Resurrection of religious study

5th November 2004 at 00:00
It's growing in popularity and religious education has just been given a new national framework. Nicholas Pyke reports

The book normally known as the Koran can be spelt in several different ways, from the standard Koran to Quran, taking in Quoran and the punctilious Qur'an.

The range of accepted spellings does not normally include "Goran", though, which is how it recently appeared in a religious education syllabus drawn up by a local education authority with a large proportion of Muslim pupils.

Unfortunately this sort of lapse, if unusual, is not wholly out of character for a subject which is still marginalised in some parts of the country, according to the Professional Council for Religious Education (PCFRE), the main group representing RE teachers.

Although it is compulsory by law, religious education is not part of the national curriculum and its content is overseen by 151 separate standing advisory committees for religious education, one for each local authority.

The results are variable. Some locally-approved syllabuses are excellent, says the council, but an estimated 15-20 per cent remain ill-researched and vague.

This lingering lack of professionalism is one of the main targets for the new national framework for RE, launched last week by Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary.

Following 18 months of consultation with the main faith groups, teachers and even the humanists, the document lays out recommended content and marking schemes for RE. Most believe it will be a major boost for a subject which faces multiple challenges.

For decades RE had bumped along in the timetable, largely unloved by schools or pupils, commanding little interest or authority despite its compulsory status. Until Mr Clarke took the subject under his wing, politicians had tended to ignore it, fearing the emotive headlines that meddling with Christianity or the Bible could generate.

Even now RE is drastically short of specialist teachers and is more likely to be taught by a non-qualified member of staff - quite possibly a keen Christian from elsewhere in the school - than any other subject on the secondary timetable.

The past 15 years, though, have seen a remarkable change in fortune. In 1987, just 15 per cent of pupils were taking GCSEs in the subject, but by 2003 that had risen to 53 per cent, leaving it arguably the biggest of the humanities, ahead of both history and geography.

It is also one of the fastest-growing subjects at A-level. The numbers taking the two-year course have risen from 7,546 in 1992 to 12,671 in 2003.

At AS-level, the one-year course that forms the first half of an A-level qualification, RE is now more popular than politics, music, German and Spanish, and nearly as popular as economics.

Its popularity is not universal, however. RE remains overwhelmingly a female subject at A-level. More than 70 per cent of entrants at A2 (the second full year of A-level study) are women, a gender imbalance teachers are keen to rectify. But the astonishing success of RE - confirmed, to some extent by the active interest shown by Mr Clarke - requires some explanation.

Partly it is a function of technical change. In 1997 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the examination boards brought in a one-year GCSE, a "short course" covering about half the material of a full, two-year GCSE.

Suddenly thousands of pupils found it was a subject worth taking seriously, even on a time allocation as small as 5 per cent of the timetable.

Since its introduction, the numbers taking the short course have risen from 12,000 in 1987 to 224,000 in 1993 and continue to increase sharply. RE is also changing its image and, anecdotally at least, this is another factor in its new-found attraction.

No longer is the subject one associated indelibly with Bible study.

Instead, RE is emerging as a broadly philosophical pursuit, even though the main concentration is on religious belief systems, with an emphasis on Christian ethics.

The introduction in the new framework of the chance to discuss non-religious world views, such as humanism or atheism, is a further step in this direction. At GCSE the syllabus now offers topics such as crime and punishment, the ethics of sex and wealth and poverty. At A-level there are arguments for and against the existence of God, the nature of evil, and the ethics of Christianity.

There is also, of course, the opportunity to look at other faiths in detail. There are few other places in the timetable where such broad-ranging topics could fit comfortably.

One of them is citizenship, the pet project of David Blunkett, Mr Clarke's predecessor, which is now a compulsory lesson.

RE teachers were concerned the newcomer would squeeze their subjects to the margins once again. If anything, though, religious education is winning out and even taking on some functions of citizenship, certainly in relation to collective and individual ethics, globalism and the place of community action.

RE and stewardship of the environment, for example, is a growing and entirely new area of interest. In a number of schools citizenship is actually taught by the RE department. RE teachers themselves have rarely been as enthusiastic and the Church of England, which has lobbied hard for the changes, will tell all its schools to adopt the new framework.

But not everybody is in favour of the approach embodied in the framework.

For committed humanists and atheists, a subject which still sees the world largely through Christian eyes remains unacceptable, even if last week's shift in their direction with the inclusion of non-religious world views was welcome. The British Humanist Association played a part in drawing up the document but would still prefer to see an entirely different lesson called, straightforwardly, philosophy.

Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh schools have approved the changes, but only in so far as they apply to other people. Their children will continue to get their own distinctive RE lessons, in accordance with their church or faith teachings.

Conservative Christians, too, have doubts about anything that suggests RE should be a comparative study of beliefs. It was the target of sustained lobbying in the run-up to the 1988 Education Reform Act from prominent parliamentary figures including Baroness Caroline Cox and the late Baroness Young.

Inspired by the Christian Institute, a well-connected lobby group with Biblically-based views, they declared war on "multi-faith mishmash" and demanded that, for the first time, RE be pinned down as a largely Christian subject. They succeeded. The Act says that RE must be "predominantly" Christian).

Yet it appears that the tide has been flowing in the opposite direction.

Scholars and activists have pushed forward both RE and collective worship as issues of pressing concern - there was nothing pressing about them in the past - as they demanded a better deal for their children. As a senior C of E observer put it last week, the rising standards in RE are due primarily not to teachers, Anglicans or ministers, all of whom have played their part, but to "serious minded Muslims".

World events and the growing desire to understand the Muslim world and the Middle East have also made an impact, says Lat Blaylock, speaking for the PCFRE, although the trend in favour of RE predates the events of 911.

"The climate with regard to RE has shifted substantially in recent years, and it's not unconnected with the political significance of Islam.

"It is increasingly necessary for the Government to take RE seriously - and there are educational benefits too," he says.

Then there are the growing numbers of ethnic-minority children in schools, most of them from non-Christian faiths, Islam and Hinduism in particular.

They already account for 12 per cent of the school population and rising.

Will it remain possible to demand that RE takes a universally Christian outlook in future? The subject might find that further evolution is needed if it wants to keep its compulsory slot on the timetable.


These demands would not be out of place on a university degree course in philosophy. In fact they are tasks set out for 11 to 14 year-olds in the new framework for religious education:

* Analyse and compare the evidence and arguments used when considering issues of truth in religion and philosophy;

* Discuss and evaluate how religious beliefs and teachings inform answers to ultimate questions and ethical issues;

* Apply a wide range of religious and philosophical vocabulary consistently and accurately, recognising the power and limitations of language in expressing religious ideas and beliefs;

* Interpret and evaluate a range of sources, texts and authorities from a variety of contexts;

* Reflect on the relationship between beliefs, teachings and ultimate questions, using reasoned arguments;

* Express insights into the significance and value of religion and other world relationships personally, locally and globally;

* Reflect and evaluate beliefs about world issues such as peace and conflict, wealth and poverty and the importance of the environment.

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