RELIGIOUS education must not be “a minor and embarrassing extra” in the secondary-school curriculum in the UK, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, has said.
He was welcoming plans announced by Bangor University this month to boost the “confidence and expertise” as well as the number of religious education teachers in secondary schools in the UK.
The university is to introduce a three-year project at its school of History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences to improve the teaching materials for students and teachers of religious education, and to encourage more university students to become subject teachers. This will include giving students an opportunity to experience teaching the subject as part of their studies.
Dr Lucy Huskinson will lead the work, with Dr Josh Andrews and Dr Gareth Evans-Jones. The project is being funded by a £75,000 grant from the All Saints Educational Trust, which supports teachers, intending teachers, and students in religious studies through personal grants.
“We want to resolve two problems that have been identified,” Dr Huskinson explained. “The lack of confidence and expertise reported by current secondary-school teachers, who feel ill-equipped to teach the recently revised A-level curriculum; and a significant decrease in numbers of subject students in the UK who are considering a career in teaching religious studies and philosophy in higher education.”
Changes to how the GCE AS and A level in Religious Studies are examined were introduced this year by the examination board WJEC (formerly the Welsh Joint Education Committee). There are two compulsory exam units: “An Introduction to the Study of Religion” and “An Introduction to Religion and Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion”.
There are another four units, of which students must select three: “A Study of Religion”; “Religion and Ethics”; “Philosophy of Religion”; and “Textual Studies (New Testament)”.
Mefys Jones-Edwards, who is an A-level Religious Studies teacher at Ysgol Syr Thomas Jones Amlwch, a mixed bilingual school, said that the project was welcome, given the “serious concerns” raised by fellow RE teachers in North Wales about the changes to the specification.
“Feedback by teachers and students provides concrete evidence that the specification does not command the confidence of the teaching community. This project is welcomed by RS teachers and students. It will hopefully save RS as a subject.”
Bangor University planned to work with schools in North Wales and the north-west of England to “tease out” the relationship between philosophy and religion programmes at schools and universities, Dr Huskinson said. “We will then be making recommendations on how the subjects are taught on a national scale.”
Lord Williams said: “We need, as perhaps never before, teachers of religious studies who can open up the real human depth of the subject, who are themselves committed to its significance and who are fully resourced for the task.
“It should be obvious — but it often isn’t — that religious education is not a minor and embarrassing extra in how a school prepares students for our complex society. This project gives some real substance and some real promise for a more adequate strategy in developing it, and should be enthusiastically welcomed.”
A final report from the independent Commission on Religious Education, published in September, called on the Government to accept its national plan to transform the RE curriculum (News, 14 September). This included a statement of national entitlement, which said that pupils were entitled to be taught by teachers who had “secure” subject knowledge; could address misunderstandings and controversial issues; “demonstrate a critical understanding” of developments in the study of religion and worldviews; and promote the value of scholarship.