Curriculum - RE - Keep the faith

12th June 2009 at 01:00
Religious education is being sidelined, questioned and merged into citizenship. But many defend its importance, as Jonna Dagliden reports

Judith Chaudhuri used to teach RE in a school in Norfolk. She was passionate about teaching and her pupils had the second best improved GCSE exam results in the school's history.

She remembers when she arranged for the "Gsus bus" to come and visit, believing it would help pupils learn about Christianity in an interactive way.

Each pupil was equipped with a computer to answer questions related to film clips shown in the bus, run by Counties, a Christian charity that provides churches and schools with resources to make christianity understandable in the 21st century. The school agreed to the visit, but otherwise their support was limited.

"One head of year was furious about the bus and passed that attitude on to the pupils. As a consequence, when I came back to teach the children, they would not sit down and didn't want to be taught," she says.

This was just one of many occasions when Mrs Chaudhuri felt her subject was misunderstood. When the senior management team later cut RE to once a fortnight she left her job in protest.

"To save money, the school scheduled an activity afternoon on Wednesdays called `Enrichment'. The time was used by teachers offering non- curriculum, hobby-type activities that pupils could opt into and the time for it was taken from RE," she says. "It was just a ploy to reduce staffing costs."

A more flexible RE curriculum, coupled with the rise of citizenship and PSHE, has left many schools confused. The subjects touch on moral and ethical dilemmas and make reference to different religions, leaving enormous potential for overlap.

RE is not about to die off, however. Entries for GCSE rose 2 per cent in 2007-2008. There were 470,000 GCSE entries overall, whereas citizenship had about 89,000 entries. At A-levels, 20,134 candidates took RS in 2008 (19,006 in 2007) and 25,131 took it at AS-level (24,454 in 2007), according to the Joint Council for Qualifications.

Terence Copley, professor of religious education at the University of Oxford and Exeter, and author of more than 40 books for children, believes that RE may be under threat, despite its renewed popularity.

"The increasing flexibility of the curriculum has led to some headteachers not being sympathetic to RE, allowing too much of it to feed into citizenship," he says.

Professor Copley also believes that some teachers think it's easier to teach citizenship because it is a common denominator. "Atheists and religious people will agree with the importance of teaching citizenship. But I think that's pretty naive, because they'll also agree that religion is not going to go away."

In January last year, the Government introduced the Religious Education Action Plan and agreed to invest Pounds 1 million in RE over three years to support the subject. The Government is consulting about revised guidance, which will help strengthen the legal position of RE in the curriculum.

So why should RE teachers like Ms Chaudhuri continue to feel threatened by subjects such as citizenship and PSHE?

In Professor Copley's book, Indoctrination, Education and God: The Struggle for the Mind, he argues that RE has taken many forms in education. First it was multi-culturalism, then PSE and PSHE, and today it is citizenship, where pupils study ethics, the human condition and motivation.

Rosemary Rivett, director of professional services for the professional development organisation RE Today, and the executive officer for the teacher subject association, National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, doesn't think overlap is necessarily a negative development.

"Specialist RE teachers, who are far more numerous than specialist teachers of citizenship due to the relative newness of the subject, have a lot to contribute to the teaching of citizenship," she says.

"Indeed, some RE teachers have been proactive in making the links themselves, and offering to take responsibility for the delivery of both subjects."

Ms Rivett admits that some teachers and senior leaders in schools are not clear about the distinction between RE and citizenship. This is especially true where members of the school do not understand the value of RE or have had a negative experience of the subject.

"Fortunately," she says, "these people are on the decline. But by acting on these views, they place the school at risk of calling into question the extent to which it delivers to each child their educational entitlement." All the more reason to divide the two subjects, says Victoria Marston, a citizenship teacher who writes educational resources for a website, RE teachers she meets prefer to work on their own, leaving citizenship to specialists.

"As long as you put a subject with another, it gives the children a subconscious message that the teachers aren't that bothered and that subject is just something we're trying to squeeze in," she says.

Ms Marston believes that, while citizenship should focus on current affairs, RE should provide the basic facts about religion. However, some teachers fear citizenship is a secular alternative to RE - a moral education without the religious bits.

"One teacher even suggested to me that citizenship was a Marxist threat to RE, that it was tied up to particular political perceptions," says Norman Richardson, a lecturer in RE at Stranmillis University College in Belfast.

So what prompted the introduction of citizenship? Wasn't the increased government support for RE enough? These are questions Tom Bennett, head of religious studies and philosophy at Raine's Foundation School in Bethnal Green, east London, has asked himself many times. After all, the Education Reform Act 1988 stipulates that all schools must provide a social, moral, spiritual and cultural education to all pupils.

The rise in citizenship per se isn't a bad thing, but it is the method of delivery that worries him. "It is the sudden urgency of its introduction as a compulsory topic that is concerning," he says. "It was, as many things are, spawned in a laboratory in a think tank in Whitehall - it still has a somewhat artificial flavour about it."

Chantal Bramwell, who trained as a geography teacher and was asked to teach RE, now delivers citizenship for the home schooling organisation and believes that every so often a subject has to fight its corner.

She thinks it has become harder for RE teachers, noting that they have to worry about extremist views in the media and how they are going to come across in class.

"There is always the danger that you are going to offend someone," she says. "To begin with I didn't feel comfortable teaching RE. I didn't feel that I had the specialist knowledge."

In 2007, the Religious Education Council of England and Wales reviewed the right of parents to be able to excuse their children from religious education because they felt some were abusing that right.

Mr Richardson believes many parents have assumptions about how RE has been taught in the past. The assumption was that if you were teaching religion you were trying to convert them, he says. "There is still a public perception that that's what RE is doing."

Mr Copley adds that it is crucial to remember that children are not hostile to RE; they just don't like having religious - or any sort of views - rammed down their throats.

"Our job in RE is to educate children about the debate so that they understand the major world religions and also why some people choose to reject religious beliefs altogether," Mr Copley says.

Mrs Chaudhuri thinks we should see RE as a dance in order to understand. "You have to see the world from where you stand, but then you have to `dance' from the other side and see the world through others' eyes," she says. "If you don't have that dynamic movement between your own views and other people's views - you're part of the problem, rather than the solution."

Sadly, she believes she was forced to leave teaching because society is hostile towards religion and spirituality. If we are going to avoid conflicts that are tearing the world apart, she says, we need to be educated: "In this way we will learn to understand ourselves, history and the world around us."

According to Mr Copley, only RE can tackle religion head on. "If you're doing a citizenship unit on voting you may learn why Jehovah's witnesses don't vote - that's interesting and nice to know," he says. "But in the end you have not understood much about religion by learning fragments."

In a world with diminishing resources, religious and spiritual issues could become more important, not less, he said. "The kids that are growing up now are going to be asked to re-think basic assumptions to do with materialism and consumerism, that we never questioned seriously." The way teachers encourage these debates, rather than the subject they deliver them in, will be the real test of skill.


To see Ofsted's 2007 report, Making sense of religion, visit and go to the curriculum section.

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