A New Struggle: Religion and Belief is important in schools

“There is a growing danger of mutual incomprehension between religious and non-religious people. Religious Education is certainly not the only place where such issues can be dealt with, and in which potentially decisive views need to be discussed and debated, but it is a very important one.” (Clarke and Woodhead, p. 45)

Last week, a Tunisian student, Seifeddine Rezgui, walked along a beach at Port El Kantaoui, took a Kalashnikov from a parasol and shot and killed 38 people.

The massacre prompted David Cameron to remark that the fight against the Islamic State is the ‘struggle of our generation’. His comments prompted me to Tweet that if it is so, then “why isn’t RE on the Ebacc?”

I agree with @MarkChater1 that we should be careful not to position RE with counter-radicalisation requirements. What I meant by my comment is that RE, although not the only place ‘where such issues to be dealt with’, it remains the only subject which presents to pupils the chance for religious literacy and sound knowledge. Without it, we are lost. I think that fact is clear to most people. But, what should the future hold?

It is our responsibility to help our young people understand and relate to those of faith and those of none. Freedom of belief can only follow from education. This is why the recent publication from Clarke and Woodhead is so essential. It is not just a proposal suggesting national changes to RE, but it is, for me, a symbol of sorts, highlighting the need for RE to be taken seriously again.

Introduction

I like what Clarke and Woodhead have to say at the start of their document:

“Overall, the whole area of religious education has suffered from being treated very differently from other subjects. Sometimes it has been treated as less important, sometimes as more important. It has been freighted with too little significance or too much. The consequences have been negative and have inhibited reform. We believe that the subject should be put on a similar footing to other subjects, and no longer as the exceptional case.” (p.7)

There is no doubt that these words are a reflection on the sense of crisis felt by the RE community as it was left off national curriculum reform in 2013. The Religious Education Council’s Non-statutory National Curriculum for RE was brought to Westminster having been put together without public funding even though RE remained a subject required on the curriculum of all state schools.  I think to remove the ‘special status’ of RE and put it back in line with other subjects is certainly a step in the right direction.

During my NQT year my HOD and I were discussing the importance of our subject and remarking on how best to combat the misconceptions which parents and colleagues might have about it. For him, it was essential to never belittle the Geography department as teaching ‘advanced colouring in’ because we were all in it together. As humanities, we would always be in the shadow of Maths, English and Science. The way to tackle the problem is to create lessons which are academically rigorous. I agree with him. But I feel that the plight of RE is even more tragic than that of Geography and jokes about their depleting supplies of blue and green Crayola’s. The only way in which we can ever stand a chance of standing on equal footing is by getting rid of our special status altogether. It is a nerve-wracking prospect, but one which, if managed carefully, could produce a whole lot of good. I think it may also prompt RE to be included on the Ebacc list, or certainly strengthen our case (if indeed the Ebacc should go ahead at all).

Comment and Discussion from the RE community

I know that RE teachers are somewhat divided on the proposals from Clarke and Woodhead. Some agree with much that is said, others do not. I will expound on my own view below in two particular areas as well as elsewhere, but I think it is worth remarking that this ‘division’ is of the healthy sort. In voicing my own judgement I hope that I am continuing in the unification of teachers of RE. We know that RE matters; but we are not sure that it is taken seriously enough. By arguing for what good RE should look like, no matter how different our views seem, we are seeking a common goal.

For me, the academic year is over. I find myself enjoying 23 degree heat on a train, heading north to visit my family. As I think back over the course of this academic year and what the next one might hold for RE, I find myself, unfortunately, living in a scary post 9/11, 7/7, Boston Bombing, Sydney Café, Tunisian beach massacre world. I also find myself fortunate; living in the richly diverse multi-faith, multicultural world.  Clearly the job of RE is to give access to the comprehension of such a dichotomy. I could have done better in that regard this year.

Community Cohesion

“…media investigations into attempts to impose ‘extremist’ Muslim ideology continue. In February a group of religious leaders wrote to the BBC encouraging it to retain a commitment to balanced coverage of religion, arguing that ‘Religious literacy is essential to the diversity we treasure in Britain – and a tonic to the extremism and intolerance that threaten it’.” (p. 47-48)

During an introductory lesson on Islam in April, many of my Year 9 class said that although they know they shouldn’t hold negative views of the religion, they just couldn’t help but be a little bit weary. Very quickly there followed an assignment on the misrepresentation of Islam in the media.  It helped them a little, but next year I will do more. I must; such literacy is an integral part of RE. If we are to continue to maintain a society which sets (what I believe to be) a pretty high standard to others about the importance of tolerance and community cohesion, we must give pupils the skills to not only accept difference, but to challenge the truth of their own worldviews. Such opportunities are found in RE. Or, should I say, ‘RME’?

Time for Deed Poll

I like the call for RE to change its name. Clarke and Woodhead put it very well when they write:

“Since 1944 the nature and place of religion in our society has changed, but religion and belief, experienced and practised in a far more diverse way, remains a very important part of our society. Therefore the place of religion and belief within our education system should change to reflect modern realities. But there is absolutely no case to remove it, as some suggest. In fact we need a more coherent and effective means of increasing the quality of religious education throughout our school system”. (p. 35)

Although I am in full support of the above, my feeling about ‘Religious and Moral Education’ as a re-branding is a bit more sceptical. To me, it still has the air of confessionalism about it.  I work in a department with a different take on things; I am a teacher of ‘Ethical and Religious Studies.’ I think that makes a bit more sense and sounds a lot less like brainwashing, but I always find myself having to explain what ‘ethical’ means to new pupils and parents alike. I think a ‘Ronseal’ approach is what is needed. Submit your suggestions on a postcard.

Conclusion and Recommendations

I have merely considered a few specific areas which I feel are pretty important and positive. Such a comprehensive report is testament to the fact that religion and belief have to be taken seriously and RE should be included on National Curricula. However, the size and scope of this project which intended to fully showcase the necessity of RE has, paradoxically, left it a little lost.

So much was included under the umbrella of ‘religion and belief’ that it was inevitable that the press were able to pick and choose an aspect ripe for vilification: lazily, the first recommendation from the list found in the concluding remarks. I wonder whether anyone bothered to read on much further. By running the headline ‘Call to End Compulsory Worship in Schools’, religion and religious education have, yet again, been wrongly located in a shadow place reserved for all that which is either outdated or in antithesis to democratic secularism (that holy grail of morality!). It is such a shame that the media coverage perpetuated a message which is completely at odds with the heart of the document.

Having said that, a lot of what is proposed for RE here is exciting and integral. If we want our pupils to be able to watch the news and understand that the extreme violent actions of a lone gunman on a beach do not define a set of religious beliefs and practices, if we want them to have religious literacy then we need to give them more than the right to be withdrawn. When the nation falls silent this Friday to mark the brutal attack on the 26th June 2015, I will think of the victims, their friends and their families.

I will also think about the importance of RE.

“We recommend that the Religious Education syllabus [should be set] by an agreed national syllabus which would have a similar legal status to the requirements of other subjects in the National Curriculum.”

(Clarke and Woodhead, Recommendation 3)

Clarke and Woodhead (2015), A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools (Westminster Faith Debates)

Religious Education Council (2013) Non-statutory National Curriculum for RE: A Curriculum Framework for Religious Education in England  (Religious Education Council of England and Wales)

This post is part of #BlogSyncRE, read other contributions at: http://www.BlogSyncRE.org.uk for this month’s theme: SPECIAL: A New Settlement.

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