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The ball of wool that is RE: We can no longer avoid untying its knots

The ball of wool that is RE: We can no longer avoid untying its knots

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 3 of the series, Mark Chater argues that policymakers imperil RE by continuing to avoid dealing with the challenges facing it.

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


Scenario #1: A group of teachers notice that the parental right to withdraw their children from RE is being exploited by Islamophobes. The teachers raise their concerns but are told that nothing can be done, as this right is secured in law.

Scenario #2: A teacher goes to the Head’s office to argue for more time for RE. When the Head asks, ‘what is the purpose of RE? How does it help our pupils make progress and achieve?’, the teacher says it’s about respect for each other’s cultures. The extra time goes to science instead.

Scenario #3: A cohort of primary trainees go to placement schools and about half of them find they cannot teach RE because the school isn’t doing any. They don’t feel they have the right to question this. The training provider is desperate for good partnership schools and will not make an issue of it.

Scenario #4: A Christian group is offering to help local schools with their RE, assemblies, and PSHE. They say they don’t indoctrinate. When the RE teacher leaves to go to another job, the school doesn’t replace her, and franchises the subject out to the Christian group.

All four scenarios are happening as you read this. They will happen again next week, and the week after that, and every week this term, this year. Plentiful evidence from surveys by the Department for Education, the National Association of Teachers of RE, and the grassroots movement Learn Teach Lead RE, has confirmed these patterns. And it all seems to be getting worse. Added to that, the widening gulf between the theory and practice of RE in community schools and schools with a religious character (‘faith schools’, though the phrase is misleading) is weakening the decades–long alliance that has more or less kept RE together.

This should worry us. Even more worrying is the mantra from Nick Gibb, Minister of State in the DfE, intoned in response to parliamentary questions, that RE is important, RE is statutory, there is no need to do anything, move along, nothing to see here.

If nothing is done, RE in community schools may well die out, while RE in schools with a religious character may remain in some cases a secret garden, only grudging in its acknowledgement of diversity.

This is a ball of wool. Each of the four scenarios above can be seen as the end of a strand. Follow it, see how it tangles itself up with the other strands, and see how they all lead us from classrooms and schools in towards the tangled heart of the problem, the policy and legal muddle that currently ties RE in knots. For example…

·       On the parental right to withdraw their children from RE, we all know that it is being abused. Most teachers would like to see it abolished altogether (indeed in 2016 headteachers voted for it to be removed). But the state cannot take that right away from parents without first stating in law what RE is by having a national curriculum, and secondly by ensuring that no religious groups are involved in the making of that national curriculum.

·       On the purpose of RE, our inability to be clear is marginalising us. Is it feelings and cultural identities? Is it faith nurture? Is it lessons in civic respect? Is it sociology, theology, or philosophy, or a combination of all three? The work done by Kathryn Wright, Jane Chipperton, Olivia Seymour and Gillian Georgiou helpfully expands on this latter option, which is the only purpose with any academic substance.

·       On training, we keep seeing that because RE is not part of the national curriculum and because it has an opt out, it gets sidelined by many training providers and their partner schools. This hurts RE teachers particularly at the primary school phase.

·       On religious groups working in schools, one cannot blame them for wanting to have a go. The vacuum on RE in schools encourages religious groups to solve a headteacher headache. Because RE can be pretty much anything that people like, the religious group can treat the school as mission territory while paying lip service to educational norms.

This can get worse. There is nothing so likely to wreck RE right now as negligence and avoidance. We need a national discussion and a campaign to focus the DfE on the recommendations from the Commission on Religious Education, due to be published later this year. It is time for RE.

 Image by donschenck from pixabay.com available under this Creative Commons Licence

Mark Chater

Mark Chater

Mark is the Director of Culham St Gabriel’s Trust, an endowed charitable trust dedicated to educational work in support of religious education. He has taught RE in schools, has trained RE teachers and has taught at universities in various capacities. He has also acted as senior adviser for RE with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. @MarkChater1

Posted 27 June 2018

Education, Religious Education

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