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The purpose of Religious Education in schools

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Blog - The purpose of Religious Education in schools

Tuesday 15 October 2013

I have just finished reading a very depressing Ofsted report following their study of RE teaching in schools in England. For those interested it can be seen at www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/130068 . The verdict is damning on the teaching and learning of RE across the country, in both primary and secondary schools.

RE has an odd place in the legal framework for schools. It is not part of the National Curriculum, but it is compulsory in all maintained schools under separate legislation, including the 1944 Education Act, which also enshrined the daily act of worship in law. The latter, in many schools, became problematic as society changed, and reading the Ofsted report on RE it seems as if the same may well have happened to RE.

Confusion about the purpose and aims of RE seems to me to be the heart of the problem. The Ofsted inspectors found that many schools and teachers did not really know what the core purpose of the subject was, and this affects the kind of teaching students receive, and, to be honest, the extent to which students value the subject and respond positively to it.

Faith schools apart, I can’t imagine how, in the world we live in, anyone could claim that the study of the role of religion and faith in people’s lives could be irrelevant, or something to be undertaken halfheartedly or apologetically in school. Never in our globalised world has it been more important for young people to have this understanding and knowledge.

In Church schools such as Bennett, this general purpose for RE which justifies the place of RE in all schools in my view is also central. In addition, though, Church schools attach special importance to equipping students with tools for living the life of faith, for example being able to conceptualise and articulate religious concepts and discuss religious issues with confidence and with insight. It is important young people are able to explain and stand up in argument for their own beliefs when questioned or challenged.

In my book, RE, including in faith schools, is not about teaching young people TO believe. That is a different enterprise, and while I do exclude from the purposes of RE the exploration and deepening of one’s own faith, this is not the core purpose of RE. Other forums and contexts exist for the transmission of faith: parish, chaplaincy, worship, Bible study opportunities, faith-based youth groups, underpinning school ethos (in a Church school), and so on.

In the words of Ofsted’s study, “RE should be primarily concerned with helping pupils to make sense of the world of religion and belief … Too often teachers thought they could bring depth to the pupils’ learning by inviting them to reflect on or write introspectively about their own experience rather than rigorously investigate and evaluate religion and belief.”

The report goes on to say that “a key factor preventing RE from realising its potential was the tension between, on the one hand, the academic goal of extending and deepening pupils’ ability to make sense of religion and belief and, on the other, the wider goal of contributing towards their overall personal development. Teachers will struggle to plan and teach the subject effectively while this tension remains unresolved.”

I am immensely proud of the work of the RE team at Bennett. It is a real beacon of excellence in a generally rather mixed and often mediocre world, as far as RE teaching is concerned. That is partly, of course, because of the importance we have attached to it as a Church school, and the investment in it in terms of staff, time and importance. But it is also because we have articulated to ourselves what it is for, and teachers are therefore able to approach the subject with confidence and in turn inspire that confidence in students.

I hope that this report from Ofsted triggers some improvement in RE across the country. When there is a clear rationale for it within a school and it is supported by the school, it makes a real and important contribution to young people’s education. And not only in faith schools, but in all schools, because all young people should be taught to understand and make sense of the world of faith, belief and religion in an insightful and balanced way.