After Grenfell: the Faith Groups’ Response
A study into the responses of faith groups to the Grenfell Tower tragedy on 14th June 2017. (2018)
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 4 of the series, Kathryn Wright imagines a positive future for RE, transformed by a multi–disciplinary approach.
“The most religiously literate young people for a generation.”
Five years ago we might not have expected to see this headline, but the continued drive and commitment of teachers, advisers and academics to secure the intrinsic value of Religious Education as a multi–disciplinary subject has led to well informed, critically aware young people who can confidently navigate the world of religion and belief. This is summary of the findings of an independently commissioned research report published today (31 May 2023).
This transformation began in 2018 when a shift from RE rooted in pedagogical theories such as human development, constructivism and critical realism, to a religious education rooted in disciplines began. This approach provided a way forward which firmly established RE as an academic subject, gave it currency alongside other humanities, and united the RE community. The confused aims and weak outcomes of RE, as highlighted in Ofsted’s report on the subject in 2013, have finally been laid to rest, as leading policy makers adopt this multi–disciplinary approach. As a result of these policy changes, GCSE entries have increased alongside a renewed interest in A level. The inclusion of RE in the newly designed English Baccalaureate, an important school performance indicator, has helped to support this. But this transformation may not have been possible without the reshaping of the subject along the new disciplinary lines.
In previous years there were concerns about unbalanced curricula in RE, with teachers placing too much emphasis on one disciplinary approach in RE over another. The #balancedRE agenda emerged as a pragmatic response to this and came to establish a coherent theoretical framework for securing RE within strong academic traditions. One of the key recommendations from the Commission on Religious Education, which published its final report in late 2018, was to ensure a balanced disciplinary approach, and the working group arising from the Commission was a key driver in achieving consensus around this. Drawing on the disciplines of theology, philosophy and the human/social sciences, RE has been enriched by exploring content through these different lenses and considering the world of religion and belief from different epistemological positions.
This multi–disciplinary approach has clearly established the purpose of RE in terms of religious literacy. Although there is still no agreed definition of religious literacy, there is general agreement amongst RE professionals, teachers and faith communities that it is about enabling children and young people to hold balanced and well–informed conversations about religion and belief. The importance of conversation has been stressed, going back to the roots of the Latin, ‘conversatio’; an act of living with, to be alongside someone. This emphasises the nature of religious literacy as more than just having knowledge, but rather of developing deep understanding. Conversations are essential for meaningful co–existence. Conversations between key stakeholders such as professional organizations and faith communities were also central in establishing the multi–disciplinary approach.
The disciplines of theology, philosophy and the human social sciences are now driving curriculum design and assessment. Although the inclusion of the discipline of theology was contested in the early stage of development, the RE community has begun to recognize its intrinsic value. For example, a theological lens provides a specific object of investigation focusing on beliefs and being (ontology) and has specific ways of validating knowledge such as asking questions about reliability, authority and internal consistency and coherency of texts. Alongside this, the philosophical lens focuses on the nature of knowledge and questions of morality and uses logic as a key way of validating knowledge. The human/social sciences explore the world as lived experience historically and today, using a range of research methods such as empirical data, observation and classification.
Thus, RE as a school subject has been re–contexualised from the disciplines of theology, philosophy and the human/social sciences. This process drew particularly on the work of Michael Young:
“Subjects are re–contexualised from disciplines which are a society’s primary source of new knowledge. The link between subjects and disciplines provides the best guarantee we have that the knowledge acquired by students at school does not rely solely on the authority of the individual teacher, but on the teacher as a member of a specialist subject community”.
So, when pupils are thinking as theologians they are asking questions such as:
What do religious people say God is like?
How reliable are sources of authority for religious believers?
What do narratives in sacred texts reveal about the nature of God?
When they are thinking as philosophers they are asking questions such as:
How do people decide what is right and wrong?
What can we learn about the meaning of life from the great philosophers?
How valid are arguments about the existence of God?
When they are thinking as human/social scientists they are asking questions such as:
How do festivals bring people together?
What difference does being a member of a faith community make to daily life?
How are beliefs and practices influenced by culture and politics?
This richness of approach has provided a robust and challenging framework for RE. In addition, teachers now feel more connected with the academic traditions on which their subject is founded. Stronger links with university departments have been established and there is a renewed interest in understanding the different disciplines, and engagement with and learning from research.
Outcomes in RE have seen significant improvement across all key stages as they are now refined, coherent and understood by teachers. Expected outcomes for pupils are now couched primarily in terms of knowledge and understanding of religion and belief by using the research methods of the three disciplinary lenses. Outcomes such as community cohesion, spiritual development and preventing radicalisation whilst obviously desirable and often observed, are distinct from those expected.
The findings of the report published today are therefore no surprise. The RE professional community, policy makers and the Post Commission on Religious Education working group have worked hard over the last five years to bring about a complete transformation of the subject. The reward for this diligence and commitment to the subject is young people who are the most religiously literate for a generation.
I am indebted to the following colleagues who have engaged in robust conversations about #balancedRE over the last three years and to whom I owe much of my current thinking. They are Jane Chipperton, Gillian Georgiou, Richard Kueh, Mary Myatt and Olivia Seymour.
 The English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is a school performance indicator. In 2018 it did not include RE as one of the GCSEs required to attain the EBacc. In 2018 pupils are required to study English, maths, a language, science and history or geography in order to obtain the EBacc.
 Georgiou, G., and Wright, K., 2018. Re–Dressing the Balance. In: Castelli, M., and Chater, M. We need to talk about religious education. London: Jessica Kingsley. pp.101–113
 Chipperton, J., Georgiou, G., Seymour, O.,Wright K. 2016 ‘Revision; Rethinking RE – a conversation about religious and theological literacy’, http://www.reonline.org.uk/news/revision-rethinking-re-a-conversation-about-religious-and-theological-literacy/
 Young, M., 2013. Overcoming the crisis in curriculum theory: a knowledge–based approach. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45:2, 101–118
Image by Université catholique de Louvain available under this Creative Commons Licence
Kathryn is an independent RE Adviser working primarily for the Diocese of Norwich and Culham St Gabriel’s Trust. Her doctoral research explored the purpose of RE and pedagogical approaches to RE in Church of England schools.
She is a co–opted member of the NATRE executive and is an RE Council representative.
Posted 28 June 2018
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Simon Perfect sets out the main challenges facing Religious Education today. Part 1 in our series on the future of RE. 26/06/18In Depth
Mark Chater argues that policymakers imperil RE by failing to deal with the challenges facing it. Part 3 in our series on the future of RE. 27/06/18In Depth
Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.