Philip followed the CCCU Christianity and Faith in Education pathway, one of the ‘Jubilee cohort’ of 20 students selected from across the United Kingdom. The Norton Knatchbull School, a local secondary school, celebrates his success here. Dr Bowie, Director of NICER, commented: “Philip’s thesis is an important study that contributes to our understanding of how Christian PSHE teachers negotiate their professional and personal commitments”. You can read his thesis here.
Professor Trevor Cooling, Chair of the Religious Education Council
at the launch of the Commission for Religious Education Final Report
in the Churchill room, the Houses of Parliament, Wednesday 12th September 2018
By Trevor Cooling
What role should education about religion play in schools? In the face of surveys that show that the majority of the UK population now self-identify as non-religious, whereas globally the substantial majority identify as religious, this is a taxing question for policy makers. Should religion be ignored as an irrelevance to English society or should it be directly addressed given its impact in politics and daily life? Earlier this month, a potentially influential report appeared that attempted to tackle these questions. The report has been produced by the independent Commission on Religious Education (CoRE). This is made up of 14 high profile people, representing a diverse range of positions. Given the interest stimulated by their report, there is a chance that a significant shift is around the corner for English schools. Much depends on how the Government responds.
In England the current law makes Religious Education compulsory for all pupils from 5 to 16, but in practice that legislation is increasingly ignored particularly in secondary schools. There are many reasons for this, which the report rehearses. The priority is to address the lack of integrity in the current government position of saying that the subject is OK because it is protected by statute, when that statute is ineffective and allowing rapid decline. CoRE is unequivocal that the current arrangements for RE in England are no longer fit-for-purpose. So its report calls for a new, inspected National Entitlement for all pupils in state-funded schools to combat the current disparity in provision between schools and for new programmes of study to be developed for teaching this Entitlement that reflect the varying characters of English schools. It also calls for serious attention to be given to the training of teachers. Without a clear statement of accountability and properly qualified teachers, relying on the subject’s current statutory protected status lacks integrity and dooms the subject to withering on the vine. The report is a timely opportunity for correcting this.
At the heart of CoRE’s proposals is recognition that preparation for life in modern Britain entails gaining a sound understanding of the important role that religion and belief plays in human life. Living well in the midst of diversity is an essential element of citizenship in a democracy. Handling the controversy created by deep differences of religion and belief is an essential outcome from a rigorous academic study of religion and belief. CoRE argues that this entails a gear change for schools. This is reflected in their call that Religious Education should be renamed Religion and Worldviews and embrace the diversity and complexity of the religious and belief landscape of the modern world. In the CoRE vision, this newly-envisioned subject will enable pupils to understand and navigate the influence that religious and non-religious worldviews have in human lives, including their own. This is the game-changer in the report.
Some have responded negatively to this recommendation interpreting it as a call to add yet more content to an already crowded curriculum. Others have interpreted it as diluting the subject, fearing it represents a hostile plot to reduce the attention given to religion in the curriculum. Others still see it as a coup, replacing religious content with sociology. But these objections miss the point. They assume that the shift is about content; but it is not. The gear change is a reframing of the subject that may well not change the knowledge learnt, and it will be a knowledge-rich subject, but it will change how that knowledge is handled. At the core of this new approach will be exploring how different people make sense of the lives and the role that religious and non-religious worldviews play in that making sense. This will help pupils in their own sense-making and in their understanding of others who may go about it in a very different way. The purpose of the National Entitlement is to ensure that all students have the opportunity to study this fundamentally important dimension of human life.
As a Christian educator I welcome this new approach. For one thing it resonates well with the new hermeneutical approaches being developed for church school education and in the study of Christianity. Second, I believe it adds a new dimension to the study of theology in schools. Too often this is interpreted as solely doctrinal, the examination of core beliefs. This is important, but it’s not all there is to academic theology. An increasingly important dimension of this is public theology, by which I mean the study of how Christians engages with the wider culture. In my opinion, the proposed National Entitlement is an opportunity to reinvigorate how Christian schools approach teaching about both Christianity and other religions.
The future of RE in schools is fragile. The CoRE Report offers a new way forward. I hope it is grasped.
