RE’s Knowledge Vacuum

Religious Education occupies a unique legal position; although compulsory, it is not part of the National Curriculum. As such, when the 2011 National Curriculum Review took place, RE fell behind developments in other subjects. In 2013, the RE Council (63 mainly religious organisations interested in RE) responded by creating a National Framework for RE. The supposed aim was to construct a document for RE mirroring the National Curriculum. Unfortunately, the resemblance is faint.

Central to the development of the National Curriculum was the idea that it should ‘set out a core of essential knowledge.’ The DfE’s key principles state that it “should embody rigour and high standards and create coherence in what is taught in schools, ensuring that all children have the opportunity to acquire a core of knowledge in the key subject disciplines (and) should provide young people with the knowledge they need to move confidently and successfully through their education”

The National Framework for RE does not contain any ‘core of essential knowledge.’ Not one single fact, idea or topic that pupils should master is specified. Instead, the section titled ‘Subject Content’ offers vague and often tautological aims accompanied by suggested ‘learning activities’, many of which are cross curricular. For example:

  • Linking to expressive arts, students investigate the way drama, broadcast and visual artists explore questions about the meaning of life, selecting and explaining examples that they find compelling and relating these to the teaching of different religions and worldviews.

  • Students develop their skills in reasoning and constructing arguments by debating questions and dilemmas about the nature of human life and the moral responsibilities of being human.

Why did this happen?

1. The History National Curriculum was devised in consultation with 23 educationalists with a variety of views and experiences. Meanwhile, in the RE Council’s construction of the National Framework for RE, it is the religious voice, not the educational one, which is noisiest. Enthusiasts rather than experts dictate, inclusivity rather than excellence is pursued. With Humanists and Zoroastrians, Pagans and Anglicans, Jainas and Sikhs all sat around the same table, there are too many divergent voices fighting for their beliefs, or cause to be represented sufficiently and positively. Because inevitably no agreement can be found, content is replaced by broad, anodyne statements, which neither offend nor please anyone. The Framework’s desire to embody the views of everybody means that it is stretched so far in all directions that it is ultimately directionless. The moral vanity project of having a multi faith cuddle in an ostensibly democratic, inclusive utopia succeeds, but coherent guidance for teachers that might help prevent pupils from continuing to be failed does not. This purportedly democratic process has deeply undemocratic consequences for young people as inconsistency, low standards and religious illiteracy run wild.

2. Despite being a flawed approach to devising a curriculum, the RE community’s obsessive servitude to ‘inclusivity’ as a moral watchword, is rarely challenged from those within RE. This is because a content-free curriculum favours the pedagogical preferences of many, who would prefer to conceive of the subject as a vehicle for spiritual and moral development, in which soft skills are acquired through learning experiences. I have explored this further here.

3. An oft-heard excuse for the lack of content is that it is the job of Locally Agreed Syllabuses to stipulate it. This is misleading, for as I show here, it often does not happen, for the same reasons as given above. Where Locally Agreed Syllabuses do clearly specify content, it is either inefficient replication or of inconsistent quality across regions, meaning the standard of RE received by young people is dependent on where they live.

4. There is an argument within the RE world that including RE in the National Curriculum would politicise the subject. The spreading of these fears simply serves to maintain the status quo. Whilst it may not emanate directly from Westminster, RE is already highly politicised as I discuss here and here. It is the dumbing down and religiousising of RE by overly empowered, organised members that should be of real concern.

5. Another argument against a National Curriculum is that only maintained schools are obliged to follow it, making it a largely redundant document. Whilst indeed it is non-statutory for academies and free schools, it does at least provide a starting point, a ‘national benchmark of excellence for all schools’ against which teachers can compare and justify what they are doing, and parents can see what their child should know at each key stage. Most importantly, it is a consensus of expert educationalists on what should be taught and why.

In light of the knowledge vacuum in RE, it is assuring that there is substantive core content in the GCSE RS criteria, for it goes some way to dispelling the myth that RE is too complex a subject to specify what should be studied. However, whilst the criteria do seem intent on repositioning RS GCSE as a rigorous, academic qualification, this endeavour is undermined by the knowledge dearth preceding GCSE. With no guarantee of what has been learnt prior to GCSE, conceptually undemanding topics better suited to KS2 and KS3 clutter the GCSE criteria, reducing space for more challenging subject matter.

A discussion about what is taught in RE before GCSE is long overdue. The absence of content not only undermines RE’s claim to be a serious academic subject, but also prevents it from having a clear purpose and inhibits pupil progression. Michael Gove’s foreword to the National Framework was not a glowing endorsement of what follows it, but there has been no real stir from Westminster. If, as seems current vogue to state, politicians truly think that RE matters, they must confront the challenge of considering what pupils actually learn in it. Inevitably this will involve upsetting some of the vested interests and divergent voices in RE, but to continue to neglect what pupils learn, poses far greater problems for our society.


4 thoughts on “RE’s Knowledge Vacuum

  1. roryjqbarnes

    Dear ‘David Ashton’,
    I have been following your blog and would like you to glance at my recently published book on comparative religion. I believe there is much material in this that could be used in the classroom and which could facilitate a new approach to teaching RE in schools – and one which could correct many of the problems complained of in the Ofsted 2010 report Transforming Religious Education and by the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit’s 2010 report Materials used to teach about world religions in schools in England.
    I am trying to find a number of opinion forming teachers who would be interested in applying this approach in the classroom.
    You can see details of the book on Amazon and read extracts there. If you are taken with it sufficiently to want to see more I can either email you a copy or send you a hard copy.
    I have significant further material which could be of use.
    If you wished to chat I would be pleased to do that
    Yours sincerely,
    Rory Barnes



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