Thursday, 10 October 2013

RE in the Catholic Secondary School


I had reason today to look up this essay that I wrote for my CCRS which I completed last year. I thought it was worth sharing... There is a lot of debate about the place of RE, and particularly how RE should be taught in Catholic (and other faith schools). This is certainly not a comprehensive account of all the issues, but gives some insight into the RE teacher in a Catholic school:
“Teachers should approach RE with the same professional skills which they bring to other areas of the curriculum.” Write an essay with this as your first sentence.


Teachers should approach RE with the same professional skills which they bring to other areas of the curriculum in the modern Catholic secondary school. Things have significantly changed since the 1870 Education Act which enshrined in law the provision of ‘Religious Instruction’ or R.I., and even since the 1988 Education Act which preferred the term ‘Religious Education’. A currently serving Section 5 and Section 48 inspector remarked in a recent Diocese training session, “RE in a Catholic school has a very real responsibility to be as rigorous and well-taught as any other subject in the school.” He went on to explain his vision of a Section 48 Diocese inspection being similar to a department Section 5 OFSTED inspection, to comparable standards and assessment made linking achievement and progress with English and other humanities subjects.

What are the professional skills the RE teacher needs?

I believe the RE teacher needs the same professional skills as any other teacher within the school. The number of students completing full course GCSE RE is at its highest with 239,123 full course entries (2012, Culham St Gabriel’s). This is despite its non-inclusion in the EBacc, and various reports of RE not being taught in some community schools (2011, Guardian). However despite RE being taught better than ever before, it is still sometimes perceived as ‘easy’ or ‘irrelevant’. As such, RE teachers need to be excellent practitioners, delivering their subject in a way that demands respect and acknowledgement.

This is just as true for RE teachers in a Catholic school. Despite having a distinct place within the curriculum, it is difficult to find the required full 10% in the timetable and students, parents and staff may not hold the subject in high regard despite making the conscious decision to attend or work at a Catholic school. Catholic RE teachers still need to be consistently good in their teaching and gain excellent results in order to maintain a positive view of the subject. Equally when the subject is rightly promoted as the ‘core of the core’, other staff will be looking to the RE Department to lead them and they must be equipped and prepared to do this.

In the modern RE Department, it would be inconceivable to contemplate the subject being taught without assessment or by not using up to date pedagogy and technology. Delivering RE in a didactic, solely teacher-lead way is becoming increasingly rare. Methods of active learning, independent study, and experiential activities are all a regular part of RE lessons in the Catholic school. Section 48 inspections also expect to see such classroom activities as part of their inspections, as noted in the introduction.

Does faith commitment lead to a lack of professional skills?

The shift from Religious Instruction to Religious Education reflected the movement from ‘instruction in’ Christianity (community schools) or a particular denomination (faith schools), to ‘education about’. In Roman Catholic schools, like in community schools, this was evident in the way that the subject was approached and the methodology used to teach it. The effects of prominent educational writers including psychologists and sociologists were reflected in all classrooms, including RE in the Catholic school.

However Catholic teachers have never been expected to hold a position of neutrality unlike colleagues in community schools. Whereas they would be expected to teach a balanced and objective view of all religions, it was entirely legal, and indeed preferable, that a Catholic teacher would express their faith commitment.

However for Catholic teachers it is made clear that this does not involve aggressive indoctrination as stated in The Religious Dimension of Education in the Catholic School:

“The religious freedom and the personal conscience of individual students and their families must be respected, and this freedom is explicitly recognized by the Church. On the other hand, a Catholic school cannot relinquish its own freedom to proclaim the Gospel and to offer a formation based on the values to be found in a Christian education; this is its right and its duty. To proclaim or to offer is not to impose, however; the latter suggests a moral violence which is strictly forbidden, both by the Gospel and by Church law.” (1965; n. 6-7)

I believe that from this, it is clear that faith commitment is not seen as a lack of professionalism within the Catholic context. Yet colleagues, even within the Catholic school, may perceive such bias as a lack of professional skills and that neutrality would be a more desirable stance.

