RE for REal… or what’s in a name?

Last week the “RE for REal” report was launched and attracted some comment in the press… comment which merged with that generated by the High Court’s ruling that Nicky Morgan’s justification for the exclusion of Humanism from the new GCSE Religious Studies was based on an error of law and by the British Humanist Association‘s attempts to convince people that that meant that the new GCSE would have to be re-written to include Humanism.

The politicisation of teaching about Religion and belief in schools has reached fever-pitch and threatens to destroy what is left of the subject, when schools are pushed to the very limits by real terms cuts, a corrosive culture of blame and a tsunami of paperwork generated by the well-meaning initiatives of politicians whose knowledge of ordinary schools is either limited to their own experience in the 1970s or totally non-existent.

Religious Education is not protected by the National Curriculum or clear standards in OfSTED inspection.  The Religious Studies GCSE is not part of the so-called English Baccalaureate (and has no prospect of becoming part of it either), the A Level is not a so-called Facilitating Subject, trained teachers are in short supply and so (as OfSTED confirmed) the quality of teaching is often questionable.  Even experts disagree about the purpose of Religious Education and Religious Studies in schools and confusion about what should be happening in the classroom is apparent from the huge variety of different names that teachers have given to their subject, whether that might be to disguise what it is that they are caught up in and hide it from students, parents, colleagues or even themselves… or to impose their own agenda on what might otherwise be blank space on the timetable.

It is no use denying that teaching about Religion and belief is in an extremely vulnerable position and is likely to be shunted out of the curriculum at KS4 and KS5 and then, in time, at KS3…

perhaps to be replaced by the odd collapsed curriculum day, visiting speaker or trip to a museum coordinated by a harassed Geography teacher?

It seems a tragedy that many young peoples’ opportunities to reflect on some of the biggest questions that affect humanity, opportunities which can be right at the heart of quality education, might disappear because of poisonous competition between vested-interest-groups and the desire to meet fleeting financial targets.

So, (how) can we get out of this mess?

The RE for REal report makes some very sensible suggestions but I can’t see that (even in the unlikely event that the DfE adopted the report, implemented and funded its recommendations) we would see a big improvement in the situation in schools.  The one glimmer of hope that I see in the report is Recommendation 7

“GCSE Religious Studies should remain as an optional subject for schools, and consideration should be given to clearly demarcating the boundary between academic study of the real religious landscape, and other religion and belief learning associated with citizenship and SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural development) outside of the GCSE.”

There are hints of this issue in others of the recommendations, and

I wish that the authors of the report had recognised that it is the confusion over the purpose of the subject in schools which needs sorting out before the content of each Key Stage or the constitution of the panel who might decide it.  

To me it seems obvious that there are two distinct subjects being taught in our curriculum.

  • RELIGIOUS EDUCATION is mandated and protected by statute, must reflect the make-up of the population – whether locally or nationally – and aims to increase religious literacy, tolerance and cross-community engagement in British society.
  • RELIGIOUS STUDIES is an optional academic subject which prepares students to embark on undergraduate courses in subjects related to Theology and Religious Studies and aims to build the critical skills that prospective Arts or Humanities undergraduates will need to earn their II(i).

While both RE and RS involve teaching about Religion, their aims and approaches are different and arguably, to some extent, incompatible.  

For a few examples…

  1. The depth that is required for meaningful RS pulls against the breadth that is required to do justice to the aims of RE.
  2. The focus on quantities of factual knowledge about multiple religious traditions in RE can pull against the need to build skills in critical evaluation – and question the very nature of “factual knowledge” – in RS.
  3. The need for critical engagement in RS can pull against the need to promote tolerance of unreasoned belief in RE.

To use an analogy… (like RE) Citizenship is compulsory (at least in theory), but nobody would doubt that it is very different from A Level Politics, let alone A Level History.  One is designed to ensure that young people understand “British Values”, how to vote and how the police work in their area while the other demands academic engagement with political theory and the critical evaluation of different hypotheses concerning the relationship between political actions and events.  People wouldn’t take kindly to a partisan DfE determining the content of Politics or History in order to promote its own political agenda – we have seen the outcry generated by relatively minor changes to A Level Politics recently, or when Gove suggested reinstating “Our Island Story” as a GCSE text in History!

Why do people just accept the DfE rewriting GCSE and A Level Religious Studies in consultation with religious groups and experts in Religious Education whose experience is predominantly with KS2&3 – while completely excluding academic Theologians and teachers who specialise in teaching academic Religious Studies in the 14-19 age-range?  Some of those who were consulted by the DfE showed how out of touch they are by talking about how GCSE RE would change – when it does not and has never existed – and sadly, this terminology started to be adopted in the press only adding to the confusion.

As I have suggested before, I think that real improvement in the situation would be signalled by the recognition that GCSE and A Level Religious Studies have little to do with fulfilling a school’s statutory obligations to provide Religious Education.  

The authors of RE for REal are absolutely right that we need clarity in terms of the law and how it should be interpreted.  It needs to be understood, for once and for all, that an optional GCSE (and A Level) course in Religious Studies cannot be understood to fulfil statutory obligations to provide Religious Education to all students in full-time education.  Either the law needs to change so that the obligation ceases at age 14 or provision for RE in the 14-19 bracket needs to be made through the core curriculum, alongside PSHCE perhaps.

Certainly, this clarity would trigger a dramatic decline in numbers sitting GCSE Religious Studies (and to some extent A Level Religious Studies) examinations – but it would mean that we could restore academic rigour and relevance to HE TRS courses to the examination specifications, which would remove the hobble that has been the compulsory focus on a very minority area of study at HE level which students are not particularly interested in to the exclusion of richer and more engaging aspects of the subject-area which lend themselves to building the requisite skills for higher level academic study.

It might be that changing the name of one, or both, of Religious Education and Religious Studies would help to make the point that they are not synonyms, but we cannot assume that a name-change will do the job on its own.  

In the 1970s schools changed from Divinity, Scripture Knowledge or Religious Instruction to Religious Education… and soon after the government caught up in 1988 they pushed to change again to Philosophy and Ethics. Nevertheless, the problem did not go away.

“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”

Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene ii)

As I see it, we need to think more deeply and well about the nature and purpose our subject and not get distracted by names, the constitution of national panels, lists of facts that will probably be ignored or fanciful requirements to study cutting-edge theory and data that 90% of teachers have no knowledge or understanding of themselves.

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