No other subject breaks free of rigid course boundaries like religious education - yet it appears to be one of the most underappreciated, underfunded and overburdened corners of the timetable.
A landmark research project this week shines a bright and often harsh light on RE, but many believe it is about to achieve unheralded prominence in Scottish schools.
Does Religious Education Work?, the result of three years' effort, is hailed as the most comprehensive study of RE ever undertaken in the UK. Glasgow University, with King's College London and Queen's University Belfast, gathered three million words of material from educationalists, psychologists, anthropologists and philosophers.
The pivotal research took place as ethnographers observed practices for 10 days in each of 24 schools, concentrating on the final year of compulsory RE. All schools, including seven in Scotland, had been deemed strong in religious education, by themselves or inspectors.
Glasgow University's James Conroy, in a briefing paper, answers the question in the report's title with "a heavily qualified `yes'": RE does work.
Professor Conroy, who believes the main findings apply throughout the UK, finds RE "offers students a positive experience and a pedagogy that focuses on developing their discursive abilities and makes a contribution to multicultural awareness".
There are, however, many "buts". The subject - known variously in Scotland as RE (in Catholic schools), religious and moral education (RME), and religious, moral and philosophical studies (RMPS) - has been loaded by policy-makers with "too many competing imperatives", including citizenship, multicultural awareness, moral development, religious observance, and sex and relationship education.
"This is too large a burden for religious education to carry and it necessarily sacrifices some of these entailments to foreground others," says Professor Conroy.
RE is often badly treated, the report reveals. Funding varies widely, but can be as low as 50p per pupil per year. RE is expected to achieve as well as other humanities subjects, despite less room in timetables. National emphasis on skills makes it difficult for teachers to "articulate a sense of value and status to RE", and they often feel like "apologists" for their subject.
One Scottish practitioner explained that, by teaching history as well as RMPS, greater credibility was conferred on teachers by pupils.
Some teachers, fearful of being seen to impose beliefs, had "strong anxieties about making any definitive ethical claims" for religions; they frequently stop conversations around controversial topics, researchers found.
The study of world religions can be superficial, partly due to non- specialists taking classes; one Scottish teacher recalled a colleague reducing Islam to "Arabs and camels". In Scotland, "engagement with questions of relevance to students' lives" often waits until Higher.
RE, increasingly subsumed into faculties, appeared to be in danger of losing its identity. Citizenship has "encroached" on its territory; more than half of pupils thought it far and away the subject RE most resembled.
This troubles Professor Conroy, who explained at a conference last year that citizenship was "about eliding the distinctions between people; religion is about what distinguishes people".
Yet the findings of this report must be set against unprecedented interest and optimism around RE, expressed elsewhere.
Only 1,323 pupils sat Higher RMPS in 2006; this year, there may be 4,100 candidates. There are several theories for the upsurge, including a post- 911 eagerness to understand religious belief and a Higher that is considered by many to be too easy - 52.5 per cent of candidates achieved an A in 2009 and 31 per cent last year, well above similar subjects.
RE also appears to have reached a tipping point. The first specialist teachers were trained in the 1970s; the first Highers took place in 1985; and the five-14 curriculum bolstered its status in the 1990s.
Until about a decade ago, headteachers had most likely endured poor RE as pupils, explains David Jack, SQA principal assessor for Higher and Advanced Higher RMPS and principal teacher at Paisley's Gleniffer High. Today's heads had better experiences and are more open-minded about RE; an increasing number have taught it themselves.
At Forres Academy, the subject has grown in popularity. In a school of 1,000 pupils, there is a joint Intermediate 2 and Higher class of 30. Principal teacher of RMPS Marj Adams says her head treats the subject like any other. S3 pupils all do an Intermediate 1 RMPS unit, while S4s take an Intermediate 2 unit.
Pupils tend to take the subject more seriously when core lessons lead to certification, as happens in a rising number of schools. In years to come, Patricia Watson, HMIE national specialist for RME, says the inspectorate "would like to see schools continuing to seek opportunities to accredit young people's achievement and learning in core RME".
Stephen McKinney, a senior lecturer at Glasgow University's school of education who has written about the history of Scottish RE, sees the subject in a state of unprecedented strength, since it moved to the mainstream of curricular guidelines and received enthusiastic backing from Education Secretary Michael Russell.
But all is not rosy. He points to "serious anxiety" about the commitment of universities, where specialist posts have been cut. Also, the disappearance of full-time subject advisers has made it hard for teachers to share ideas.
On the plus side, he underlines that Patricia Watson has established a close working relationship with schools and universities.
