WHAT is religious education for? The present focus on fundamental British values, misgivings about so-called “Trojan-horse” events in schools, or the fear that young people will be radicalised by extremist views have all brought the subject into sharper focus. As the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, has argued, young people are in danger of being radicalised because they are searching for a sense of religious identity in a moral vacuum. Religious education must become part of the solution.
In their recent report, which looks at religion and belief in schools, Linda Woodhead and Charles Clarke have urged a radical overhaul of religious education in English schools. This autumn, the education community will continue to respond to many of the proposals in such reports, besides those in the soon-to-be-published report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life. In all of this, an understanding of the purpose of religious education will be essential.
Is RE about religious literacy, moral education, or spiritual formation? I think that it is all three. It should primarily be about religious literacy — or, put another way, theological enquiry: the deep and rich study of religions on their own terms, so that students gain a thorough understanding of what followers believe, and how that affects their daily lives.
Such depth of study will equip students to understand religion as the driving force for the lives of more than three-quarters of the world’s population.
That is why we are so disappointed that there is still no option to choose RE as one of the humanities subjects in the proposed compulsory English Baccalaureate (EBacc), even though we worked so positively with the Government for the reform of Religious Studies (RS) GCSE and A levels to ensure that the new qualifications are rigorous and have greater theological depth.
THE number of students opting to take RS as a public examination subject has been steadily rising. Students, at least, recognise the important part that the subject plays in equipping them for today’s world. By not including RS in the EBacc, the Government is limiting choice.
Schools will obviously be swayed by the measures used to hold them accountable. For example, the fact that the RS GCSE short course is no longer included in those measures has resulted in a 67-per-cent fall in the number of students taking the qualification. Many have switched to the full course RS GCSE.
That is obviously a good thing; but the move to make the EBacc compulsory will then have a dramatic impact on the courses that students are able to choose.
There has been a relatively small rise in numbers of students taking all EBacc subjects (Maths, English, Science, a modern language, and geography or history), from 35 per cent to 38 per cent. In this context, it has still been possible for students to choose (and for schools to continue to offer) the subjects that students would prefer to study; hence, RE has grown in popularity.
But the jump from 38 per cent at EBacc to 100 per cent will change things entirely. This is not simply a concern for RE, but will have an impact on other subjects, too.
The results of a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders, published last month, suggest that 87 per cent of school leaders disagree with the concept of a compulsory EBacc because it limits choice. In what is described as an increasingly school-led system, the fact that so many school leaders disagree with something may make the Government think again.
RELIGIOUS education is not a soft option: it is essential for promoting understanding. Science helps children understand how things are the way they are, but it cannot help them grapple with important questions such as “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?” or “How, then, shall I live?”
To answer these questions, our children need the depth of insight which comes from studying the world’s great religions.
Given our rich Christian heritage in Britain, and our particular responsibility within the Church of England to ensure that Christianity is taught well in our schools, we are developing a large-scale resource that will promote theological literacy and understanding of the Christian narrative. We are about to begin a second trial, and plan to roll out a full programme for young people aged five to 13, available for schools of all types across the country in 2016.
RE is also about moral, cultural, and spiritual formation. With the help of a grant from the Department of Education for a project on the development of character, we are working with 20 schools, across five dioceses, to see how the whole curriculum is used to develop character.
We are looking not just at grit and resilience, but how the examples we use in teaching, and the virtues we promote, help children and young people to grow in steadfastness, humility, and loving kindness, and how they might practise hospitality to the stranger in their midst.
Such things ought to be developed by the way we teach maths, or Spanish, for example, but should equally be part of what we are communicating through religious education.
Our children are formed by what they experience; so we need to decide whether we let the media and the advertising agencies lead the way and shape our children’s lives, or whether our schools should be places that lead to the flourishing of every child, and thus the transformation of the world.
That is what education is for, and religious education, in particular, must be enabled to make its irreplaceable contribution to every child’s development.
The Revd Nigel Genders is the C of E’s Chief Education Officer.