RELIGIOUS EDUCATION (RE) in the UK may become known as “religion and worldviews” to include teaching about non-religious beliefs, if proposals for a radical overhaul of the subject are accepted.
A final report from the independent Commission on Religious Education (CoRE), published on Sunday, calls on the Government to accept its national plan to transform the RE curriculum, which, it says, must better reflect the diversity of modern society.
“Despite its central importance, RE in too many schools is not good enough to prepare pupils adequately for the religious and belief diversity they will encounter, nor to support them to engage deeply with the questions raised by the study of worldviews,” the report says.
The Commission proposes that all publicly funded schools adhere, subject to inspection, to a statutory statement of national entitlement to ensure consistency in both the content and quality teaching across the UK. This should be backed up by a significant investment in recruitment, training, and resources, including, it says, helping schools to engage with religious and other groups in the community.
“Academisation and the move towards a school-led system have transformed the educational landscape,” the report explains. “The structures and systems supporting RE have not kept pace with these changes.”
The nature of RE has also changed over time, it says. Around the time of the 1944 Education Act, the subject was defined as Religious Instruction, was limited to Christianity, and was the only compulsory subject. It was changed to Religious Education after the Education Reform Act of 1988 to include a wider range of religions, denominations, and institutional views.
“Thirty years on, the local, national and global religious landscape and academic understandings of the subject have changed significantly. . . While many teachers and subject experts do present diversity within religions, this can often be reduced to crude differences between denominations. RE has sometimes inadvertently reinforced stereotypes about religions, rather than challenging them.”
The proposed statement of national entitlement included in the report states that pupils must be taught about the “central importance” of worldviews, including what this and other terms, such as religion, spirituality, and secularity, mean; patterns of belief and expression; the role of rituals both religious and non-religious; how views interact; and the potential “power and influence” of these views on culture and society.
Pupils, it states, are also entitled to be taught by teachers who have “secure” subject knowledge; can address misunderstandings and controversial issues; “demonstrate a critical understanding” of developments in the study of religion and worldviews; and promote the value of scholarship.
The Commission defines personal worldviews as a “philosophy of life” and institutional worldviews as those organised by groups or embedded in institutions. The latter includes established religions, as well as humanism, secularism, or atheism.
One of the core responsibilities of the education system, it says, is to prepare pupils to understand and develop their personal worldview both as an individual and within a community. “One need only glance at a newspaper to know that it is impossible fully to understand the world without understanding worldviews — both religious and non-religious.”
The Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, who chairs of the Commission, explains in his foreword to the report: “This is an essential area of study if pupils are to be well prepared for life in a world where controversy over such matters is pervasive and where many people lack the knowledge to make their own informed decisions. It is a subject for all pupils, whatever their own family background and personal beliefs and practices.”
If these changes are not implemented, the subject may not survive, the Commission warns. It quotes research from the National Association of Teachers of RE (NATRE) in 2016, which found that almost 40 per cent of academy schools without a religious ethos did not teach Religious Education at key stage four — four times the number of schools with a religious ethos.
NATRE has long-argued for a national entitlement to rectify the increasing disparity, says its chair, Ben Wood. “The Commission’s entitlement statement is bold and seeks to reshape the subject in a new way. This will no doubt elicit much debate.”
The chief education officer for the Church of England, the Revd Nigel Genders, agreed, but said that the proposed statement of entitlement needed revising.
It “requires further work if it is to ensure that children and young people develop religious and theological literacy as part of their knowledge and understanding. We look forward to playing our part in working with the education community to achieve this and building an irresistible consensus of agreement about the subject.”
None the less, he said, the new vision for Religious Education was “vital” and “timely” given the falling numbers of students taking RE at GCSE and A level (News, 24 August).
Other recommendations in the report include creating a national body of experts to develop and revise a national programme of study, and establish a Local Advisory Network for Religion and Worldviews.
The Commission also calls on the Government to provide legal clarification on the right of both children and parents to withdraw from parts of the religion and worldviews curriculum, and whether parents have a duty to provide an alternative curriculum in this case.
Mr Wood of NATRE explained: “The right of withdrawal is being abused and used in a way that runs opposite to the intentions of the government in promoting a cohesive society. This recommendation should be acted upon quickly by the department for education in a way that both supports the Government’s priorities and ensures that all pupils are given the right to learn about the religions and worldviews that are so influential in our society.”