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no national curriculum for RE and changes in school organisations, especially acadamisation, has left the legislation out of date with many schools abandoning RE because it falls in the gap between their independent status as an Academy and the curriculum legislation which presumes local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.