Round Table – Religious Education

How important do you think it is for religion to be taught in schools?

MW: It depends how you define religion. Firstly are you teaching a particular religion or are you learning from religions? I don’t think children should be told that something is the only answer and that means RE shouldn’t be taught in school as a means to gain a qualification. However, personally I feel it is important to learn about faith, how people live and why they live that way so that they can use this to reflect on their own beliefs.

AH: I agree with that. My experience is going into two Church of England primary schools and we are living in a multicultural society now. The danger of not teaching faith in schools is that we will become more polarised as we become less well-informed about religion. Certainly in terms of ethics it gives young people the opportunity to reflect on subjects such as euthanasia and abortion. Therefore the teaching of RE is not just the teaching of faith but also teaching to help us form our own opinions on important issues.

DS: Part of the issue is whether you’re teaching religious instruction or presenting different belief systems as an opportunity for children to think and critique them. That is very important to offer. I’m not sure that is always the case in schools and we’re not talking specifically faith schools. People who are not religious need to have a framework to decide on morality and ethics and
I do not think the church has a monopoly on morality. It is possible to be non-religious but have a clear and ethical framework and it is possible to be a socially responsible, ethical person and not associate that with the major belief systems.

MW: It’s part of human nature to have an identity and a sense of self, and religion can help people do that. I think what I would like to see is more children and adults deciding for themselves whether practising religion or having a moral code is important. Some schools do provide it and that would be religious education, not instruction. I do think that we need to open this up wider, especially in primary schools.

BB: Education is about educating and RE has not always been well served in our schools because it’s been badly taught. It’s a difficult subject and it does disservice to all of us if it is not taught well. We owe it to our children to inform properly and one of the core difficulties facing RE at the moment is that both primary and secondary teachers often aren’t adequately trained. I think the continuing provision in developing the teaching staff is not seen as a priority and you wouldn’t want that with any other subject, so why RE?

Should religious education only be taught in faith schools?

DS: I personally have very strong views against faith schools. Not faith schools per say but those that are funded by the taxpayer. I do not think we should have council tax-funded faith schools that are allowed to discriminate on the grounds of religion. If we did that under any other circumstances, for example if you could only go to a school if your parents were gay, that would be inappropriate. But we allow discrimination on the grounds of religion.

MW: When faith schools teach RE well it is a good thing. Some don’t teach Christianity very well and that’s a shame.

BB: I’m not making a distinction whether it’s a church school or none church school. RE is difficult to teach because there is not enough resource. RE is one of the unintended victims of a government focusing on core subjects and not recognising that education is about education. If you narrow it down in pursuit of literacy and numeracy you will get mal-adjusted children who haven’t got the hinterland that makes most of us tolerable human beings and enable us to interrelate. If education doesn’t build this the ability for us to function as a community is gone and society is badly damaged.

DS: Do you think that is necessarily the area of RE or could it actually be interpreted as a number of ways? We’re all in agreement the idea of getting children to learn their own ethics is incredibly important but where we’re divided is in the detail on how that’s done. Do you think RE at school level is an important way to bring together different groups or is that damaging?

BB: Most of our schools in the Church of England see themselves as serving a community. And as far as possible the hope and intention is that those who want to go to a church school are able to do so. That in a sense equates to our idea of serving a community where historically the church has been the provider and was the pioneer in providing education and available free education for people. Where we’re able to continue to do that seems to me to strike the perfect balance.

MW: Children that come out of church schools are more reflective in a way because they have had more time to stop and think about the thorny questions. They do question things from a faith perspective and faith schools make room for that whereas community schools may not.

BB: One of the interesting things we have encountered is the number of non-church schools applying to become church schools. We don’t actively encourage this but people have approached us. I think there are a mix of reasons. One of them is stability and often the schools that apply are those are feeling a lack of support. It may be to do with gradual withdrawal from Local Education Authorities and seeing diocese being better providers not just for what schools want but also in terms of support.

AH: I know of a comprehensive school where a church took over. I was governor at the time and it is now one of the most improved in the country.

DS: The problem is it allows them to have a selective admissions process. In a city like Liverpool location is not the basis on which you get your child into a church school. It is about selective admissions process and one of the problems with non-church schools is that they potentially become ghettoised because the parents do not know how to go through that process.

