Joe Walker says RE teachers do competent, innovative work. So why do many educationists distrust the subject?
DESPITE A wish to avoid all things millennial, this seems a good time to take stock of religious education. This often misunderstood but quietly successful subject still manages to raise the ire of many 21st century Scots from all shades of the educational spectrum. What is the use of it? What does it do? Where is it going?
Remarkably, these questions still hound the subject in a way they don't other curricular areas. Let us explore the positive first.
Subject departments are generally staffed by competent teachers. Almost all recent HMI reports have painted pictures of individually healthy departments making positive contributions. Courses seem sound and are well taught. Methods are generally innovative, relevant and challenging.
RE departments are as keen as the next subject on raising standards. These days the RE teacher is rarely seen as an educational anomaly. Although religious and moral education is still in its infancy in many places, the 5-14 programme is on the move, and primary colleagues are often enthusiastic now they know the ropes. In my experience many primary RME programmes could put secondary RE departments to shame.
Certificate work, too is leaping ahead. The numbers following the Scottish Qualification Authority's short courses should make many mightier subjects shiver, and Standard grade is well-respected.
Let's also give the poor old Higher Still programme a break. Of course there are problems. Could we have expected it otherwise? After all, this was a rewrite of all educational provision for pupils beyond the age of 14. The courses are varied, stimulating, intellectually rigorous. They cover a wider spread of religious, moral and philosophical concepts than previous provision.
Pupils too, are arguably more amenable to RE as a valid curricular discipline. The unshakeable social dogmas of old, the morals and beliefs, are open to question. Social, political and cultural Scotland is awash with change.
Pupils appreciate reflective subjects which allow them to step out of the flow and critically examine what is actually happening. They recognise in RE a subject which allows them to challenge, explore, reflect and consider, but also gives them the confidence to act.
But prejudices about the subject still abound. Many educationists don't trust RE. It may still be the first subject thought of when curricular slimming is required. Even trendy liberal educational theorists can become draconian pragmatists when confronted with what has to be pushed to make room for more icing on the politically correct school cake. Take for example, the recent consultation paper which replaces 10 per cent of primary curricular time for RME with 12 per cent for RME and a whole gaggle of other subjects. Who will lose out here?
Moreover, as we move to more instrumental values in education, what price subjects with intrinsic worth? Producing a compliant right thinking workforce is all very well, but where is the creativity? RE should act as a thorn in the side of what society considers normal. Teachers may well soon be paid by results. In RE, as well as many other curricular areas, what counts as a result?
There is also still a lamentable confusion about curricular allocation for RE, which usually results in tension between the time it should get and the time it does. Can RE be considered a social subject? If it is, in terms of the Munn report a mode in itself, then should all pupils sit it as a Standard grade as they do modern languages?
So which yellow brick road should RE pursue in the 00s and beyond? There are three choices.
The purely religious road might involve greater focus on the multicultural nature of the subject and its value in encouraging tolerance. More narrowly, this route could be hijacked by those seeking to pursue one particular path of belief over others. That concern aside, there is mileage for many here, not least in its simplicity of approach.
But the role of critical reflection and evaluation of the beliefs and practices of religion would need to be uppermost in schools. Pupils have the internet and know how to use it. They can access all manner of religious information: what they need are the tools to assess it.
A second road is greater focus on moral issues. The trouble is that this opens the doors to "citizenship education". Though that may yet have its place, it may also lead to another exclusive set of dogmas, disguised as liberal and objective. While few today would require the automatic link of religion and morality, to leave out religious perspectives in favour of a wholly secular approach seems perilously skewed.
A third camp would replace RE entirely with the study of philosophy. This misses the point. Philosophical inquiry and traditional philosophy are not necessarily the same in the school context. The former is stimulating and energising, the latter more likely to lead to alienation of all but the intellectual cream. In the belief systems of the world, religious and secular, RE can do much to stir up the waters of philosophical inquiry, and many secondary RE departments and progressive primary schools achieve this. Philosophy is crucial to understanding religion and our place in the universe, but to see it as the only valid medium would be as wrong as asserting that Christianity is the only way to grapple with ultimate truths.
A combination of these three paths is what is required, in other words a development and consolidation of what RE is already doing well. The subject is beginning to find its feet. All that is needed now is support from those in Scotland who have the power to give it.
Joe Walker is principal teacher of religious education at Liberton High School, Edinburgh.