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After the census, how should we teach religion and worldviews in school?

After the census, how should we teach religion and worldviews in school?

Dr Kathryn Wright, Chief Executive of the Culham St Gabriel’s Trust, examines how RE is taught in light of the recent Census results. 23/12/2022

As Christmas approaches, I am reminded of the times when our two young boys would ask those challenging questions. How does Santa deliver presents to the whole world? Was Jesus really born in a stable? Now, more recently as they enter adulthood, the questions have got harder. Is the biblical narrative true? If there is a God, why would he choose to become a human being? I wonder how many parents and carers will have conversations like this over the festive season. The findings of a recent survey suggest that a significant number will.

Earlier this Autumn, ahead of the census results, Culham St Gabriel’s Trust commissioned a nationally representative survey of 2000 UK adults to find out parents’ views on a range of matters related to religion and worldview literacy. It found that close to four in five discussed beliefs that affect people’s behaviour and decision–making with their child. In addition, seven in ten discuss beliefs and practices of people with religious and non–religious worldviews, beliefs concerning what happens when we die and the origins of the universe. Discussing the big questions in life through the lens of different worldviews seems to be commonplace in UK homes.

Whilst the recent census data indicates an increase in those who do not identify with a particular religious worldview, particularly Christianity, what our findings show is that only a small minority (less than 10%) never talk about questions of meaning and purpose at home. To me, this suggests that many households are still interested in the fundamental questions that underpin both religious and non–religious worldviews.

For children, what was the main source of information concerning these questions? Rather than friends, family and the internet, the survey found it was their teachers at school. Seven in ten said their child mainly accesses information about religious and non–religious worldviews at school. It is therefore not surprising that two in three parents thought religious education (RE) was an important part of the school curriculum. In the survey’s open ended questions, parents value the subject because it encourages acceptance of different cultures, religions and worldviews as well as building respect and understanding.

Parents also thought that educating children about the deeply rooted history of different religious and non–religious worldviews would help them understand how they have shaped our society today. Lastly, parents thought learning about values and ethics contributed to their own child’s future behaviour and sense of empathy for others.

Although some parents questioned the value of the subject, particularly in terms of its earning potential or because they did not see any importance in religion, the overwhelming response was positive. The recent census data, and indeed the accompanying research done by Theos on ‘Nones’ suggests that we now live in a multi–religious society and multi–secular society where worldviews are made up of both religious and non–religious ideas. The majority of parents in our survey recognise this and have subsequently identified the need for high quality RE in schools to help children navigate this complex nature of modern belief and practice.

In the second part of the survey, we asked parents what they thought of the Religion and Worldviews approach to RE. This new way of thinking about the subject reflects the recommendations in the Commission on RE (2018) report and is being developed in some English schools. This new approach, as illustrated by the 2021 Theos animation Nobody Stands Nowhere, has its key premise in the notion that everybody has a worldview – a way of experiencing and understanding the world in response to ‘the big questions in life’. This approach aims to enable all pupils to become open–minded, critical participants of public discourse about religion and worldviews.

It was encouraging that parents were mostly supportive of this new approach, with an average of seven in ten parents agreeing with its core principles, including:

● 73% of UK parents said it is important to learn about the similarities and differences between beliefs and lived experience of different worldview traditions
● 72% of UK parents said that RE lessons should include teaching that worldviews are complex and may comprise both religious and non–religious beliefs
● 70% of UK parents said RE lessons should teach about the social and historical context of different religious and non–religious worldviews

In his recent Theos article, Census 2021: And the winner is… Nick Spencer asserts that it is teachers of RE who are the ‘winners’ of the recent census findings. Based on these parents’ responses to a religion and worldviews curriculum, he may well be right. This approach to the subject provides a fresh vision for the subject that has been developed in response to the long term changes in the nature of belief in society. 

However, the subject is significantly underfunded by the Government, and there is a danger that some pupils are not getting their full entitlement. Culham St Gabriel’s Trust, alongside the RE Policy Unit*, is calling for a National Plan which would include a sustained programme of investment in teacher education and ongoing professional development aimed at bringing this new approach to RE into every classroom in the country.

So if a child asks you a thought provoking question during this festive season, you can be assured you are not alone. Why not ask children and young people what they are learning about in RE at school? After all, this is the place where children are exploring how to navigate our increasingly diverse religious and non–religious society. Perhaps they can teach us something too.

Dr Kathryn Wright
Chief Executive, Culham St Gabriel’s Trust

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Savanta Comres Parent Survey 2022 

Commission on RE (2018)

Nobody Stands Nowhere

Census 2021: And the winner is

*The RE Policy Unit is strategic partnership between the RE Council of England and Wales, the National Association of Teachers of RE and RE Today Services.

Image by Gustavo Frazao on Shutterstock

Kathryn Wright

Kathryn Wright

Kathryn is Chief Executive of Culham St Gabriel’s Trust leading the strategic strategic vision and planning of the Trust. She was formerly a teacher of RE and independent consultant. She is on the board of the RE Council of England and Wales.


Watch, listen to or read more from Kathryn Wright

Posted 23 December 2022

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