Trevor Cooling is Professor of Christian Education at Canterbury Christ Church University and Chair of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales. The views expressed in this article are his personal views.
The CoRE Final Report is available at https://www.commissiononre.org.uk/final-report-religion-and-worldviews-the-way-forward-a-national-plan-for-re/.
Every child deserves an opportunity at school to discover the language for making sense of their world
By Dr Robert A Bowie
Director of the National Institute for Christian Education Research
The Final Report of the Commission on Religious Education, which was established in 2016 to review the legal, educational and policy frameworks for Religious Education (RE) has now been published. This is another landmark moment in a recent history littered with major proposals for subject currently called religious education (RE). Previous recent contributions include:
Living With Difference: Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life and the RE for Real report by Adam Dinam and Martha Shaw in 2015 ). There were two reports informally known as the Clark Woodhead reports, first in 2015, revised in 2018;
The Big Ideas in RE report in 2017 edited by Barbara Wintersgill was produced in 2017 and also the book of collected essays, We need to talk about RE edited by Mike Castelli and Mark Chater in 2017.
The rapid change in the visibility and shape of religion and belief in life has raised questions about the content and disciplines of the subject (what should be studied, how it should be studied and to what ends). The unusual legislative framework for RE which devolves responsibility for curriculum design to local authorities or, in the case of schools of a religious character, recognised religious authorities, has not been modernised. There is no national curriculum for RE and changes in school organisations, especially acadamisation, has left the legislation out of date with many schools abandoning RE because it falls in the gap between their independent status as an Academy and the curriculum legislation which presumes local authority oversight. These are two prominent reasons for the many reports proposing changes.
This report is significantly different from the rest in that it was established by the REC, a charity which gathers together all of the stakeholders in the subject field, and was given independence from the Charity. It came after an interim report and extensive national consultation. This must stand as one of the most extensive consultation exercises for any subject and it would be fascinating to know the method of sifting through that evidence and the patterns of findings that came from it. That information is not in the report so we do not know how or to what extent the findings of that consultation impacted on the report. I say this because there is also a significant political issue and interest at stake about the question about state control over national subjects, local government control and religious community involvement (through schools of a religious character) . To these three groups can be added Multi Academy Trusts, a forth entity with interest.
So in terms of consultation, as well as the court of public opinion, there are the relative interests in groups who might wish to shape how citizens perceive ultimate questions about the world and the ways of life and traditions of faith that engage those questions offering answers. Somewhere in all of this is also those held responsible for implementing the subject – the leaders of schools and classroom teacher who have the job of teaching our next generation. It makes for a cluttered group of people who have a big stake in all this.
The report comes from a group of commissioners appointed by the Religious Education Council but independent of it. The Commissioners included representatives with primary and secondary teaching experience, school leadership experience, government education experience and legal and organisational experience. It also included a significant academic gathering from leading universities involved in religion and education.
Much of the media attention has been around the term ‘Worldviews’ with headlines leading with comments that ‘now atheism and secularism should be studied’. This is a misrepresentation of the report but it shows the degree of distance between the public understanding of the subject and reporters in the media, and the reality, fanned by the complicated legislative framework. In fact, atheism, secularism and worldviews associated with Marxism and Freudian understandings have been directly treated by RE lessons in schools for many years, appearing on exams for decades. Schools have been able to teach humanism with units of work supplied and incorporated into local curricula for very many years. Atheism and agnosticism have been key areas of debate in RE classrooms for decades, probably since the very beginning. Perhaps the reporting is an indication of why a report such as this is needed, given the surprising levels of ignorance revealed in the public understanding of the subject which is shown by the need to report it in this way. Either that or our media are particularily religiously illiterate, which might also be true. Or maybe these headlines were just pitched to feed a click bait hungry news consumer who needs to be hooked in.
The use of the term Worldviews is a marker on a journey from an early subject name, Religious Instruction which contained a presumption, or at least an inference, that the purpose of the subject was to shape the faith of the pupils. In other countries, the adoption of that term has also marked a shift in the subject alongside the social development from a time when religion and the state were closely associated to one where religious plurality was more formally incorporated into common life. The subject formally known as RE could be seen as containing within it, some reflection of the relationship between the state and religion and an implicit ambition to make that widely understood.
