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).]