This blog is from the discussions and dialogues at the ‘Energise RE 2015’ conference in Reading from October 3-4th 2015. Over this weekend, Culham St Gabriel’s Trust brought together over 200 teachers and other RE professionals for a unique opportunity; to hear and respond to outstanding speakers and national leaders in RE, to network and form new alliances.
In the opening address from Mark Chater and others, a weather report for RE was offered: there is a lot of rain, mist and thundery spells. Being left out of curriculum reform, finding ourselves side-lined by the Ebacc and whilst waiting for new GCSE and A level qualifications to be approved by Ofqual means there are some uncertain times for RE ahead.
But, it is not all overcast. There are some sunny patches to be found in the great work being done by schools, universities and faith groups around the country. In these three blogs, I offer what I believe we can do to facilitate a heatwave for RE. For now, it is important that we take a resilient view. If we can recognise that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing, we can look forward to a great future for RE. Just as faith calmed the storm for the disciples, faith in positive changes for RE, I have no doubt, will enable the heatwave to come. For me, it is change in RE which is our raincoat, umbrella and galoshes. We need to wear it well.
How is religion and belief changing in the UK and what impact should this have on RE?
In her keynote, Linda Woodhead spoke about her work as a Professor of Sociology of Religion. She made an important point about meta-narratives which, I feel, could have been framed better in the context of her talk. Below is a video from the brilliant Jason Ramasami talking to Linda about this theme shortly after her talk.
While listening to Linda’s keynote, I was frustrated at the proportion of time left for what most of the room was desperate to hear: Woodhead speak about A New Settlement. It was only on reflection afterwards, and in discussion with Bob Bowie, that I realised the poignancy and importance of her words. An examination of the socio-religious sphere of the UK does much to overcome the appearance of secularisation on our island and gives a very precise reason why religion is not only still relevant, but also why a new settlement for RE is necessary.
Whilst I do not advocate the view that RE’s purpose is bound up in community cohesion or the development of ‘British Values’ (whatever those are), it is interesting to examine the interest that governments have had in relation to the importance of Religious Education. If we plot the position of RE in the National Curriculum in 1944, it is clear that overarching political concerns had a significant bearing on its nature. In the 1944 Education Act, the emphasis was on the instruction of children in the Christian faith which focused on morality with the clear intention to prevent any further human atrocities as seen during the two World Wars.
By the 1988 Education Reform Act, the emphasis had shifted. It highlighted the need to teach the principle religions with Christianity having the place of most significance, a reflection of the growth of immigration. The major Government Report, Education for All, recognised that an increasingly pluralist society had produced a need for ethnic minority communities to be socially integrated and identified that RE had an important purpose to serve: to promote understanding of the principle world religions and to celebrate diversity (Swann, Education for All, 1985: 3.19). In order to assimilate immigrants into society it was imperative that children were taught to identify and empathise with a range of different religions and cultures.
These observations are important. Each shift resulted in an offering of Religious Education in England which is very much contextualised within a specific sociological sphere. Over 27 years later, before we consider what RE should look like, we should consider the religious landscape in which we find ourselves. Woodhead’s talk did just this. She had been answering the question I scribbled onto my notepaper all along: “How has the religious pluralism you speak of and observe influenced your call for a New Settlement?”
The meaning of ‘religious belief’ today bears some similarity to that of 1988 or 1944, but there are some significant changes. In particular, there is more plurality and diversity. As RE teachers, don’t we often find that when teaching a unit on Hinduism or Islam the Hindus and Muslims in our classrooms look quizzically at us, raise their hand and say “We don’t think that at all, Miss!”? On closer inspection, doesn’t the 2011 census only give the illusion of a decrease in Christianity and an increase in secularism? The reality is that those who might describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ are simply not conforming to what might be fit into ‘traditional’ categories. We are left with the perception that religion in the UK is ‘slowing down’ and that we are at odds with what can be seen in the rest of the world. What we have here then, is an argument for:
- the continual relevance of spirituality and religious belief for our young people despite appearances of secularism and,
- a suggestion that with such extraordinary change to our religious landscape, the legal structures underpinning a Religious Education of 1988 are no longer relevant today.
Put simply, research in sociology of religion is showing that paradigms are shifting and we should ensure this research informs our practice. A New Settlement is wholly necessary, not only for the betterment of RE teaching and learning in and of itself, but also in order to fully address the changes to the religious landscape in the UK.
A sub-question: How might we approach these changes to the religious landscape in the UK in our RE classrooms?
Leading on from Woodhead’s observations about the plurality of religious beliefs, one of the problems which can often face RE teachers is the pupil who doesn’t believe in a God and, hence, doesn’t care about discussing anything to do with religion as s/he feels it is not relevant to them. It is true in my teaching that I have not given as much considered time to the discussion of varieties of agnosticism and atheism as I have to plurality in theism. The seminar from Lat Blaylock titled “I’m not religious but…” offered up thoughts on how an inclusive approach can be achieved whilst retaining academic rigour.
Now, clearly, as RE teachers we will be using many means by which to help pupils come to terms with the fact that religion is very important despite it not being personally significant to some individuals. One way in which this could be facilitated is through an exploration of the plurality of agnosticism and atheism.
— Miss Carter (@MissAVECarter) October 3, 2015
Lat began by presenting the evidence. There are over 30,000 Christian denominations worldwide and this is growing. The problem with textbooks can be the over-generalised accounts which perform an inaccurate ‘one-size fits all’ approach. Indeed, not a homework task goes by without me writing “Not all, but ‘some’!” in the margins of a pupil’s jotter. The intricacy of religions is something which RE has improved upon in recent years, although the textbooks and examination boards do have some serious catching up to do in this regard.
So, we need to do the same good work to take into account different perspectives in atheism and agnosticism.
I teach a lesson in my school with the year 9s who begin the year with a unit on ‘Philosophy of Religion’ with a specific focus on the question ‘Does God exist?’. We begin with an introduction to philosophical thinking through logic puzzles and some P4C, the next lesson introduces them to the concept of ultimate questions, then we introduce our question for enquiry for the Term: ‘Does God exist?’
The resources below are from that lesson and it is an opportunity for them to discuss their own beliefs about God and analyse the beliefs of the class. It is a very discussion heavy lesson and, using P4C as a model, can lead down a number of different paths in terms of philosophical enquiry. Pupils are able to get used to expressing their views in a safe environment and consider the background to their own view too. But, as you will see, it falls into the trap of over-simplification of beliefs into categories which are far too broad.
There is scope for improvement in light of these ideas. So, that is what I did.
So, have I done enough to address the issues of the changing landscape of belief in the UK? Is my lesson any good? Please try it and leave a comment below.
— Miss Carter (@MissAVECarter) October 4, 2015
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