'Religious education needs a rebrand – it should be fascinating, challenging and hard'

20th September 2017 at 14:36
The complex nature of religious and non-religious world views can't be packaged up in neat boxes, writes Dr Geoff Teece

From divinity to scripture, to religious knowledge, to religious studies – the past century has seen many attempts to “rebrand” religious education.

These efforts to find a new name for the teaching of religion and its place in children’s lives show no signs of slowing. Recent versions include philosophy and ethics, beliefs and values and PEARS – philosophy, ethics and religious studies.

Part of the reason the subject has seemingly such a variety of names is due to well-meaning attempts to market it, and make it sound more attractive to pupils. Such rebranding reflects changes in perceptions of the role that religion and religious education should play in society in general and schools in particular.

I believe we shouldn’t give up the search for a better name for RE.

It is crucial that we have a better way of describing what the subject could be and what it should do. The current National Commission on Religious Education – working to come up with a new vision for the subject to improve the quality and rigour of RE lessons – might consider renaming it Worldview Studies.

Of course, in some schools, RE is a flourishing and excellently taught subject. Indeed, at GCSE and A level, RE has recently been amongst the fastest-growing subjects in popularity. Sadly, as a number of recent reports have highlighted (for example, Ofsted 2013, 2010, 2007), in too many schools RE is not taught as effectively as it might be.

There are many possible reasons for this, a major one being that there are not enough specialist teachers, and many non-specialists are confused about the subject’s nature and purpose. In some cases, RE departments have tried to make it into something other than the study of religion, throwing in heavy doses of philosophy and ethics so that students can see it as relevant. Many teachers frequently state that such an approach helps to make RE more appealing to teenagers.

RE, or should I say Worldview Studies, should be fascinating, challenging and hard. It is one of the first chances young people get to learn about others from different backgrounds. But, the more our society has become less ‘religious’, the more RE has become a vehicle to take on every need in a school to teach about citizenship or sex education. It cannot take on and meet all these needs, but getting to grips with this problem is proving difficult.

'Relevant and useful'

There is no need to dress RE up in the clothes of other subjects. There is so much that is fascinating, relevant and useful to explore in world religions through learning about the beliefs and values of others around the world and their history. Worldview Studies, therefore, might be a more accurate description for the 21st century of what it can do.

This new name can encourage a new curriculum focus on the complexity of religions around the world. Moreover, it has the potential to be more inclusive; not everyone claims to have a religion (indeed, recent surveys in this country have highlighted a decline in religiosity), but everyone, whether they know it or not, has a world view – a philosophy of life, a framework for understanding the world, some of which is religious.

It is important here to make a note of two terms that in modern times have become almost synonymous; faith and belief. Unhelpfully, the word "faith" has become almost exclusively tied to the notion of religious faith, synonymous with the idea of religious beliefs. It is much more helpful to understand faith as an orientation to the world, a way of seeing the world upon which beliefs are built. So human faith does not necessarily result in a person holding religious beliefs; their beliefs may be purely secular. Worldview Studies could help students investigate and understand this world of faith and belief through disciplines such as anthropology and sociology, as well as religious studies, philosophy and theology.

Of course, this leads to the question: how should world views be included in a curriculum where time and space is limited?  It is interesting to contemplate the following list alongside religious world views; existentialism, hedonism, humanism, scientism, environmentalism, Marxism. What about consumerism, materialism, celebrity cultism? 

Worldview Studies – with this emphasis on looking at faith and belief using investigation - will hopefully discourage any unwitting spoonfeeding of facts by teachers. The complex nature of religious and non-religious world views cannot be packaged up in neat boxes ready for pupils to unpack, remember and regurgitate.

Dr Geoff Teece is an honorary research fellow in religious education at the University of Exeter Graduate School of Education

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