The Future of Religious Education in the United Kingdom

When my blog first moved here from myspace in 2007 I was not a priest in the church of England, I was part way through my ordination training and temporarily back in my previous role as an RE teacher.  I graduated from Newcastle University in 2000 with a degree in Religious Studies, looking at religion from a phenomenological point of view.  I went on to do a PGCE at Durham University and in 2001 headed into West Yorkshire to teach Religious Education in a multicultural context as part of a state school.

There are many things that secular humanists and atheists would like to accuse RE teachers of doing.  Most of these tend to bear no relation to the reality of the schools in which I taught.  Many of these are based upon the perceptions of generations gone by and anecdotal evidence of grandparents gone by.  At parents evening there would be older people who would say “in my day we learned what to believe in RI [Religious Instruction]”.  As the conversation progressed it would invariably come to light that the person I was talking to had no particular belief system to which they adhered.  Ironically, I am not old enough to remember the world of which they speak.

We must remember that Religious Instruction came about as a result of the 1944 education act when the country was concerned that the Nazi’s would invade and the people of Britain needed a strong moral compass with which to resist Fascism.  As can be gleaned from the name RI, classes were a lot different to the Religious Education of today.  To put this in context, these were the days in which a classroom teacher could turn up to their classroom and rule over their own little kingdom and teach pretty much whatever they wanted.  The government wanted to instil a moral framework for society in the face of invasion.  The decision was made during war time with all of the pressures that this entails.

Fortunately the legislation was vague and defined itself in terms of “religion” rather than “Christianity”.  In the 1970’s this resulted in a situation where academics looked to the phenomenological study of religion without any need for personal conviction.  This resulted in the disappearance of RI  and the dawn of RE (religious education).  In the school in which I taught, we actually called it Religious Studies to emphasise the need to be educated about the society in which we live.  Today the study is of the six major world faiths without the necessary need for adherance.

I taught in a West Yorkshire secondary school within a multicultural community.  It was a community that was divided largely upon race or cultural lines.  Social cohesion was fractious.  Different cultural groups lived in self segregated areas with little understanding of each other.  Teaching RE in state schools is not about “bringing people to faith” it is about generating social cohesion and understanding between communities.  My head of department was an atheist.  In my part as a person of faith, I had the same response when asked the question “what do you believe” by a pupil.  “It doesn’t matter what I believe, I can’t possibly tell you what I believe and expect you to think I have the same respect for each of the subjects I am teaching”.  RE is about living in a society that fosters within us an understanding of the people around us.  During my time at the school we lived through local race riots because of the segregated and fractured society in which we lived.  This highlighted the need to persevere in our task of promoting social cohesion.

If you will notice the banner at the top of this page you will see that I have something to promote, the RE:Act campaign.  They put their case forward as this:

In January 2011, the coalition government introduced the English Baccalaureate curriculum to secondary schools in England. GCSE Religious Education was deliberately excluded from this new Gold standard programme despite it’s popularity, academic rigour and ability to teach young people about a range of faiths and beliefs. We need your support to ensure GCSE RE is included in this crucial new curriculum and ultimately, put back in its rightful place – at the heart of humanities.

The Bishop of Oxford stresses the need for RE for social cohesion when he says:

RE is a crucial subject at a time of global disharmony over religious matters. Religious illiteracy is a major problem both in our society and all over the world. Moreover, RE is the only subject which allows students to work out their own framework of values and beliefs in order to shape their life long character.

We live in a world that so sadly lacks understanding or empathy with the other people we share this planet with.  This is not a Christian issue, a Muslim issue, a Humanist issue….or any other group’s issue.  This issue of RE crosses all divides and calls us to educate ourselves out of a world where this type of view is commonplace. That is why The Church Mouse calls us to be involved regardless of religious belief, disbelief or none.  I can understand why this may be difficult to do when there is an overt religious call to prayer on the site itself.

Please stand up for RE.  Don’t do it because I am a Christian asking you or because I am a priest, do it because you are part of a society that needs to become cohesive.  This can only be done through education, understanding of and empathy with our neighbours. 

[As an addendum, what I say is not to be confused with a collective act of worship.  This is a separate issue.  In my years of teaching in state schools I have never witnessed one.]

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2 Responses

  1. If you’re interested in this, the news section of my work website has an article by John Keast (the chairman of RE Today Services) about the Baccalaureate.

    There’s also information about an Early Day Motion that is being tabled by Stephen Lloyd to get RE recognised in the Baccalaureate with a draft letter to send to your MP.

    In case WordPress has eaten the link, I’ve pointed my own website link at the relevant page as well…

  2. Timbo – that is an awesome resource and I have just written to Ed Balls MP using that template with a cut and paste of most of this blog added for good measure.

    This is an important issue that needs to be looked at carefully without the hype that comes from the extremes of both sides!

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