However, I think there is a much more a significant reading to this development. The phrase Worldviews could be interpreted as meaning ‘there is no view from nowhere’. There is no neutrality. It points to a hermeneutical understanding that, however, we reason about the world, and whether or not there is meaning and purpose to our lives, we stand somewhere and read the world from a point, through experiences we have had, shaped by social patterns we are given and maybe hardly aware of. Every child deserves an opportunity to spend some time in their education really thinking deeply about that and exploring accounts of meaning and ways of living that have tried to make sense of it. Every child deserves the opportunity to discover the language that makes sense of how they can make sense of their world. Schools that fail to make that provision are not only failing to provide this opportunity – they fall in danger of an implicit and undeclared kind of indoctrination that seeps out throughout the rest of the school experience, that goes unscrutinised and unexamined. This is the deadly road to the unexamined life and all educators, I would say, have a duty to guard against that. It is here that I believe the divergent subject interest groups in RE converge, at the point of an entitlement for every child to step into this kind of exploration that is fundamentally human and basic.
Far too many schools are not making this provision so we need to make it more straightforward for them to do this in good ways, and make it easier to hold those responsible for ensuring this happens. The idea of a national entitlement, inscribed in law and robustly maintained, is a great one.
The final report of the Commission for Religious Education is about to be published. The independent commission was established by the Religious Education Council, the lead organisation and charity that operates as an umbrella forum for all of the RE interest groups across England, educational, religious, and scholarly. What will it say? How will the different stakeholders of religious education respond? RE in England faces a diverging set of challenges and here I want to look at 4 that interest me.
Challenge 1: Historic Christianity and contemporary non-religious affiliation
One the one hand there is the question mark placed by the context where Christianity has a lead position in the curriculum and the Church an established historic significant presence in the governance of state-funded schooling. This position as a primary provider of schools was accentuated by the central government led to move to give ‘school sponsors’ more responsibility than local government. At the same time, studies suggest the majority of the English public do not self-identify with a religious group. Pluralism and diversity is vibrantly present in British cultural life. Critics of organised religion say now is the time to strip the Church of their position, but the education environment is that it is one where communities have been given more of a leading position and more responsibility to deliver than ever before. As far as forms of organised communities go, religion remains prominent and provides an organisation structure which government can turn to for accountability measures. With public money comes built-in regulatory and accountability systems.
Challenge 2: Diversity and multiculturalism vs subject knowledge.
It is well known that RE is perceived as a political tool for community cohesion and common values and surely it has an important role to play in educating children about the world of faiths and worldviews around them. But diversity presents a problem for subject knowledge. It is hard enough to find good RE teachers who have a strong specialist knowledge in one religion to confidently and competently talk about diversity within that faith, let alone strong specialism in many religions (not to mention a confident understanding of the emerging thinking around nones atheisms, secularisms and so on). In the worst cases the chopping up of religions into common categories has created a colonial restructuring of religion into helpful but largely misrepresentative chunks of curriculum content and arguably performed a kind of colonisation of the knowledge with some ordering theory or another. There are strong calls better-educated teachers of RE and England and is quite remarkable in the development world in how quickly we train teachers and how short our higher education qualifications are. I wonder when the financial context will be good enough for that. When finances were strong there was little appetite for longer degrees though there was a much greater investment in teacher development through subsided Masters programmes. And this leads us on to ….
Challenge 3: The lack of agreement over the organising structure of knowledge.
A subject needs and organising structure of knowledge if progression and effective assessment is to be possible. To know what progress is, we need more than lists of stuff known, but actually, something about the particular nature of knowing that makes an analysis one that illuminates coherently, in an organised and orderly and consistent way. If we can’t agree on that consistency then we can’t agree on what a good argument is or indeed, a good explanation or a good evaluation.
