‘What is the purpose of RE?’ asked my pensive looking CPD facilitator, encouraging the RE teachers at the training day to write their opinion on a post it note. This was followed by thirty minutes of bandying around ideas about developing critical thinking skills, building empathy, promoting British values, creating spiritual awareness, understanding ourselves, becoming more human, contributing to community cohesion and instilling morality and belief. Drawing the discussion to a close, the facilitator concluded with the bland, but oft heard platitude in RE circles, that the multiplicity of purposes in RE is both RE’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. The latter part of the statement could be well substantiated; the former glosses over reality somewhat.
To some, there seems to be a sense of satisfaction that RE does not possess an exclusive, agreed definition of purpose, as if this offers evidence of a superior nuance and sophistication, presumably nonexistent in other subjects, where similar debates are deemed not to exist. Whilst abstract discussions about the nature of knowledge and religion matter greatly; to allow them to prevent RE from having a clear purpose and significantly, any agreed body of knowledge that all young people should learn, is unjustifiable. Many RE teachers, not least the 50% of non-specialists in secondary schools, simply want to know what it is that they should be teaching the young people in their care. There is nothing enlightened about not knowing why you turn up at school, why you teach your subject or what it is you should be teaching young people about.
With no clear, unified purpose or nationally specified content, the quality of RE across England is what one would expect. In Ofsted’s most recent subject report 60% of lessons were graded ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’. The largest qualitative study of RE policy and practice in the UK in recent years, ‘Does RE Work?’ found that “Religious Education does not, in the main, make students religiously literate (and) sees pupils demonstrate widespread ignorance of basic religious concepts.” But, perhaps this should be no surprise. With multiple purposes to choose from, religion has become something of a side dish on the RE menu in many schools. In a survey of 627 RE subject leaders, conducted by the University of Warwick, only 24% of secondary and 27% of primary Subject Leaders thought that learning about religions is very important in RE.
The intellectual fog surrounding the subject’s purpose is intensified by those most celebrated, but superficial of moral veneers in the RE community, inclusivity and unity. With a crisis of confidence in RE’s core subject matter – religion, and ever anxious about the subject’s future, a policy of safety in numbers, rather than safety in quality seems to have taken hold. Any group claiming a supportive interest in RE can throw their ideas into discussion about RE’s purpose, quietly slipping their pet project or approach into the curriculum under the name of RE. If the common ground of interested groups does not stretch to the essential purpose, broad content or even name of the subject, the extent to which there is really unity is limited. Such proclamations of ‘unity’ and ‘inclusivity’ often appear to be little more than moralistic charades to defend incoherence, inconsistency and low standards.
Those on the receiving end of the RE community’s inclusivity experiment and resulting purpose overload are predominantly not the privileged 7% educated in independent schools. Typically these schools place a greater focus on systematically acquiring a common body of knowledge about religion through multifaceted academic methods. The Independent Schools Examination Board (ISEB), which sets the common entrance exams for preparatory schools, has a detailed RE syllabus providing a coherent and rich understanding of the biblical narrative and the core beliefs and practices of world religions.
Meanwhile, the guiding document for RE in state schools is a National Framework for RE devoid of a single fact or concept to be mastered. It is the 93% of young people in state schools who have a 60% chance of receiving RE that requires improvement or is inadequate, further widening the gap between the most privileged, and those who are less so. There is nothing ‘inclusive’ about this disparity. The pursuit of ostensibly democratic methods in the RE community has deeply undemocratic consequences for young people.
Undoubtedly, RE has a significant contribution to make, but until the issue of inclusivity is confronted, and a clear national statement of purpose and minimum content is agreed upon, RE will remain embroiled in the confusion, incoherence and inconsistency, from which young people educated by the state suffer the most.