Religious Illiteracy: The Neglect of Knowledge in RE

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.

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4 thoughts on “Religious Illiteracy: The Neglect of Knowledge in RE

  1. Lucy Webb

    Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with your aim to ensure Religious Education is seen as a subject on a par with History and Geography in terms of its academic rigour, I do not agree with your perception that we, as RE teachers, are cultivating classrooms of ‘soft skills’.

    Bloom’s taxonomy is widely regarded as the modus operandi for assessing the quality of students’ understanding in all subjects across the curriculum (not just RE), which places the skills of analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation as its highest order. You claim that the Hampshire Agreed Syllabus (Living Difference) serves as a cheap vehicle, devoid of knowledge, and yet this learning methodology places at its core the skills of analysis, synthesis, evaluation and creation in its movement around each part of the cycle (Enquire, Contextualise, Evaluate, Communicate and Apply). Whatever concepts you apply to the cycle from happy to haumai, or worship to wudhu, students will engage in deep learning that aids their metacognition and helps them to rigourously examine the heart of each religious concept, not just learning about, but learning from – allowing critical reflection on the nature and importance of each religious belief and practice.

    I cannot vouch for what concepts teachers may choose to apply to the cycle, but we certainly in our Hampshire 11-16 school ensure that Group C concepts (specific to particular religions) are embedded as thoroughly as possible. I realise working in a Hampshire school, my defence of the Living Difference may be par for the course, but you criticise RE for not having a National Curriculum, and yet, if the Living Difference Agreed Syllabus was rolled out across the country, not only would schools still have the freedom to decide what content to specifically focus on, they would have a codified cycle of learning that would (automatically – depending on the quality of the teacher themself) be taught in a academically challenging manner by the very nature of the skills it focuses on.

    Your blog wants to celebrate all that’s good about RE – I assure you that lambasting the positive work Agreed Syllabus’ like the Hampshire Living Difference are having in raising engagement and attainment in schools is counter-productive to the efforts we, as RE teachers, are doing to engage and inspire the students we teach to be religiously literate individuals.

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  2. thegoldencalfre Post author

    Thanks for commenting Lucy. I’m glad you agree that RE should be academic, rigorous and promote religious literacy, although our understandings of how that is achieved are different.

    I don’t think that the Birmingham agreed syllabus, which I quote from, could be any more explicit about the nature of the ‘skills’ to be cultivated in RE classrooms. I don’t share your optimism that the Hampshire syllabus is the most effective way to reach the outcomes you claim it achieves. Although I don’t mention Bloom’s Taxonomy in the post, the merits of using it to assess pupils are certainly debated. Another RE teacher makes some interesting points here: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storyCode=6389557

    I’m not sure that I ‘lambast’ the Hampshire syllabus in my post; I just observe its prioritisation of approach over content. I think you express my concern well in your admission “I cannot vouch for what concepts teachers may choose to apply to the cycle.” It is knowledge, not the syllabus, that I describe as a ‘cheap vehicle’ and this is at odds with the experience of those fortunate enough to be educated in the independent sector. I’ve no doubt that RE teachers in Hampshire make great efforts to engage and inspire students. I don’t think this means Hampshire’s agreed syllabus should be sacralised beyond critical discussion.

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  3. Pingback: RE’s Knowledge Vacuum | thegoldencalf

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