Religions and belief systems, worldviews as some call them, do not offer identical modes of knowing, they do not all share a common organising structure of knowledge. The mode of knowing is the ordering system of knowledge, the method behind the maths solution, the hermeneutical mode, the thing that determines whether something is valued or not and so sets the rules for evaluation. This makes comparability difficulty and so what tends to happen is an adoption of some sort of functionalist mentality, which is, itself an organising system of knowledge that is external to the knowledge. My suggestion is that ‘being Buddhist’ is not the same kind of being as ‘being Christian’. Is the subject content to be ordered in the service of some unacknowledged meaning-making structure, or is the whole point to gain an understanding of the meaning-making structure that is within a religion and belief system? This is an observation I am making and I would be interested to hear challenges to it. I just observe the multiplicity of methods in religious studies.
For RE, the pressure to assert a meaning-making structure on top of the ‘religions content’ is not just political, not just coming from a desire to promote ‘moderate religion’, or shared values, or some other secular intention, but it is also to create something that can be consistently assessed. Accountability generates its own colonisation of the form. Accountability matters but it can also distort and have unintended consequences if it is not in an appropriate relationship with the knowledge more generally, think of the power of league table performance measure systems and the impact this has had in the past for directing schools to focus on the boundaries of improvement most desired by the awarding system. When assessment priveledges the wrong kind of knowledge structure it becomes distortive. I worry that happens in some of the GCSE Religious Questions that get asked. (To read more about this have a look at a co-written article with Richard Coles here).
Challenge 4 – The struggle with personal and impersonal dimensions of structures of knowledge
This is a real sensitive spot for RE. The historical debates about the fear of indoctrination and the desire for an educationally ordered subject has had a particular impact on the knowledge debate. Intellectually, and hermeneutically, it is simply not tenable to argue that (crudely put) an individual person’s particular experience and brain operation doesn’t shape what they perceive (you can choose philosophers, neuroscientists or psychologists to find compelling arguments). In research, the battle between positionality and subjectivity versus positivism and objectivity is a lively one. Religious and non-religious worldviews are interior matters (as well as exterior ones). So the ‘innerspace’ of the spiritual life of the person is writ large in impact on RE. Yet engagement with spiritual practice, a key mode of knowing, is something we find controversial to navigate, though many would argue children naturally have spiritual lives. To explore trust and commitment, like friendship, requires the development of an understanding which is attenuated by inner acts of will – you need to ‘step into’, to some degree, to appreciate. You simply can’t ‘get’ the spiritual conception of silence if you have never ‘done’ silence. I think a significant aspect of knowing in RE comes in practical elements, like PE, art, or music, or for that matter citizenship. But this presents challenges for us. Sometimes the resistance to recognising this reality leads to an overly positivist understanding of our subject which seems to lock spirituality out of it altogether. We need to find a way back into those experiments that Experiential RE opened up.
My suggestion is that whatever model of RE we have, we should encourage all students to become proficient in at least two systems of knowledge construction around the data of religion that are related to their foci of study. In England, students will encounter other subjects that construct data from religion in their ways (history being an obvious example) and for many years ethics held a central position though even I as an author of ethics textbooks acknowledge it is not enough. I think the two methods used in school RE need to be close to the religious content matter. The two methods I gleaned from my schooling were spiritual and ethical. RE provided the ethical and the faith development programme the spiritual. Both were educational in a broad sense. I am less concerned about the number of religions taught then gaining depth in two knowledge organisations systems although the Jesuit schooling I had in the 1980s made sure I knew Christianity well (including a study of the reformation which I recall as a balanced account), had a pretty good overview of Judaism and Islam too and at sixth form we studied at least a dozen different religions. But maybe what mattered most of all were the modes of knowing that I was introduced to. I found my preparation in Ignatian spiritual visualisation a really helpful introduction into something I then encountered when living in Japan in Zen meditation, in the silence practised in the ecumenical community of Taize in France and also in the contemporary mindfulness movement. The practical knowing I learnt in that way seems to have illuminated many spiritual movements.
After the report has been launched I will be writing about its different elements in future blogs.
[note the important inclusion of correction in line:”Intellectually, and hermeneutically, it is simply not tenable to argue that (crudely put) an individual person’s particular experience and brain operation doesn’t shape what they perceive (you can choose philosophers, neuroscientists or psychologists to find compelling arguments).]
