(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.

Bob Bowie