Should Humanism be studied in GCSE RS?

In response to the Department for Education’s recently proposed GCSE religious education criteria, Maxine Beech, an RE teacher, claimed that many students find it hard to engage with religious studies, because they are unable to relate to the content. Ms Beech argues that humanism is an answer to this, saying: “[pupils] have the right to study a way of life that reflects their own.”

This is the view of the British Humanist Association (BHA) who argue that rather than having to teach about two religions at GCSE, schools should have the option of teaching one religion and humanism. They claim, “it is vital that religious education remains relevant to young people … this means including non-religious world views. RE struggles to engage these young people when their beliefs are excluded.”

Read the full article here on The Telegraph website.

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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.

Thoughts on the GCSE RS Proposals

Earlier this year I wrote a blog titled ‘Why GCSE RE Fails Pupils.’ It illustrated how poor content and perverse assessment in popular GCSE RE courses, neglect and distort religion, and argued that the number of routes available to achieve a GCSE in RE has encouraged a race to the bottom and rendered the notion of it as a qualification meaningless. Yet, whilst the current GCSE situation may be indefensible, it is not without its perks for some. It is therefore, no surprise, that as proposals for a future, more rigorous GCSE emerge, previously masked fears and vulnerabilities are surfacing… Read the full article here on RE:ONLINE         

The Banality of Fun

There is a mystery that troubles RE teachers across the country. It is oft spoken of in staffrooms and on social media, at conferences and in CPD. ‘How can we make RE more fun and exciting?’ The result of this is that ‘fun’ often becomes the grand director; the dominant principle shaping lesson planning in RE. In this piece I will explore four reasons why this is problematic.

1. Inane Activities

The pursuit of fun frequently results in crass activities which distract from or replace the subject matter. One example I recently encountered of this was a year 7 class making paper Facebook profile pages for Jesus. As I observed pupils ‘liking’ Mary, ‘poking’ John the Baptist and sending friend requests (mainly to non-biblical characters of different eras), I wondered whether they were gaining anything more than unhelpful messages from this activity. Similar things can be said of the ‘Hindu Gods Top Trumps’ resource, rated highly by its 1400+ viewers on restuff.org and ‘recommended’ with five stars on TES. In this game…

Read the full article here on RE:ONLINE

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Teaching ‘Religious Respect’

Whenever there is a moral panic or societal problem, RE can be guaranteed a name check by a politician. Flattered by the attention, some in the RE community leave their default mode of status anxiety and go along with the illusion that RE can provide the solution to whatever moral or societal problem has hit the news. ‘Community cohesion? We’ve got it covered. Racism? Don’t you worry. Global warming? Leave it with us.’

Tony Blair’s recent call for schools to teach ‘the virtue of religious respect’ represents a growing feeling that the latest charge for RE teachers should be countering terrorism. Philosophical and political issues aside, there are educational reasons why attempting to teach ‘religious respect’ is deeply flawed.

Blair seems to suggest ‘respect’ is something that RE teachers can dish out to their pupils as easily as school dinners. The problem is that ‘respect’ is not a turkey twizzler; it cannot simply be dispensed to lines of pupils eagerly queuing up to receive and digest it. As any PSHE teacher knows, telling a pupil to be tolerant does not necessitate an accompanying change in their character. I have explored this issue of turning RE into a form of explicit values education further here. The problem is not that silly, careless RE teachers have been forgetting to teach religious respect, it is that directly teaching it neither works nor helps.

It goes without saying that schools should promote respect, but RE lessons should allow pupils to interrogate and ask challenging questions about religions and beliefs. Whilst sensitivity to others is important, pupils need to feel able to express genuine responses to material encountered, not hide or censor them out of a fear of trespassing a constricting notion of ‘religious respect.’ It is the knowledge and skills to think critically about often-difficult aspects of religion and belief that pupils need, not a blanket instruction to respect all things religious.

However, in the march to promote respect for religion, the uncomfortable, difficult and sometimes ugly aspects of religion are often concealed. Open dialogue is restricted and religions are sanitised and distorted by the instrumental use of them to pursue socio-political ends. Pupils need to engage with and question the wide range of religious ideas which have contributed to humanity’s story. Only then can they think in an informed and evaluative way about how they should view them.

Whilst mutterings about transferable skills and national identity are occasionally heard from History teachers, the many utilitarian justifications of RE are unrivalled. In discussing RE’s contribution to community cohesion, the chair of the RE Council recently wrote:

However much some might rail against the idea of education being an instrument of the state, it is the case that in publically funded schools, the state has the right to demand something for its money. Teachers and governors have to be accountable and there have to be broader social as well as educational benefits to society as a whole from the expensive provision of compulsory schooling.

On the contrary, the crude and narrow instrumentalist approach that RE suffers from makes it of little value to anyone. It allows RE to become a vacuous, reactionary vehicle for popular concerns, with no core knowledge. The result of this is a well-documented and dangerous religious illiteracy, which truly should concern the state.

An understanding of others’ beliefs may encourage ‘religious respect’ and contribute to a cohesive society. However RE is not societal self-help; it is an academic subject, with its own valuable intellectual space. It is no admission of defeat, or insult to RE, to acknowledge that it cannot transform the world. Neither will its atheist brother PSHE. Rather than burdening RE with utilitarian delusions of grandeur, we would do better to create a knowledge rich subject in which pupils are critically engaged in an academic study of religions.

R******us Education: How RE lost its soul

I was once asked to run a lunchtime detention for a misbehaving year nine boy called Troy.* Having not encountered him before, I decided with five minutes to go, to strike up a conversation. ‘What have you been studying in History lately Troy?’ He pulled a pained face before grunting the obvious, ‘History.’ Unperturbed, I tried another question, ‘What have you been studying in Geography?’ Predictably, his unenthusiastic reply was ‘Geography.’ Feeling the rhythm of the conversation I thought I’d try one more question. ‘What about RE?’ Just as I thought I knew where the conversation was going, Troy paused, looked slightly puzzled and then replied ‘feelings…we just talk about our feelings, we don’t really learn much.’

Unintentionally, Troy had articulated an issue that plagues RE at its very core and from which many others flow. We fear the phenomenon that is the essence, the heart, of our subject. We are afraid to drop the R bomb…

Read the full article here on the RE:ONLINE website

RE Online

*Troy is a fictional character. This story is not of any one time or place, but is a composite, accurately reflecting an observed pattern.

Textbooks

Textbooks_Library400 The reading of books, what is it but conversing with the wisest men of all ages and all countries, who thereby communicate to us their most deliberate thoughts, choicest notions, and best intentions, couched in good expression, and digested in exact method – Isaac Barrow

Alex Quigley recently wrote a thought-provoking blog, in which he gave ten reasons why he does not use textbooks. This was partly a response to a speech given by former education minister Liz Truss earlier this year titled In defence of the textbook. The title of Truss’ speech is indicative of a growing feeling among teachers that the use of textbooks is something that they need to apologise for. It reflects an educational culture where textbooks are only sneaked out of the classroom cupboard when the door is firmly shut and no one will walk in on such an embarrassing secret. Their marginalisation has undoubtedly been driven in part by Ofsted’s demands for differentiation, ‘buzz’ and generally greater levels of entertainment for their inspectors than watching children read. However, disregarding textbooks has not only imagesbeen to the detriment of teachers’ well being and performance, but also to the development of pupils’ knowledge and skills. Read the full article here on the TES website