RE: reform, revolution or what?

Difficult question on Comment is Free at the moment about Religious Education (RE) in schools in England – mainly difficult because it is not quite clear what Philip Barnes, who began the debate is proposing. You can read my response to the question on Comment is Free about it today. It’s difficult to make all the points that need to be made in so few words but basically, what I’m saying is that RE definitely needs major reform but that the current best practice model of teaching about religions and non-religious worldviews objectively can be the basis of reform.

Some of the problems highlighted by Philip Barnes in current religious education (RE) may be legitimate. One survey of pupils may well indicate pupil dissatisfaction with RE as taught in schools. But we cannot pass smoothly on from this one survey in one county to assert that this is because the subject itself is nationally “conceptually ill-equipped” and suffers the other inherent defects Barnes suggests.

There may be many reasons why pupils find the subject uninteresting – they may have no interest in the subject matter, whatever pedagogy informs the teaching; they may be being taught badly (53% of those teaching RE are non-specialists); and of course we may find that the percentages of students expressing a dislike of other subjects is in any case comparable. Certainly it is too big a leap to suggest that pupil dissatisfaction indicates the need for a total conceptual overhaul. Where education about religious and non-religious beliefs and values under the current – and evolving – framework is taught well, we often also find pupils appreciating this learning and finding it rewarding. It may simply be the case that this good practice is still too rare.

The claim that current RE practice may encourage the notion that all religions are somehow true – true for some people but not for others, perhaps – may have some validity. Certainly RE should not “imply or affirm the equal truth of every religion” (or any religion, in fact). The humanist philosopher Stephen Law suggests in The War for Children’s Minds that current practice in RE may encourage this sort of thinking and that such a process of affirmation may occur in the minds of pupils is not impossible. When talking to a sixth form group about Humanism only yesterday, I was struck by the sentiment of some students that it was inappropriate to voice objections to the truth claims made by religious believers, since religions were some sort of “personal truth” – and this is not a unique experience.

Nonetheless, there is no evidence that this sentiment is as a result of defects inherent in the current aims of RE. To summarise the non-statutory national framework for RE (pdf), these are to increase understanding of the religious and non-religious beliefs found in society and to encourage students to come to their own conclusions on the questions which religious and non-religious beliefs offer answers – there is nothing in the framework, or inherent in the theory of RE within the framework, to suggest that the problems Philip Barnes observes are indissolubly linked with its approach.

The suggestion that RE currently alienates members of minority religions is serious, and requires evidence which has not been provided. It is not my experience of working on such bodies as the Religious Education Council, where there are representatives of many religious organisations as well as secular organisations such as teachers associations, academic institutions, and the British Humanist Association. On the contrary, documents such as the non-statutory national framework for RE have wide acceptance from a range of mainstream organisations.

Of course the current approach needs ongoing reform: there should indeed be greater critical analysis of religious and non-religious beliefs, non-religious beliefs should be more extensively explored in syllabuses – but this can all be accommodated within the current framework as it evolves. It is not clear precisely what alternative approach is being suggested, nor how it might address the problems observed – and it is entirely possible that a conceptual overhaul may be to the detriment of the subject.

Philip Barnes was a signatory to a document responding to the national framework which questioned the legality of non-religious beliefs such as humanism being studied in RE, which equated the study of non-religious beliefs with the study of the abandonment of religion (a deplorable rejection of the independent integrity of such beliefs), and ignored religious diversity by asserting that it is in the nature of religion to be about belief in God (how many Buddhists, Hindus or Jains would agree to that without qualification?). If this is a guide to the sort of conceptual overhaul he envisages, many will oppose it, and they will support instead an evolved form of current practice. The most significant recent departure from the mainstream of thinking in RE is actually quite alarming for many humanists. The new RE syllabus for Birmingham (which contains no study of non-religious beliefs, even though it aspires to take into account the belief backgrounds of all children) has seemed to many a quasi-confessional sort of syllabus, where “learning from faith” includes such aims as “personally deploy religiously informed dispositions” – dispositions which “will be developed using the treasury of faith”.

No one can deny that RE needs attention and reform, but many people will agree that the aspiration of the current framework for RE – objective, fair, balanced and good quality teaching about different religious and non-religious beliefs, which also gives pupils opportunities to reflect on their own responses to big ethical and philosophical questions – are the basis on which the subject should proceed.