Sunday 23 October 2016

Battle for Ideas 2016: Battle for Education - Religious Education in a Secular Age

Religious Education in a Secular Age
Sunday 23rd October 2016
12-1pm - Frobisher Auditorium 2

It was a privilege to be invited to speak on a panel about RE at my first Battle of Ideas hosted by the Institute of Ideas. Here I share my opening remarks in full, I deviated slightly, but not by much. I will also include my responses to some of the questions and comments as best as I can recall. There will be a video eventually...

Opening remarks:

Firstly I would like to make it clear that I think there are several potential different debates here - and it is not unusual for people to try and mix them all into one. There is one on the place of RE and a separate one on collective worship. There is also a perhaps complex, legal debate about the place of RE as part of the 1988 Education Act, alongside the GCSE and A-Level subject of Religious Studies. Finally, the place of faith schools also often gets involved.

As an RE teacher, straight out of the classroom and on half term, I am going to focus on some of the practical issues surrounding the study of the subject in schools in England at this very moment in time.

We do not have a clear or shared purpose in RE. Some would say it is as simple as teaching about religion and beliefs, a phenomenological approach as it is sometimes labelled. They feel that this academic, objective approach is likely to be most successful in meeting its wider aims. However, there is an increasing move towards a more sociological approach. Personally, I feel this has a place as part of a much wider study, but we do not simply want to simply give our students of a ‘religious landscape of 2016’. Finally there is a call for students to be ‘more religiously literate’ - yet we are not entirely clear on what this means just yet.

This confusion of purpose is clear in the wide and varying names people have tried to give the subject in their school's: Philosophy and Ethics, Social and Cultural Studies, Beliefs and Values, and my favourite Cultural, Religion and Philosophy - or CRAP for short.

History and Geography do not have this problem. If anything, like Business, we simply need to encourage parity by dropping the Studies or Education and just be Religion. We also don’t need to focus on the students and their beliefs. The strength of Geography is that they study things beyond their local area, and History focuses on far more than just things students can immediately relate to.

For me, part of the problem lies in the colonisation of PHSE, Citizenship, the Community Cohesion agenda, SMSC, British Values, Sex and Relationship Education and even Prevent by RE departments. In the desperate desire for curriculum time and status, RE has watered itself down into some hybrid, confused subject.

RE teachers have tried to rebrand to make their subject sound more relevant and engaging; personally I feel this has been damaging. Some full on hoodwink their students - I have heard of students believing they had the wrong certificates on A-Level results day as their qualifications said Religious Studies not Philosophy and Ethics.

These names are no longer usable. GCSEs require the study of two religions and A-Level one religion or New Testament studies. Some people are upset. It is the job of the teacher to make whatever content they are teaching relevant and engaging. By this I mean, accessible, challenging and with clear purpose not fun and games, and linking to other topics and other subject, not ‘down with the kids’.

The new GCSEs have forced RE teachers to teach more religion. The first unit for many has included the Trinity, Creation, Imago Dei, the Paschal Mystery, eschatology… and this has divided the RE community. Some claim this has destroyed the subject, making it dull and irrelevant to students. Others have celebrated as they are able to really do some actual study of religion, some theology, some proper critical analysis. I have heard of one teacher who has abandoned this section on beliefs and teachings to skip to the ethics to get students on board. How are they going to go back? And what value is the ethics without something to underpin it? It will be just student opinion. Sadly, there is a real knowledge deficit in many departments, especially those with non-specialist teachers.

The EBacc has been hugely damaging to RS, it does not enjoy the same status of its humanities counterparts, despite being in the ‘3rd bucket’. As such, students have often been expected to get through the course in half the time of other GCSE subjects. With the old courses this was possible, but now near impossible. Headteachers often don’t understand the legal status of RE, and the relationship with RS, nor the new qualifications.

We are in a period of unprecedented change in RE - driven primarily by the new GCSE and A-Level. I firmly believe we need to teach students more, not less religion, and the fact we may or may not live in a more secular society is somewhat irrelevant. If anything, we should be desperately trying to teach our students as much as we can about religion as it still holds a huge cultural value, and is vital in the understanding of a significant percentage of the global population.

The 2011 census tells us only 25% of the UK population have ‘no religion’, while the global figure is said to be around 15%. It is absolutely right we teach about these non-religious beliefs in schools, but long before the BHA forced a change in law, this was happening in most schools. A 14 year old will be very quick to point out that they don’t believe in what you are teaching about, usually by saying “I’m not becoming a priest, what’s the point in this?”

Interestingly, it is often experts on religion who argue we need less teaching of religion in schools. It’s like they want to keep that cultural capital to themselves. I think that would be very damaging to the young people I see every day in my classroom.


To the question about the inclusion of humanism:
  • As someone who has worked hard to include Non-Religious World Views in my new GCSE textbook, I think it is important to make the distinction between humanism and secular humanism. Much of the study of secular humanism involves science, literary etc (as demonstrated by the proposed GCSE annex) which could potentially further confuse the content of RE. It is impossible to cover religion without reference to NRWV, and the content is still relatively new to some curriculum. It will be interesting to see how the study of NRWV grows and gets incorporated into RE curriculum, but for me the primary aim is still to teach about religion and religious beliefs.
To the question about the abolition of RE:
  • In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins outlines 129 biblical phrases that English speakers may use and not realise their provenance. They include: the salt of the earth; go the extra mile; I wash my hands of it; filthy lucre; through a glass darkly; wolf in sheep’s clothing; hide your light under a bushel; no peace for the wicked; how are the mighty fallen (See <here>). Everyone in the room has an interest in religion through some kind of RE, to deprive future generations of this would be to give ourselves an educational and cultural privilege.
To the question about the image of RE:
  • Things will not change overnight. Teachers need to be delivering great lessons, and then our students will do the PR themselves. They will go home and tell their parents how great and interesting RE is.
To the question about development of western culture and the study of the Abrahamic religions:
  • Firstly, I don't think there should be absolute privilege for Abrahamic religions, and the suggestion that there is little space for eastern religions is wrong; there needs to be some balance. To the suggestion that Islam has contributed nothing to western culture, you are wrong - I'm glad you recognised your prejudices.
To the question about getting teachers of faith to teach each religion:
  • We don't have enough teachers, and certainly not enough RE teachers. Let's sort that out first! I am still not sure that people of the faith are desirable or necessary to teach their own faith. Faith speakers can be invaluable and this is the role of SACREs in my mind.
To the question about renaming RE:
  • This debate is a total red herring until we have sorted the aims and purposes.
To the question about the narrow curriculum of faith schools:
  • There was insufficient time for this, but in short, with more than double the curriculum time, many Catholic schools actually spend more time on different faiths to other schools. Obviously the aims of RE do differ, and I still believe that RE in the Catholic school can be confessional, yet academic, rigorous and critical. 
Thanks again for the invite. See you again soon...

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