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Build Bridges, Not Walls: Challenging our Classrooms’ Hidden Curricula

Build Bridges, Not Walls: Challenging our Classrooms’ Hidden Curricula

In light of recent research, Hannah Malcolm discusses the importance of delivering good religious education and its knock–on effect on other aspects of the curriculum.

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Last September, the National Association for RE Teachers published data suggesting that more than a quarter of secondary schools were failing to offer Religious Education, despite the legal requirement to do so. This number rises to almost half (44%) amongst 14 to 16 year olds.1 This is clearly concerning for the future of Religious Education as a subject. But might this lack of engagement with Religious Education – and the skills it teaches – also have knock on effects for student understanding of other aspects of the curriculum? If we lose RE, what hidden curriculum is lost along with it?

As coordinator of a project which aims to bring two subjects (science and religion/philosophy) into dialogue, it is difficult not to notice that students are taught to approach subjects in secondary schools are taught as discrete categories, with little to no overlap between disciplines in the school timetable. By being taught to study ‘one subject at a time’ (as if such a thing were possible) young people are pedagogically engineered to ignore connections between different areas of the school syllabus, as much through what is unsaid as what is on their exam paper.

An exception to this rule seems to be, a subject which is compulsory but unexamined – Religious Education. As Kenneth Primrose pointed out in his recent Theos blog on the topic, “where else do young people get to ask, explore and study big questions, not to mention the wisdom of the ages that has been brought to bear on them? ‘Is morality entirely relative? When could an AI robot be considered human? How controversial are three parent babies? Are people who have religious experiences deluded?’”2 Where else indeed?

If it is true that Religious Education has become a safe haven for life’s big questions and the appreciation of subject transcending mystery, are Science, History, and Geography somehow free of the influences of human philosophy and religious experience? Have all their questions been answered?

Research conducted by LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion) in conjunction with the God and the Big Bang project (an initiative organising off–curriculum interactive days on science and faith in schools) paints a concerning picture of students’ levels of ability to use interdisciplinary reasoning and epistemic insight.3 Surveys of nearly 1,800 upper secondary school students4 indicate that students say they are interested in Big Questions but have few opportunities to explore the possibility of dialogue between science and faith. Although most of the schools participating in the survey were Church of England schools, the national pressures of strict subject divisions and adherence to prioritising examined criteria are no less evident.

Of 1,772 respondents from years 10 to 13, more than half (53%) agreed that ‘science makes it hard to believe in God’. And, perhaps even more concerning, fewer than 15% of children with a faith position agreed that ‘science supports my faith in God’.5 Is a lack of inter–subject engagement leading to the assumption that only one kind of truth can exist, one subject therefore ‘cancelling out’ another?

Just as we do not expect Religious Education lessons to demand students believe in God, or advocate religious fundamentalism, we should also expect that science lessons might equip students to wonder: ‘are there questions science can’t answer?’ If students don’t have access to this question, a kind of truth monopoly – in this case scientism – develops; 38% of respondents agreed that ‘the scientific view is that God does not exist’.6 In a country where two thirds of scientists do not believe that the science–faith interface is one of conflict,7 something has gone strangely awry in the science classroom.

Research also revealed that teachers are no less victim to these constraints. Although the National Framework for RE curricula states that students age 11–14 should “develop insight into and understanding of why some people argue that science and religion can be compatible and others argue that they cannot”8 a study of RE and science teachers indicated curriculum compartmentalisation. None of the teachers planned lessons collaboratively or made links in their lesson to teaching in another curriculum subject – often out of concern that discussion of issues relating to ‘origins’ might be sensitive.9 When it does take place, science–faith discussion has been limited to rehearsing creationism/evolution debates.10

So what is the result of this hidden classroom focused curricula? By limiting students to the particular set of ‘facts’ required to pass a particular GCSE, students seem to come away with the assumption that those ‘facts’ are all there is. As one Geology PhD student commented at a recent God and the Big Bang workshop; ‘When I was at school I thought science was straightforward and gave straightforward answers. It was only when I studied science at university I discovered that wasn’t the case’. If students are taught that science is a worldview that precludes religious belief and philosophical exploration rather than a tool to be used by humans, they are sure to be disappointed. Equally, if students are taught that religion is purely a personal set of opinions that can exist apart from engaging with history, cultures, art, and scientific discovery, they are misled.

My experience of working with God and the Big Bang all over the country has been one of healthy challenge – both for me and the young people with whom we work. For students and speakers, one challenge lies in countering the notion that the world is neatly divisible into descriptive categories. But the workshops have also challenged the notion that ideas should be easy to talk about in order to be interesting to young people. Their questions slice through artificial subject divisions with genuine curiosity. ‘If we knew about the whole universe would our brains have the capacity to comprehend it?’ Year 10, North Yorkshire. ‘How can you believe in evolution if the Bible states that we are made perfectly in God’s image?’ Year 13, Kent. ‘Why do people not look after our world?’ Year 6, Manchester.

The human desire to gaze upwards and outwards has not as yet been diminished by the efforts of a lettered/numbered syllabus. Whether young people become scientists or not, it is vital that they grasp the world–changing implications of scientific research and discovery. Whether young people grow to have religious faith or not, they cannot understand the modern world without understanding religion. Can we equip them for both? And both together?

1 Strangwayes–Booth, A., ‘Schools break law on religious education, research suggests’ BBC News, September 2017

2 Primose, K., ‘Religious Education – reclaiming what is being lost’ Theos Think Tank 2017

3 For more details on the significance of epistemic insight in student learning about science and religion, see Billingsley, B., ‘Teaching and learning about epistemic insight,School Science Review June 2017. This and other articles are available on and there is an introduction to Epistemic Insight on

4 Nassaji, M., ‘Perceptions of the relationships between science and religion held by upper–secondary school students in Church of England schools’, 2017 (Under review)

5 Ibid., p.14

6 Ibid., p.15.

7 McCaig, A., ‘First worldwide survey of religion and science: No, not all scientists are atheists’, Rice University News & Media, 2015

8 ‘A Review of Religious Education in England’, The Religious Education Council for England and Wales, 2013, P.27

9 Nassaji, M., ‘Perceptions of the relationships between science and religion held by upper–secondary school students in Church of England schools’, Under Review (2017), p.14. See also Billingsley, Brock, Taber, Riga, ‘How students view the boundaries between their science and religious education concerning the origins of life and the universe’, Science Education Volume 100 Issue 3 (2015)

10 Ibid., p.4.

Image by ajari from available under this Creative Commons Licence

Hannah Malcolm

Hannah Malcolm

Hannah Malcolm is an ordinand in the Church of England and is writing a PhD on a theology of climate and ecological grief. She is on the board of Operation Noah, and regularly speaks and writes about climate justice and the church. She is the editor of Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church (SCM Press, 2020).


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Posted 3 January 2018

Education, Religion, Science


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