BB: Church schools are not exempt from failing schools. Church schools have been put in special measures. We have two who are coming out of special measures in places you wouldn’t think. The challenge is complacency. Once teachers go into a church school they’re reluctant to leave
and this is not always to the benefit of the school to not have that turnover of staff. One of the challenges is how you develop your staff and keep them sharp; especially if there is a sense the school is doing well because people want to send their children to it. An OFSTED inspection can come as a rude surprise to challenge a lot of that.

Why is teaching RE in schools falling off?

MW: It’s fear and the identity of the subject. People don’t know what RE is and what it entails and they associate it with indoctrination. Some people have experienced poor teaching in their past and have bad experiences personally where they’ve had it rammed down their throat. The problem is that they’re our future teachers. If it’s not taught well in a creative, enthusiastic way that allows children to think and philosophise and question without people saying they are wrong it will carry on. However, the government does not see it as an important subject. It frustrates me quite a lot where we work hard
to celebrate people’s diversity individuality, spiritualism and religious faith but this is not carried on into schools.

DS: The idea of having a core curriculum is a good idea. However, it doesn’t mean all those have to be taught to GCSE. I would agree with the idea of RE or religion ethics and philosophy being a core subject and I don’t have problem with that. Whether it’s a good idea to teach as GCSE subject I don’t know. It should be much more about personal development than getting children to learn facts.

AH: The church is all about debate and bringing that debate into the classroom is only a healthy thing. Certainly if you go to places where there is a high proportion of people of an Islamic faith and where people see people walking around in burkas you can raise questions in school so that you won’t get people making assumptions. If you don’t have these discussions people will become more polarized.

MW: The problem with the English education system is that the debate is about what we call the teaching of religion. Is it RE, RS or RI and Philosophy? For example, in politics or geography you might raise the subject of China, but do you talk about communism and the suppression of working class – I would think so. You would raise these issues so why not in religion and in RE lessons? It’s about changing the mindset of teachers to understand what that subject is. It has a lot of thorny issues but that’s why I find it exciting.

How should it be taught in the classroom?

BB: If you can’t learn at school what religion teaches and where it comes from we are going to bring up another generation of children who don’t understand, for example, not every Muslim is a terrorist. If that understanding isn’t brought to bear in school it is very much more difficult to educate at a later age. At what age do we start formulating prejudices?

MW: Day one!

BB: So if you leave it off curriculum at school you’ve left it too late.

MW: France doesn’t teach it. It is a secular country and they say they don’t touch religion with a barge pole. The US is supposed to do it as well but even in the Pledge of Allegiance they talk about God’s country, which is interesting because they don’t teach religion. We do have a multicultural society and NATRE (National Association of Teachers of Religious Education) says learning about religion and learning from religion are two attainment targets. The first part means you learn about it so you know the nuts and bolts about different religions, what they do and what it means to you personally. And the second part involves questioning and the reflecting, which means considering what you personally think about that. For example, what does it mean to be human and why is it ok for somebody to have a different viewpoint? Why is it ok to not to have that viewpoint? That can be done creatively through visiting, asking and questioning.

AH: The key to good education is about being creative. One thing we are doing at St Michael’s school is that we are a white, middle class community but we are linking up with a school in Blackburn, which is a multicultural area with a lot of Muslims. The reason we are doing that is, although we’re a Church of England school, we are teaching RE to help children grow by looking at creative ways of doing it. By linking up and making the connection with another community, that breeds tolerance from an early age.

MW: I agree, but I would use a different word to tolerance. I prefer respect and teaching religion encourages respect. The more you understand how people live and why means you then may not agree with them but you respect them as a human.

DS: I don’t know if it’s even religion, this idea of tolerance. Community development, community work and community building I don’t see as part of religious education. In my job as an academic there’s a strong relationship between personal health, community health and community development. It has nothing to do with religion. It is about this idea that community participation can lead to better health.

MW: I think it should be on the curriculum. I think at home parents may or may not talk about RE but they may have a skewed view about it. We as educators should open children to the fact there are other answers, not just one. To me it is about asking ‘what does it mean to be human’ and respecting people for that human choice – whatever the religion. Every religion can do that if you look at it positively.

BB: Faith is an act of reality and a significant proportion of peoples’ lives. It motivates a lot of what they think and do and therefore an understanding of a significant driver in peoples’ lives is essential both to understand them and to understand what lies behind. If education is about life in the world it follows that is part of what education should do. The better it’s taught the more informed our children will be and the less intolerant they become. Churches must understand their schools are not there to nurture people in their faith. The core business of church is to nurture their own flock and you can’t expect schools to do that for you. They can inform and set an ethos but in terms of ‘discipling’ people that is not the role of the school.

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