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Why teach RE in modern education?

Why teach RE in modern education?

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Bill MooreBill Moore is an independent education consultant, part-time teacher of RE in a secondary modern school in Buckinghamshire and a primary school governor. He is also vice-chair of the Association of RE Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants (AREIAC) and is the contributing subject matter expert for Modern Governor’s e-learning module on SMSC development. You can follow Bill on Twitter at @bjvmoore.

It has been an interesting time for religious education with the publication of two reports on the extent and quality of provision in the last week.

The first report “The State of the Nation” by the RE Council and NATRE (National Association of Teachers of RE) focused on the extent of provision (or lack of it) in secondary schools.

The second, published on Thursday 21st September, was the interim report “Religious Education for All” from the Commission on RE. This is the half-way report on the status, importance and place of RE in schools and the curriculum, both primary and secondary.

Both reports highlight some good things in RE but also areas of concern and for development. Both emphasise that modern RE is not as it was in the 1960s and 70s. Since the 80s (when I started teaching) it has covered a range of beliefs – including non-religious views – because the focus has been on including pupils’ backgrounds in the classroom and reflecting on them in curricula.

So what?

I suppose the question could be, and indeed often is, asked: “So what? Does it really matter?” This is an important and valid question that I would encourage governors to ask as they consider the curriculum offer in their schools. This article will, I hope, encourage serious consideration of the issues of RE in a secular education system – and in the context of the many faith and church schools we have. But before going any further, a basic – though in my view ultimately unsatisfying – response is: like it or not, as schools it is our statutory duty to do so.

This cannot be ignored, but read on and I hope you will see that it is not the best of all possible reasons…

RE in a wider educational context

Education is about understanding the world we live in – locally, nationally and globally. RE contributes significantly to this. Religion and belief influence all aspects of life, sometimes negatively, but actually, in day-to-day encounters very positively. People base their lives on whatever their beliefs are – and this includes pupils in the classroom. As is stated in the Bucks Agreed Syllabus – used in the rich mix of cultures and languages in the school where I teach – RE offers an opportunity to explore beliefs that influence how we behave and the kinds of communities that we create.

Schools play a vital role in our communities. They are places where people of all backgrounds live and work together, sharing their efforts, creativity, hopes and fears, growing collaboratively into cohesive communities of learning and living. RE allows for such sharing of important experiences and questions that shape who we are.

It is hugely important that we prepare our future generations for the challenges of modern living – spiritually, morally, socially and culturally. RE develops academic skills such as discernment, critical thinking and conceptual creativity so that pupils are able to handle the big questions that life throws at them and to think for themselves rather than be sucked into negative narratives and destructive visions, whether from religious or non-religious ideologies, or from distorted press coverage and ‘fake news’.

RE in a societal context

Finally – and some may take exception to what I am about to say – education is more than just academic performance – it is about us all growing as human beings who need to make sense of the world in which we live. RE helps pupils of all backgrounds and all ages to express and develop their own beliefs and ideas, listen to and learn from other people and to explore – in a safe place – controversial issues and what it means to be human. Linked with other humanities subjects – and the creative and expressive arts – this can form a core part of a well-rounded, balanced and exciting curriculum that meets the needs of its pupils in 21st-century Britain.

Questions for your governing board

The role of governance

These are some of the reasons why RE does matter. So what can governors do? I would suggest some of the following:

  • Ask the school leaders about the provision of RE. How much? What sort? What syllabus? Who teaches it?
  • Ask about training for staff – and any staff who hold qualifications in RE.
  • Is the purpose of RE clear to staff, pupils and parents?
  • What support does the leader/co-ordinator for RE have?
  • What do pupils think of RE?

If there is little or no RE in the school, or it has a very low status…

  • ask what the curriculum is for – and relate it to the points above.

What RE isn’t – and is

Remember, RE is not just about religion, it is also about belief as a whole; it is not about making people religious, it is about developing thinking, empathy and reflection; it is not just about beliefs and ideas, it is also about how we live together and develop visions and values for the future; it is not just for religious people, it is for all.

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