The Future of Religious Education: Debating Reform
RE faces very significant challenges. This paper summarises a series of expert discussions about the subject’s future, hosted by Theos in 2017. (2018)
As Theos launches a new briefing paper about the future of RE and the challenges facing it, Simon Perfect calls on the government to listen to the RE community and be ready to take action.
Recently I watched a preview of a new short film about dialogue and Islam. It brought together a Muslim councillor, an Antifa supporter and an EDL activist to discuss Muslims in Britain. It was an intense reminder of the extent of some people’s fears and misconceptions about Muslims. The EDL activist knew some (selective) factual content about Islam – “one Hadith says X…” – but lacked a basic understanding of the complex, diverse ways in which formal doctrines, texts and practices are interpreted and lived out by religious people today – “…so therefore all Muslims believe Y.” His poor religious literacy underlay his explicit loathing of Muslims.
The best way to combat these misunderstandings is by improving education about religion and belief in schools. The government has rightly acknowledged that Religious Education plays an essential role in preparing young people for life in a diverse, multicultural society, and helping them to understand the religion and belief issues that continue to shape politics globally. But a combination of factors, including government prioritisation of other subjects and inaction over inadequate provision, has led to a situation where RE quality is poor in a great many schools in England and Wales. In many schools, teachers of RE lack essential subject knowledge and training in the subject – 54% of secondary teachers of RE have no relevant post–A Level qualification, and 44% of primary teachers have no qualification in RE at all.
And shockingly, in 28% of secondary schools RE is completely non–existent – meaning those schools are directly breaching their legal duty to provide RE to all pupils. This means that a huge number of young people leaving school without any real teaching about religion and belief.
At Theos, we’ve published a briefing papersetting out the challenges facing RE and what can be done about them. This draws on a series of high–level discussions we hosted last year, which brought together policymakers, RE professionals and representatives from key stakeholder groups. The paper summarises our frank conversations about the future of RE. It also sets out side–by–side the recommendations from three major recent reports calling for reform of the subject: The State of the Nation(2017) by the National Association of Teachers of RE; A New Settlement Revised: Religion and Belief in Schools(2018) by Westminster Faith Debates; and Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward(2018) by the Commission on RE.
These reports call on the Department for Education to take action, and provide funding, to recruit more specialist RE teachers and to ensure they have sufficient training and support. But while these are necessary steps, they won’t be sufficient to improve the quality of RE across the country. The Commission on RE and Westminster Faith Debates argue that more radical structural reform of RE is needed, in order to introduce some national consistency to the content and quality of school syllabuses (there is no national curriculum for RE and syllabus content varies greatly across the country). While Westminster Faith Debates call for such a national curriculum for RE, the Commission on RE proposes a lighter approach – the establishment in statute of a ‘national entitlement statement’ for RE, which sets out what all young people are entitled to experience as a minimum in RE. This would give Ofsted and other inspectors a tangible framework against which to measure the quality of a school’s RE provision.
There are other eye–catching recommendations from these reports too, including changing the subject’s name in order to combat persist misconceptions among some people about what RE is about (the critical academic study of religion and belief, not the imposition of religion on young people).
In our roundtable conversations, most of our participants strongly supported reform to RE’s structures and the introduction of a national entitlement statement as a light–touch accountability measure. We also heard about the extra burdens that RE teachers face that other teachers don’t – such as being the person the school expects to explain religion and violence to pupils (and their parents) after terrorist attacks; and facing increasing requests from parents to pull their children out of RE, specifically so they are not taught about Islam or taken on a trip to a mosque. The fact that many teachers of RE don’t have sufficient training in the subject and yet are responsible for correcting misconceptions and prejudices on these matters should seriously worry us all.
If we want to improve religious literacy, and combat the spread of dangerous misconceptions like those held by the EDL activist, then improving RE has got to be a top educational priority. But we shouldn’t just want to improve RE because of community cohesion. RE is important because for many young people, it is the only space they have to discuss and reflect on their own beliefs and values, and to learn how to navigate difference well. We need to ensure all young people have access to it.
RE teachers and professionals have made it clear they want action: now the government needs to step up.
Image by Monkey Business Images available from shutterstock.com under licence
Simon is a Researcher at Theos. He is also a researcher and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings. He is co–author of the book ‘Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter–terrorism’ (Routledge, 2021).
Posted 22 October 2018
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.