However upon speaking with a colleague that teaches history, such bias can be evident in other subjects. She gave examples such as whether or not Richard III murdered his nephews or whether Anne Boleyn ‘got what she deserved’; history teachers will naturally have an opinion on such topics that they would share with the class. This would obviously be justified and the other side investigated, but they would have set out clearly, their view on a contentious and controversial topic. Another colleague who teachers biology highlighted the issues of teaching about Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to the discovery of DNA; some teachers play up, and some play down, her role depending on their personal view.

Can the conscience of the RE teacher lead to a lack of professional skills?

The importance of personal conscience and freedom of belief are clearly stated in The Religious Dimension of Education in the Catholic School (Ibid.). However to what extent is this true for the RE teacher who has freely accepted the vocation of teaching the Catholic faith to students? It could be argued that it is a lack of professional skills to not promote the teaching of the Catholic Church within Catholic RE lessons.

For example, the issue of same-sex marriage has challenged some Catholics. Some see it as a simple equality issue, while others think it is purely political debate. However the Church has aggressively pursued the issue asking the Catholic community to get actively involved. This creates a difficult issue for the RE teacher, or indeed any teacher in a Catholic school, who does not fully agree with the Churches view. This is an issue that was played out in the media and students often arrived at RE lessons with questions. There is a real responsibility to communicate the Church’s teaching, as with issues like contraception and sex before marriage.

It is commonly claimed, it is easier to teach RE in a Catholic school as you are helping students learn about a faith within the setting of that faith-community. It is natural to talk about personal faith, and indeed one’s own personal faith. Indeed in The Religious Dimension of Education in the Catholic School makes it a clear concern when faith commitment is not present in the teaching of RE:

“Religious instruction can become empty words falling on deaf ears, because the authentically Christian witness that reinforces it is absent from the school climate.” (n.104)

As such, I believe to be professional is to promote the Church’s teaching. If there is an issue with personal conscience, the member of staff needs to have considered their own view sufficiently to avoid confusing students and giving a distorted view of Church teaching. In Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, he points out the danger of what has been termed as ‘A La Carte Catholicism’ whereby people choose what they want to believe and follow:

“Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole. Each period of history can find this or that point of faith easier or harder to accept: hence the need for vigilance in ensuring that the deposit of faith is passed on in its entirety (cf. 1 Tim 6:20) and that all aspects of the profession of faith are duly emphasized. Indeed, inasmuch as the unity of faith is the unity of the Church, to subtract something from the faith is to subtract something from the veracity of communion.” (n. 48)


I firmly believe that RE teachers need to be as good as any others in the school. It is not acceptable for other departments to be working towards excellence and an OFSTED Outstanding rating while the RE department simply claim they are distinct, separate and essentially different to everyone else. There is a great responsibly to be the primary educators, and as discussed in a previous CCRS essay, the school is now very much the option for the spiritually poor. The education of the faith often does come primarily from the school rather than the home or parish; therefore it needs to be done well.

Students and parents also have a right to demand a high quality of teaching and effective learning in the Catholic RE classroom. There are great opportunities for Catholic RE teachers to deliver the Curriculum Directory in a way that reflects the most up to date pedagogy and educational thinking. In the best Catholic RE departments, they lead the school in teaching and learning, as they realise the great importance in communicating their subject. To be failing to deliver RE in this way is to do a disservice. RE teachers professional skills and faith commitment should be both implicit and explicit in all they do.


Life-Light (2012) “Life-Light Home Study Courses”

Congregation for Catholic Education (1965) “The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School: Guidelines for Reflection and Renewal”

Pope Francis (2013) “Lumen Fidei”



·         Schools breaking law by not teaching religious studies, poll finds -

·         Record number of students in Wales taking RE at GCSE -

·         Culham St Gabriel’s Welcomes GCSE Religious Studies Results -

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