New research by the Professional Council for RE has found that among secondary pupils aged 11 to 18, those who enjoy the subject, and see positive benefits for their own lives from studying religion, outnumber those who are negative about RE by nearly four to one.
Religion in our society is often vilified or mocked, so that the only vicars on television are buffoons, or have been caught with their trousers down. This might be funny, but it is not very realistic: a vicar is more likely to be a socially engaged activist for justice than someone who behaves like the incumbent of Dibley. And when it comes to Islam, the media's false image is all fundamentalism, terrorism and fanaticism, while the global reality is of a worldwide Ummah (community) of spiritual strength devoted to submission in peace to Allah.
This stereotype of religions as daft or dangerous rubs off on RE in school. The old association with indoctrination was shaken off decades ago, but pupils can still pick up the impression, maybe from parents, media or even teachers, that RE will tell them what to think.
The PCFRE has been researching what pupils make of RE:do they get from it knowledge of religions, respect for others, a chance to develop their own beliefs and to reflect on life's big questions? I have been managing the team of action researchers involved in the project, called "Listening to young people in secondary RE". Our research, with a representative sample of more than 1,000 11 to 19-year-olds, is showing that mostly the answer is a rather well expressed "yes".
Some pupils value the space RE makes for their own faith: a Muslim 16-year-old writes: "From RE I have noticed the similarities and differences between my religion and others and also how they differ on certain issues, such as euthanasia. I like RE because the knowledge of my religion is shared among other people so they know a bit more about my way of life."
Others see the benefits of RE's contribution to social harmony. "So far I have got one thing out of RE lessons, that is to give respect to everyone as much as possible," writes one boy, who describes himself as "Roman Catholic (not too strict)".
A Christadelphian 14-year-olds says: "RE has taught me to see both sides of arguments and about other religions. I like it because it prepares me for later life. If I encounter other religions I will be prepared to discuss with them their beliefs."
There is some concern when many religions are taught confusion may be the result, but good RE seems to clarify confusion in ways pupils like: a 14-year-old Christian girl notes that "RE has really helped me to sort out my beliefs. Before I started on this course I just went to church because that's what I've always done, but now I find that I really believe in what I have been hearing for all these years."
RE's agenda for moral education is enjoyed particularly by those who take GCSE (over 250,000 of them this summer, the highest number ever). A 15-year-old Christian girl's comment seems to render the citizenship Order unnecessary: "I love the open discussion we have in our RE lessons. Expressing your opinions is a valuable way of improving your communication skills. Being informed of the different religions and the effects of religion is beneficial to everyone living in a multicultural society... Ignorance causes lots of problems and RE is a brilliant method of overcoming this."
RE teachers and syllabuses claim to enable students to consider philosophical issues and develop thinking skills. Again, some students concur. One 16-year-old girl writes: "I like the opportunities to explore and question different philosophies of life and different lifestyles. I am also interested in finding out answers or clues, if you like, to the mysteries of life."
Where RE is still sometimes undervalued in school and society, listening to young people might yield a more favourable evaluation of the subject.
Lat Blaylock is executive officer of the Professional Council for RE. The PCfRE will publish 'Listening to young people in secondary RE' in September. Contact them at Royal Buildings, Victoria Street, Derby DE1 1GW. Tel: 01332 296655. Website: www.pcfre.org.uk