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Redefining the divine;Opinion

RE has to change with the times if it wants to motivate pupils to study to certificate level, says Joe Walker.

WE ALL know a good teacher. We all know a good department. But what makes a good subject? Running a department commended by HMI, I assume that my religious education has been approved and it therefore must be successful. Strange then that I am about to suggest to fellow teachers that our subject needs revitalising.

The subject that stands still dies. A recent education epistle referred to the likely preservation of subjects that had "stood the test of time": mere longevity appears to be our current mark of validity. Subjects are successful as a function of survival - science writer Richard Dawkins would be proud. Surely there must be more to it than that?

I recently completed a small-scale research on "What constitutes success in RE?", funded by the Farmington Institute in Oxford. It was something of a Holy Grail quest, so to speak.

The findings suggested that RE requires urgent revitalising, though not for the reasons I had initially suspected. Like all RE teachers, I am occasionally prone to subject paranoia. However, with pupil perceptions of RE, I have discovered that my paranoia is out of date.

Pupils enjoy the flexibility of approach of the subject and respond well to its "alternative" flavour. Pupils suggested - not exactly in these words - that RE gave them back the ownership of their own education which other, more didactic pedagogies often failed to.

Success for pupils seems to have something to do with a feeling that this subject appears to value their views, opinions and developing reasoning skills. RE broadens their outlook on life and is liberating while much other education is perceived as constricting.

Most significantly perhaps, pupils considered RE to be successful because it seems to deal with things that are real. Many commented that although they knew that other subjects "mattered" in terms of what society expected of them, the topics in RE mattered ultimately - that was their own expression.

According to pupils, while there are many things about RE that are not definable and quantifiable (advocates of payment by results take note), they make a difference about how learners perceive, understand and cope with the world in which they live. The outcomes of RE are often more nebulous than in other areas, but pupils saw this as a strength.

Yet the subject does not fare well in uptake at certificate level. My research suggested that there are numerous other subjects which are not valued at all but still manage to attract hordes of acolytes. Pupils seemed to think that RE was important, interesting and enjoyable, but still they stay away in droves at subject choice time.

Surprisingly, negative peer pressure was not a significant factor. Perhaps pupils are just more confident now, less afraid of any "stigma" attached to certificate RE. Also they demonstrated that apart from English and maths, they do not believe in subject hierarchy. They could see no valid reason why one subject was considered to be substantially different to another. Perhaps we need some pupils involved when drawing up national curricular guidelines.

The real nut for cracking is job value. Yes, although the yuppie years are said to be over, the vast majority of pupils still see school as existing primarily to get them a job. In as much as RE does not seem to contribute greatly to this fundamental aim, it is returned to the bottom of the pack, to be resumed later provided the pupil does not run out of school years.

Teachers need to face this perception. For too long RE has tried to hang on to some purity of pursuit, afraid to wrestle with Mammon, fearful that it might be sucked into some moral cesspit, akin to that facing the Bank of Scotland, where work and religious things get messily muddled. To revitalise RE we need to drag it into the very late 20th century before it is over. As illustration, I sent my first e-mail last week, whereas my pupils have their own vibrant home pages on the web.

Certainly RE requires some internal tweaking - it always will. However, fundamentally it needs to change its mind-set. There are many skills developed by RE that are of value to society generally. How forcefully is this proclaimed? We often ask if the world out there really knows what modern RE is. How will it know if we don't send the message? Pupils enjoy the subject, they consider it important and they think it is intrinsically valuable.

Many of the old battles are won. New campaigns await. Revitalising RE requires that it be seen to be relevant to life as it is lived, whatever we think of that. Pupils believe that RE deals with things that matter. We now need to set such things in a more relevant context. In the world of the soundbite the lengthy exposition of the value of a subject needs urgent attention. RE is successful, the pupils have spoken. Go back to your classrooms and prepare for PR.

* Details of bursaries for research in RE can be obtained from the Farmington Institute, Harris Manchester College, Mansfield Road, Oxford, OX1 3TD.

Joe Walker is head of religious studies at Liberton High School in Edinburgh and author of a number of RE textbooks. The article is based on his keynote address to the conference of the Association of Teachers of Religious Education in Scotland, which takes place at Scottish Churches House, Dunblane, tomorrow (Saturday) and Sunday.

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