There is a widely held view within the RE community that the chief purpose of RE is character formation or spiritual and moral development, rather than intellectual advancement. This philosophy underpins the locally agreed syllabuses that non-religious LEA schools are required to, and many academies choose to follow at Key Stage 3. As a result, RE lessons are reduced to a setting for developing ‘soft skills’ detached from a deep or rigorous understanding of religion. Those who suffer from this approach are the pupils, who find their lack of cultural capital perpetuated through intangible outcome based, content-light curriculums.
Prior to starting teaching, I read the locally agreed syllabus for Birmingham. Upon finding no specified content to be studied, I concluded that there must be some pages missing. However as I sifted through syllabuses for other parts of the country, I found the same lack of direction about what to teach. Not one syllabus gave clear guidance on the knowledge that pupils should acquire. This is not to say these syllabuses were non-prescriptive. Rather the prescription was the usual soft intangibles.
For example in Birmingham, there are 24 ‘dispositions’ that RE should cultivate. These include ‘being explorative, imaginative, temperate, self critical, willing to lead, accountable, confident, regardful of suffering, cultivating serene contentment, remembering roots, caring for animals and the environment (and somewhat ironically) valuing knowledge.’ It feels more like reading a self-help manual than the syllabus for an academic subject. As I grappled to find a rationale for this omission of content I came across a phrase in the much-celebrated Hampshire agreed syllabus where it describes itself as “primarily a syllabus about how to teach RE, rather than what to teach. At its heart is a methodology based on concept acquisition that could be applied to almost any religious content.” At this point, the realisation struck me: knowledge simply serves as a cheap vehicle, it is ultimately irrelevant.
Meanwhile, the privileged few in the independent sector have a different experience. The Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB) which sets the common entrance exams for preparatory schools has an RE syllabus which, according to its own description, “provides a common body of knowledge.” It meticulously details a broad array of Old and New Testament passages with chapter and verse, which pupils should study in order to gain a coherent and rich understanding of the biblical narrative. This is complemented by a list of key beliefs and practices to be studied in world religions as well as issues to which this knowledge should be applied.
As an indicator of the differing levels of expectation between state and independent schools, a comparison of the ISEB specification with any locally agreed syllabus is an uncomfortable read. Whilst privately educated pupils are engaged in a rich and rigorous theological study, the noise of religion is, at best, muted for the other 93%. The result of this is not a generation of highly compassionate, tolerant pupils able to make Nelson Mandela look shady in light of their mastery of virtue. Rather the result is rampant, widespread religious illiteracy. As Andrew Old writes in his foreword to Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse, “full entitlement to the best of our society’s culture and knowledge is wealth that should be distributed to all.” The agreed syllabuses’ disregard for the accumulation of knowledge, substituted by a championing of soft skills creates an un-egalitarian system where knowledge is reserved for the most economically privileged.
With a non-academic vision of RE driving locally agreed syllabuses, it is no wonder that Ofsted’s 2013 report on the quality of Religious Education in state schools was so damning:
In many of the schools visited, the subject was increasingly losing touch with the idea that RE should be primarily concerned with helping pupils to make sense of the world of religion and belief… Many schools showed a strong tendency to detach learning in RE from the more in-depth study of religion and belief. Too often teachers thought they could bring depth to the pupils’ learning by inviting them to reflect on or write introspectively about their own experience rather than rigorously investigate and evaluate religion and belief…Christian stories, particularly miracles, were often used to encourage pupils to reflect on their own experience without any opportunity to investigate the stories’ significance within the religion itself…increasingly, Key Stage 3 work lacked any significant development of pupils’ understanding of religion and belief – and frequently distorted it.
The report makes eighteen separate references to pupils’ knowledge of religion being ‘scant’, ‘insufficient’, ‘superficial’, ‘distorted’, ‘low level’, ‘underemphasised’, ‘weak’ or ‘lacking’. In 57 of the 91 schools inspected the curriculum was graded either ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’. National curriculums have been created for History, Geography, Maths and English, but no codified body of knowledge has been developed in RE. Instead, teachers have been left confusedly gathering crumbs from the empty altar of the agreed syllabus. The findings of Ofsted suggest that the road to dumbing down RE is paved with government neglect. Reforms, akin to those that have taken place in other subjects, are vital if RE is to make the significant and valuable contribution to all pupils of which it is capable.