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Unsafe as houses – why I love teaching RE and why I worry about its future

Unsafe as houses – why I love teaching RE and why I worry about its future

Religious Education is facing major challenges. The Commission on RE will make recommendations about how to improve the subject later this year. We’ve asked a range of RE professionals and researchers to set out what they think RE might look like five years in the future. In Part 2 of the series, Neil McKain discusses why, despite his concerns, RE deserves a bright future.

In Part 1, Simon Perfect outlines the main challenges facing RE today.


The reason I became an RE teacher was because I wasn’t a very good estate agent. That’s only partly true. I was a rubbish estate agent! I also felt the need to put the Theology and Religious Studies degree I’d earned to some better use. I wanted to teach, as Arnold put it, some of the ‘best that has been thought and said’ and to help students grapple with some of the biggest ideas and questions that have shaped, and continue to shape, the world.

This might sound grandiose but I would argue that studying religion: its histories, its creeds and texts, the dark side and the light, is vital if we want our young people to be able to confidently navigate a world that is ever more diverse, fragmented and confusing.

I love my job. As a secondary teacher the intellectual demands of an average day in RE are incredibly varied and rewarding. For example last week I went from teaching year 7 about the historical evidence for and against the existence of Jesus to discussing interfaith dialogue with year 9. Year 10 were looking at Vipassana meditation in Buddhism and year 13 were debating secularisation as the final part of their A Level course.

So why am I now going to burst my own bubble. Why do I worry that in five years time RE might be in a worse position than it is now. Why, when I love teaching RE, when I can see its value to students and society, when I see and hear so much good practice going on in schools around the country do I worry about the future?

  1. Structural Confusion

The history of RE is complex, muddled and therefore poorly understood by the majority of stakeholders. With roots dating back to the nineteenth century it was the 1944 Education Act which founded RE as we know it today. The Act made it a statutory requirement for all state–maintained schools to provide Religious Instruction and an act of daily collective worship to all pupils. The aim was clearly instrumental. In the post–war period, religion in schools could, it was thought, help to win the peace.

The 1988 Education Reform Act (ERA) replaced the archaic term Religious Instruction with Religious Education. RE syllabuses had to include content that was in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain.  The responsibility for ensuring these clauses were operationalised rested with a Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE), compulsory in each local authority and whose role was strengthened by the 1988 ERA.

Just in this brief overview of two pieces of historical legislation one can see the complexity that underlies and in many ways undermines RE. Many now argue the law is not fit for purpose and unfairly places RE outside the National Curriculum as a Cinderella subject. There have been calls in recent years for this situation to be reformed. Linda Woodhead and Charles Clarke are soon to publish an updated version of their New Settlement for RE and the Commission on RE is due to report back in the Autumn.

  1. Teacher Recruitment

The latest figures on teacher recruitment paint a bleak picture. The government has failed to recruit enough new RE teachers into the profession for the last two years. In 2016/17 only 80% of the total needed were recruited. In 2017/18 it was even worse with only 63 per cent of the target being met. RE is not alone in the recruitment and retention crisis but it sits near the bottom of the pile and unless we face up to this existential threat we will be in crisis. I was able to train ten years ago because of the existence at the time of a generous Department for Education bursary and golden handshake upon qualification. The offer now to train in RE is a tax–free bursary of £9,000 but only with a first or PhD. This compares with a bursary of up to £26,000 to teach geography. In light of the last two years recruitment figures this unjustified discrepancy and the lack of an improved financial incentive to teach RE is nothing short of a disgrace.

  1. Subject Knowledge

In 2017 the National Association of Teachers of RE published their State of the Nation report. One of the key recommendations was a focus on subject knowledge as part of teacher training. Now this might seem like stating the blindingly obvious. Of course people who are training to teach RE would need an appropriate level of knowledge. But in reality this is often not the case. Teachers training in the primary sector might be lucky to get one or two hours training in RE as part of their course. In the secondary sector due to recent examination reforms the need for an appropriate level of subject knowledge is also pressing. The good news is that support is there, whether it be national conferences run by various RE organisations, which are growing in popularity, and in thriving subject community groups on Facebook and Twitter.

The Future

So if you are planning to sell your house anytime soon don’t worry, I’m not going back to being an estate agent. In five years’ time I want to see a series of clear statutory reforms to the status of RE. I want to see more graduates choosing to train as RE teachers as a result of improved financial support from the Department for Education. I want to continue teaching a subject that I love. A subject that is worthy of academic study on par with the other Humanities. A subject that gives students the vital knowledge they need in order to understand religion in the world. A subject that if taught well is valued by students and parents and, in spite of my three concerns, deserves a bright future.

 Image by Monkey Business Images available under a Shutterstock License 

Neil McKain

Neil McKain

Neil McKain is Head of Religious Studies at Pipers Corner School in High Wycombe. He serves on the executive of the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) @nmckain

Posted 26 June 2018

Education, Religious Education

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