Religion is back in the educational news. Within Europe, the events of September 11, 2001 and their consequences have prompted a keen interest in discussing the study of religions in education. A Council of Europe project on bringing the dimension of religion into intercultural education is currently under way, involving more than 40 states.
Even France, with its long-standing policy of secularism (laicite) in state education, and despite the divisive law prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols in school, is introducing religious study into the curriculum.
In England and Wales, chief inspector David Bell has given us his views on the anachronism of current arrangements for the daily act of collective worship. And now we have a draft National Framework for Religious Education, just published for consultation by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
Why the new framework? In England and Wales, RE syllabuses for community schools (and voluntary-controlled schools) are intended to take account of local circumstances. Conferences are set up by each education authority, bringing together representatives of teachers, faith communities and local politics. Each LEA also has its own standing advisory council for religious education (SACRE), with a similar broad composition, whose functions include advising the LEA.
The downside of the current system is that, although RE is the entitlement of every pupil, the subject has been marginalised through not being part of the national curriculum. This is where the national framework comes in. It will not replace agreed syllabus conferences (although a national syllabus may be the next step down the line), but is meant to help streamline their work and to encourage more uniformity.
The framework has been produced in consultation with faith communities and professional associations, with a writing team drawn from RE professional bodies, including teachers, plus a QCA and Department for Education and Skills presence.
It has some real strengths. The huge social changes that have taken place since the 1950s are recognised. Britain is seen as a plural society, not just through its ethnic and religious composition but in its diversity of philosophical and spiritual viewpoints. Britain is also seen in a global context.
The type of RE envisaged in the framework reflects this. It is neither about promoting nor eroding religious faith. It aims to develop pupils' knowledge and understanding of Christianity and the other main religions and world views - including humanism - to be found in Britain. But RE is equally about engaging with issues and developing skills of interpretation, reflection and critical analysis, helping pupils to develop and articulate their own informed views and opinions on religion.
The subject is not seen in isolation, but as making strong contributions to citizenship education, personal and social health education and the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils, and also in combating prejudice and stereotyping. It also draws from areas such as philosophy and the arts.
However, it has weaknesses. The sharp division of attainment targets (learning about and learning from religion) invites teaching to one or the other, rather than integrating different elements of learning. Some teachers will concentrate on subject content rather than involve pupils with issues of personal concern.
The framework's view of cultures is inadequate, using the language of separate bounded cultures and downplaying the changing cultural forms and combinations that arise across generations.
If RE is to address issues of stereotyping, more consideration needs to be given to this issue. Although there are opportunities to include "another religious community with a significant local presence", there should be more flexibility for adapting the framework to local needs.
Beyond a few examples of children's activities, there is nothing said specifically on teaching, despite the framework's central objective of improving the quality of learning in RE. Teachers need to know how to interest children in the subject, not simply that they should.
There is some excellent school-based research and development which shows that discussing teaching and learning methods with pupils produces practical ideas, strengthens their self-esteem and leads to more enthusiastic learning.
Despite some weaknesses, the draft framework should be welcomed. But if the Government is serious about its implementation, then the final version should be supported by a programme of in-service training and a real effort to recruit more specialist teachers.
Postgraduate certificate of education secondary students in RE are an increasingly rare breed, yet there is still no golden hello from the Teacher Training Agency, even though the need is so clear.
And many teachers doing in-service courses are self-funded, having found it difficult or impossible to access money devolved to schools for Inset.
There should be a simple and transparent system for funding for training.
But enough carping. The framework, despite its glitches, is a step in the right direction.
Robert Jackson is professor of education at Warwick university. His new book, Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy, has just been published by RoutledgeFalmer.
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