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Long read: The battle for the soul of RE

Many RE teachers want to see their subject cover all the -isms, from Hinduism to humanism. Others, however, argue that the subject is for study of the scriptures. As the RE Commission compiles its recommendations for the subject, battle lines are drawn

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Many RE teachers want to see their subject cover all the -isms, from Hinduism to humanism. Others, however, argue that the subject is for study of the scriptures. As the RE Commission compiles its recommendations for the subject, battle lines are drawn

There is a fine line, Anthony Towey believes, between RE lessons and cheap daytime TV.

“The government reforms to RE – it’s a classroom version of the Jeremy Kyle show,” Towey, director of the Aquinas Centre for Theological Literacy at St Mary’s University in West London, says.

“I know there are worse ways to get through the end of the day than a balloon debate about euthanasia, but subject specialists want their subject to be recognised on a par with history and geography.”

Towey is a member of the Commission for Religious Education, which is in the process of compiling a report for the government about how the subject should be taught.

This is a matter on which there are differing views. The commission calls for a "balanced programme” covering “a range of approaches to the study of religions, including phenomenology, philosophy, sociology, textual studies and theology. But some within the commission would prefer a stronger emphasis on theology than others. There is a battle underway for the soul of RE.

Engaging with God

On the one side, there are those – largely based in faith schools – who advocate a theological, scripture-based approach to the subject.

“For me, theology is best defined as thoughtful conversation about God,” says Towey.

“If you avoid engaging with the God question, you end up becoming mildly parasitic upon the practices of believers. You just look at what they do: it’s a faintly patronising outsider view. And religions are primarily insider expressions.”

And then there are those who think that RE should be a pluralistic study of world views, both religious and atheist.

“I’d include religious movements, like Rastafari and Baha’i,” says Denise Cush, professor of religion and education at Bath Spa University, and a fellow member of the RE Commission, says.

“And I think you need to include non-religious world views as well, to form a holistic understanding of people’s world views. So you need to look at the -isms. And the easiest -ism to get hold of is humanism.”

The difference between these two approaches can be seen in the contrasting ways they might teach pupils about creationism.

A school that followed the theological approach might teach the Old Testament story of creation as a gateway to understanding the science-versus-creationism debate.

“Is it a mythical story?” says Andy Lewis, director of RE at St Bonaventure’s Catholic School, in East London. “A literal story? A symbolic story? If students understand the concept of the story, they can get into that debate.

“You’re asking questions about the nature of God. Year 7s really enjoy discussions about: who is God? They get to grapple with some quite difficult questions there.”

Those advocating a more pluralistic, sociological approach would also teach the story of creation. They would just do it slightly differently. So Cush, too, would advocate textual study. “At some stage in children’s religious education, they would look at the creation stories – plural – in the Bible, as well as other creation stories from elsewhere,” she says.

'A mish-mash of citizenship and PSHE'

The subject tends to be managed locally, by standing advisory councils for RE (Sacres), meaning provision can be patchy. “And, within the academy system, it tends to be forgotten,” Cush says.

Although the commission recommends "a renewed and expanded role for SACREs", it was set up in an attempt to codify a national position on RE, including recommendations on how it is taught. This has involved hearing testimony from around 1,000 people – including teachers and pupils – with strong views on the subject.

The commission has been asked to produce the final draft of its advisory report for the Department for Education by September this year. Its interim report, published last September, argued that RE should help pupils to understand non-religious as well as religious world views.

Many who advocate a more theological approach to the subject therefore fear that their approach – which tends to be confined to faith schools – will be overlooked in the final version.

“A lot of people want RE to be a snapshot of the UK in 2018,” says Lewis. “There’s a real focus on this complexity and diversity.

“But the danger of this is: what’s the substance of your lessons? In some schools, it becomes ever-changing. A lot of schools do a lot of work about terrorism, or the murder of Jo Cox, or the shooting in Florida. It becomes very reactive.

“Is it the place of RE to teach about transgender children? I think there’s a place for that, but I don’t think that place is RE. You end up with a mish-mash of citizenship and PSHE.”

As a result, topics that could have a genuine theological underpinning become reduced to Jeremy Kyle headlines, Lewis believes.

“Once you understand theological concepts, you can have quite an interesting debate about euthanasia or abortion,” he says. “Why are some people who identify as Catholic happy with the idea of abortion? A la carte Catholicism: people who get their children baptised, but use contraception. If you want to understand that, you have to understand theology.”

'Any old teacher can teach it'

There is also a persistent shortage of trained RE teachers. In 2017, only 405 RE places were filled for entry into initial teacher training, making up 63 per cent of the government target of 643 places. This represents a 38 per cent drop in filled places since 2016.

“We haven’t got the qualified teachers,” says Cush. “It’s one of those subjects where schools think, ‘Oh, any old teacher can teach it, depending on their timetable’.”

And so, Anthony Towey believes, there is a tendency to understand religion only in terms of its outward expressions, such as religious festivals and forms of dress. “They’re stilted and staccato ways of expressing the inexpressible,” he says.

“The key to religion is this universal feeling of the transcendent or the numinous, or whatever. You could argue that religion is organised wonder.”

In his view, a sociological approach that treats all religions as equal is therefore untenable. “At the end of the day, an elephant is not a defective horse,” he says. What he means by this is that there is a tendency to view the world through the filter of the familiar.

“An overly confident sociological approach tends to propose that key elements of religion are the same, and there are different expressions thereof,” he says. “It’s like we put all the religions in a zoo, and we go around saying, ‘Ooh! Look at that! Look at that!’”

Existential questions

Cush, however, insists that Christian groups need not fear that there will be no space for scriptural study in the new curriculum: Britain’s history, literature and culture, after all, is predominantly Christian. “Every village has a church, but not every village has a mosque,” she says. “So you would do more Christianity. But you want to do other things, as well.

“I’d do what the theology side are doing, but I’d put it into a smaller space, because I’d want to fit in everything else.”

And, says Joyce Miller, former chair of the RE Council of England and Wales and a member of the RE Commission, “everything else” is not simply about including different belief systems.

“It’s about how humans interpret the world they live in,” she says. “And interpretation will always involve questions about belief and morality and knowledge.

“Sometimes it’s about theological questions. Sometimes it’s about ethical questions. Sometimes sociological questions. You can’t separate religion from philosophical and existential questions.”

This is true, she says, even within a faith community. “Every belief community is going to hold within it a huge range of faith and interpretation,” she says. “There’s never going to be one view that everyone believes in. Ask what people mean by God, and you’ll have a wide range of answers, even among people who believe in God.”

The role of RE, she believes, is to shine a light on these differing beliefs: to highlight how it is possible for Theravada Buddhists to practise their religion without even thinking about the concept of God, or how it is possible for a strongly identifying Jew to be an atheist.

“People are fascinating,” she says. “How they interpret their lives is fascinating. I think children are interested in how we live well, and how we live together.

“RE can bring light to those conversations.”

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