In education, is religion exclusively a matter of RE? Are RE debates being crippled by the assumption that it is?
(a partly developed set of thoughts on a hot afternoon)
The blogosphere is filled with debate about religious education in the English school setting. Read these offerings by Dr Kathryn Wright and Derek Holloway and the older debate between Denise Cush and Tim Jensen for a flavour of this. Meanwhile recent publications reveal something of the diversity in approaches to religious education (See Julian Stern’s survey of RE around the world), as well as powerful arguments for a more coherent and hermeneutically coherent approach to the subject – see the eagerly awaited guide to Critical Religious Education for what must be in my view one of the most important developments in contemporary RE, which, incidentally is sadly largely disregarded by most Local Agreed Syllabi and exam specifications that I have ever seen. At some point, I will write about my experience of PGCE RE external examining in 5 counties and my impression of the difference in quality and character of RE when there is a coherence between pedagogy and content in the syllabus.
For the moment I simply want to reflect on a thought. Many of the arguments about religious education draw in a more fundamental question about the idea of the inclusive classroom. So the debates are sensitive to the diversity of children being taught. However the inclusive classroom is a matter for any subject. This week I was externally examining a fascinating thesis by a scholar from Canada whose research had explored the idea of the Secular classroom (a particular ideal in the education system in the part of Canada he was studying). What he discovered was fascinating – whilst many teachers advocated an inclusive classroom, in practice what this looked like was something where there was stark disagreement on, following classic lines of disagreement in the notion of secular. For some teachers, the inclusive classroom was one where religion was silenced and removed. For others, the classroom should be a space where learners can express their identity in ways that are respectful of others, including the religious dimension of their identity.
The researcher, however, went on to find that the negotiation of religious identity in practical situations was something the teachers felt ill-equipped to manage. In some cases, they could not distinguish between conservative religious expression and radical extremism. In other cases, they simply did not how to deal with situations where equality of men and women conflicted with traditions of how men would avoid talking to women. In the actual business of day to day life at school, there were multiple moments when the business of schooling ran into difficulties that demanded religious expertise and also a settled and agreed philosophy of the secular classroom.
My colleague Dr Lynn Revell and I encountered this in higher education, in a research study that we are talking about at a conference at Liverpool Hope University next weekend. In that study, we found that it was really important that there were university staff who could negotiate the religious identities of students in the discussion around the implementation of PREVENT (or indeed in any opposition to that policy). I’ll blog about that research once the paper is published.
This has left me thinking about the debates in English RE. RE gets loaded with many moral and political objectives (often called the ‘educational’ ones) and these frequently relate to some vision of an open and fair society. But should these be dealt with by the RE curriculum alone, or should there be a debate about the role of education that teachers of RE need to provide the school community (teachers and school leaders)? Does there need to be an all teacher/ Teaching standards/ whole school all subjects debate about the kind of secular classroom we want to have in our schools, for any subject (and I would suggest that this should include schools of a religious character which could and most often probably do have an open attitude towards visible religious identity in their lessons)? Is this a key issue that is getting lost or wrapped up in the curriculum RE content argy-bargy?
Black History month has been a key mechanism for addressing the inclusion of Black History in Kent. Maybe Religious literacy is far more than a RE curriculum question, just as race is not located solely in cultural education? Maybe religious identity is relevant to History, English, Science and Art classrooms even more critically than the question of content covered in RE.
And finally, is RE inappropriately having to address all the issues related to religion in the school in such a way that the curriculum debate is being crippled my multiple overlaying agendas? Maybe, the biggest danger of all is that all of the matters related to religion become drawn into the subject RE, with the effect that intellectual matters are set aside in the service of greater moral and political aims. RE becomes a black hole for religion, and an opportunity for the rest of school to close the door and lock religion into the classroom, and keep it out of the rest of the school.
A ‘few’ years ago RE Online made a series of videos about places of worship which are available to watch on the web. See the whole lineup here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcvYqEhFsTqGq_CGaGG2-yg
An example of a What If Learning Approach in a Church of England Primary School
TransformLivesTeach made this video about What If Learning.