Navigating the complex world of faith is one of the most important challenges young people face. RE should reflect a globalised world, with a growing diversity of beliefs and practicesby John Hall / September 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
Dean of Westminster Abbey, Canon John Hall, in the grounds of Westminster Abbey today. Photo: PA The last time a major step change in Religious Education took place, the world watched in awe at the prospect of a man walking on the moon for the first time, eagerly anticipating the discovery of new forms of life and cultures on a new frontier. Back down on earth, however, minority ethnic communities were fighting for liberties and civil rights, while war raged in Vietnam. Looking back, it’s easy to wonder whether more effort should have been put into understanding the different outlooks and cultures and promoting harmony among the diverse communities on terra-firma, instead of a search for new ones in outer space. Since becoming a core part of the British education system in 1870, reasserted in 1944, and the subsequent introduction of other world religions beyond Christianity in the 1960s and 70s, Religious Education in England has evolved significantly. Indeed, the subject bears little resemblance to the one that many people over a certain age will remember from their school days. Yet Religious Education remains more relevant than ever. Navigating the complex world of religion and belief is one of the most important challenges young people face in the modern world. Every day they are exposed to the main traditions of faith and belief as well as a wide variety of worldviews through the media, online, and in daily social interactions, whether it’s seeing a woman wearing the hijab, a man in a turban, or getting an invitation to a christening. Often surrounded by controversy and misinformation, young people have to understand complex issues and make their own decisions on these vital matters. A subject for the modern world RE is the school subject that best equips young people for this task. Taught well, it can prepare young people for a globalised world of growing diversity of beliefs and practices. To do so, however, it has to evolve continually to respond creatively to the changing context of society, the world around us, and the shifting educational landscape. The Commission on Religious Education has spent the last two years listening to evidence from over 700 concerned parties, including pupils, teachers, lecturers, advisers, parents and faith and belief communities. Although it received encouraging reports of the excellent work happening day by day in many classrooms, it found the variable quality of RE experienced by pupils across the country has led to a postcode lottery. Furthermore, it became clear that the legal arrangements around RE are no longer working. More schools are becoming academies and over the last decade, wider changes to the education system, such as the introduction of the EBacc performance measure, means schools are in effect focussing on a narrower set of subjects. This has led to a quarter of schools in England failing to fulfil their legal duty to provide RE at the time when we arguably need the subject most. After listening carefully to the evidence, the Commission has concluded that RE needs rejuvenating. It is proposing that a new National Plan for RE should be enacted to ensure that learning in this area remains academically rigorous and a knowledge-rich preparation for life in a world of great religion and belief diversity. There are three components to this plan. A new vision for RE The subject should explore the important role that religious and non-religious worldviews play in all human life. This is an essential area of study if pupils are to be well-prepared for life in a world where controversy over such matters is pervasive and where many people lack the knowledge to make their own informed decisions. “The Commission proposes that the subject should be called Religion and Worldviews” It is a subject for all pupils, whatever their own family background and personal beliefs and practices. To reflect this new emphasis, the Commission proposes that the subject should be called Religion and Worldviews. High-quality teaching All pupils should have access to high-quality teaching, whatever school they attend. The Commission proposes that a statutory National Entitlement should apply to all schools and that this should be subject to inspection, with schools required to publish details of how they provide it. The Entitlement encapsulates a common vision within which schools will be able to develop their own approach appropriate to their character. Furthermore, national programmes of study should be developed to support schools in their work. An investment in resources There should be a significant investment in ensuring two essential supports for this new way forward. First, highly qualified and knowledgeable teachers will be required to achieve this new vision. A sustained programme of investment in teacher education and development is essential to achieve this. Second, local communities have played a significant role in supporting RE in the past. The Commission proposes that the structures that made this possible should be re-envisioned to enable this important contribution to continue. It recommends establishing Local Advisory Networks for Religion and Worldviews comprised of, among others teachers, governors, and religion and belief groups to support schools. The Government has continually repeated its ongoing support for RE, emphasising its statutory role in the curriculum. The time is now ripe for change if the subject is to continue to make its important contribution to future generations’ understanding and enjoyment of life.