Religious Education is a mess. I’ve taught it for nearly 13 years now. I describe myself as an interested agnostic of New Mysterion tendencies, with an appalling love of melodrama, ritual and theatre. I’ve never been tempted by the musk of any other subject, because no other subject offers, to me, the same great sweep of ethics, history, literature, philosophy and magic as RE. It’s compulsory until 18, but it’s not a national curriculum subject; it’s not on the English Baccalaureate (allegedly because former education secretary Michael Gove didn’t think it was rigorous enough – possibly correctly), despite a vigorous campaign to include it.
It’s a mess because there are so few quality Kitemarks to guarantee its depth and content. Up until key stage 4, its syllabus is decided locally, by Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education (SACREs), who represent local faith communities. Quite why the content of a statutory subject should be decided in this way escapes me. Could you conceive of geography or maths being drawn up according to whoever cared enough nearby? There’s nothing wrong with local culture being represented and used as a lever for learning; there’s everything wrong with undemocratic interest groups dictating what your child should and shouldn’t learn.
It’s also in a mess because our relationship to religion is, well, messy. In an increasingly secular society, many are uncomfortable discussing the meaning and value of RE. Many still see it as a vehicle for proselytising, even though confessional RE (as it was called) vanished decades ago. Even some among the religious wonder if school is the place for learning about religion, which is often an intensely personal affair, and not one that is easily conveyed in classrooms.
Another reason it’s a mess is that it often succumbs to the worst excesses of the woolliest teaching practices. Because we often find it hard to decide exactly what it means to be religiously educated, we fudge the methods, the content and the outcomes. I’ve been in schools where they will spend a whole term building a mosque out of polystyrene blocks, after maybe one lesson on its structure. I’ve seen end-of-term assessments that took the form of: “Write a poem about how Jesus must have felt on the Cross.” I’ve seen whole schemes of work that made Radio 4’s Thought for the Day look like the catechisms of the Catholic Church. RE is so, so easy to do badly, and it often is.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve seen departments plan and execute lessons that brim with challenge and content. RE can cover so much that it takes a halfwit to miss all the incredible experiences it can bring into the classroom. Taught well, it lands with just about any student at any point on the faith spectrum or none. My atheists love learning about theodicies, so they can tear them down; my charismatics need to be held back from describing their first baptism. And both groups, handled properly, can’t wait to interact with each other. Debates ensue that can embody the best bits of a riot and a parliamentary debate at the same time.
Bring it into the national curriculum, if that still exists, and shake out all the fluff and happy thoughts. Build some structure and content into it, so that ideas come alive and sizzle. There is almost nothing that cannot be taught within RE, from Fermat’s Last Theorem to the English Civil War. Religion is a lens for humanity, and embodies thousands of years of collective wisdom, illusions and mystery. If you can’t stitch something out of that, you need a new needle.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71