She believes teachers are getting "quite excited" about Curriculum for Excellence, which has made RME one of its eight key areas - a status that for some time was far from guaranteed. There remain difficulties with resourcing, which "varies greatly across the country", and superficiality, but more signs of deep thinking are emerging, she says.
RME's Curriculum for Excellence group recently identified that more topical, specialist continuing professional development was crucial for a subject that had to reflect dynamic global issues.
Mrs Watson underlines how far RE has come, since the seminal 1972 Millar Report condemned an unimaginative subject overly preoccupied with Christianity and bible study. Religious education is often heavily faith- based in other countries - individual pupils choose the one religion it is most appropriate for them to learn - and influential figures in Scandinavian and eastern Europe want to learn about the Scottish way.
"RE has never been in a healthier state," says Joe Walker, an RMPS principal teacher and author of subject textbooks, because Curriculum for Excellence has given back freedom to be creative. Pupils thrive in discussion-heavy classes, diving into life's ultimate questions unshackled by course parameters and feeling, perhaps for the first time, the intoxication of deep thought, he says.
Paradoxically, RE's appeal also damages its standing in pupils' eyes. "They come in and say, `Are we doing work or are we discussing?'" says Mr Walker. "The perception is you don't do any work - you sit and talk." Pupils believe a "proper" subject involves writing things down, but Mr Walker hopes Curriculum for Excellence may soon change such attitudes.
Several people interviewed for this article remarked that the Curriculum for Excellence, with its emphasis on values and critical thinking, "could have been written for RME". But it will need more time and more specialist teachers. Only last term the SQA's external assessor for the 2010 religious studies Standard grade surmised that pupils were sitting the exam having had core lessons only, possibly taken by non-specialists.
Despite the optimism, until it is treated with the same respect as other subjects, RE remains a poor relation.
"Does Religious Education Work?" findings at http:bit.lyeuwszd
THE SUBJECT'S PROS AND CONS
- Often led by highly committed, thoughtful teachers;
- teachers often highly regarded by pupils;
- positive contribution to multicultural awareness.
- may emphasise skills of debate, reflection and creative discussion, in contrast to other subjects' exam-driven approach;
- subject stands as counter-cultural within schools, of all types.
- Pupils show widespread ignorance of basic religious concepts;
- suffers from competing expectations, under-resourcing and limited time allocations;
- exam and non-exam pupils can be taught in same class;
- teachers - often under-qualified - feel under pressure, undervalued and lack confidence;
- teachers caught between helping explore life's big questions, and teaching to the test.
MAKING A CASE FOR RE
Gillian Baxter, RME teacher, Glenwood High, Glenrothes, Fife
"RME is about understanding how people react to events - and 90 per cent of people have a faith. It shows religion in a positive light; post-911, and with people like Richard Dawkins, who I'm a fan of, children are only seeing negative aspects."
Rachael McCallum, Teacher, Sacred Heart Primary, Girvan, South Ayrshire
"Religion can get people angry; pupils have to understand why they are getting angry. It's an ideal interdisciplinary subject that we can use to make sure children know what is happening in the world, while still keeping their faith."
Ruth Kaplan, Acting RMPS principal teacher, Royal High, Edinburgh
"I don't know which other subjects would explore values in such depth. If you took out `religious' and called it `citizenship', you would be unable to question and critique religion in the same way."
Observations from 2010 SQA external assessors' reports for RMPS:
- Buddhism is the most popular world religion at Higher, and crime and punishment is the most popular moral issue.
- Higher students regularly confuse scientific and creationist arguments for God's existence.
- Many Higher candidates are unaware of the term "human condition".
- Knowledge of Christian beliefs about the death of Jesus is "limited" at Standard grade (religious studies).
- An Intermediate 2 section on the existence of God was particularly popular, being answered by more than half the candidates.
- At Advanced Higher, there was a "significant shift" to the medical ethics option, with about two-thirds of schools choosing this over religious experience.
CATHOLIC RE - IN A CLASS OF ITS OWN?
The Catholic Church's lead body, the Bishops' Conference of Scotland, recently published its requirements for RE in This is Our Faith, aimed at P1-S3.
Teachers should avoid "presenting all denominations or faiths as equally true". The aim of Catholic RE "will always be to form young people who follow Jesus", while "respecting pupils' opinions and faith backgrounds".
Time for learning about other religions "will be limited": pupils should not study Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism until S3, and there is no place for the explicit study of atheism or humanism.
Separate Curriculum for Excellence outcomes and experiences for Catholic RE and non-denominational RME underline fundamentally different approaches: the former should offer "opportunities for evangelisation"; by S3, pupils in non-Catholic schools are expected to apply "a range of moral viewpoints, including those independent of religion".