abandoned Hindu beliefs about god and explored the events of the previous day. We explored the religious beliefs that might have led to such actions; the questions it raised about God and religion; and also the responses of religions to the events. This was not the Year 7 RE lesson of my school days where I had to learn the books of the Bible. Children were confronting the issues of the world around them, and constructing their understanding and response to them

Religious Education is a subject which is often misunderstood. A spokesperson for the National Secular Society recently opposed the teaching of Religious Education on BBC breakfast citing ‘proselytisation’ as its major focus. Whether purposeful or not he was obfuscating and using his opposition to faith schools as a stick with which to beat RE. In a similar way, Mr Gove is using a flawed premise about RE to underpin his policy decisions and his impression of its importance. Even when he sounds as though he understands he really does not, and needs to explore the basis of his decisions in greater detail. We must go beyond the pub quiz, or even the Rosetta stone approach; in this way, we may get policies that are both informed and recognise the true nature of RE.

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