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Education: How to rescue RE

07 February 2014

The teaching of RE in schools is being undermined. Ordinary teachers can help change that, argues Lat Blaylock

Reflections on the cross: older pupils and younger children at Hazlemere C of E School, in Buckinghamshire, take time to relect on the lessons of the cross 

Reflections on the cross: older pupils and younger children at Hazlemere C of E School, in Buckinghamshire, take time to relect on the lessons of th...

After the earthquake, wind, and fire came a still, small voice.

RELIGIOUS education has suffered under Michael Gove: the earthquake was the (now downgraded) English Baccalaureate, which undermined RE for 16-year-olds; the hurricane was being left out of the DfE's review of the curriculum; and dangerous fire has burned RE in new types of schools, such as academies and free schools, many of which have been unclear about their continuing responsibility to deliver RE for every child.

So, what is the whisper? Ultimately, RE teachers are still the key to providing pupils with great experiences of spiritual exploration. Governors and senior staff have a part to play, as well. As the chair of the RE Council, John Keast, rightly says: "The two most important things that school leaders and governors can do to strengthen RE is, first, to ensure they are familiar with RE as a subject in the curriculum today - and not rely on their own memories of it; and, second, to apply the same professionalism to the management of RE as they do to other subjects, in terms of expectations, curriculum, teaching and learning, staffing, resourcing, and support."

But what can the ordinary teacher do, in addition, to help rescue the experience of RE in schools?

Inject spiritual activities into the curriculum

At Hazlemere C of E Combined School, in Buckinghamshire, the RE co-ordinator, Susan Brice, has been getting pupils aged eight to 11 to plan reflective RE experiences for the younger pupils - such as working in pairs on blind-faith walking, life-journey planning, making a cross of lights (in this, the children heard the story of Jesus's forgiveness of even the people who killed him, and thought about how forgiveness is like a light, and how hard we sometimes find it to forgive), and inviting parents and other adults to share in the experience. When the children design an activity, it is received with respect by their peers, and the spiritual life of the school is being enhanced.

Plan more "find out" RE

One school in Warwickshire has been using its "Forest School" outdoor learning programme to investigate questions such as: "What was the first Diwali like?" "Can we tell the story in the forest?" "What was it like for Moses to stand in front of a burning bush?" "Can we create a Succoth shelter, similar to the ones Jewish people use as reminders of living in the wilderness; and why do Jewish people do this?"

RE can become a lead subject for investigative and enquiry work. Many teachers, using methods from "Philosophy4Children" (www.philosophy4children.co.uk), are developing the RE curriculum as a thinking centre for the whole curriculum.

Grab time from any subject by making cross-curricular RE work well

A teacher from Walsall reports that linking RE to drama, dance, and art has had good effects in her urban primary school. Many previously unenthusiastic staff became more committed to RE because they saw the creative side of the subject in action. And many creative pupils did their best work exploring sacred stories in Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, through the arts.

Use pupil enthusiasm, and special events, to make a case for the subject

In Wolverhampton, a secondary department decided to run a whole day of RE, on the topic of evil, for pupils close to choosing their GCSE options. Pupils responded enthusiastically, with 85 per cent evaluating the day as "good" or "excellent". One pupil wrote: "I expected today to be boring, but it wasn't. It really made me think about how you can combat evil peacefully."

Another, after a first encounter with Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote: "I was shocked by his views: everyone is entitled to an opinion, but his was horrible. It was really fascinating."

Encourage debate and expect arguments to be interesting

An RE teacher from Haslingden High School, in Rossendale, Ben Wood, tackled the topic of prayer with his pupils by getting them to dramatise arguments between atheists and believers about whether prayer is a waste of breath, or a force to change the world.

The students have found that, because RE has often focused on their debating skills, they have become better at expressing their own beliefs. A motto for RE that may appeal to some pupils could be "The arguer's subject".

Get the roots down, and get the walls down

In many primary and secondary schools, pupils have identified the fact that the study of RE has encouraged their tolerance, and built their respect. Good teachers know that identity needs to be deep-rooted, if pupils are to be confident enough not to build walls against those who may seem to threaten them. RE can be rescued by being assertive - to heads, governors, and parents - about the value of teaching both tolerance and respect in RE.

Lat Blaylock is editor of the magazine RE Today (www.retoday.org.uk).

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