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Six books to change the future of Religious Education

09 February 2018

Dennis Richards surveys new education titles


TEACHERS of RE — and, indeed, the general reader — will appreciate the honesty and clarity of We Need to Talk about Religious Education. There is a refreshing newness among the con­­tributors to this important volume, most of whom either continue to teach RE, or have done so in the fairly recent past.

That there is a new spirit abroad owes a great deal to Professor Linda Woodhead (who writes the fore­­word), and a former Education Secret­ary, Charles Clarke. Toget­­her, they launched a national debate on the sub­ject in 2015. The con­­clusion that RE “had a golden age between 1993 and 2010” is one that many cur­­riculum planners will share. Sadly, its “con­fusion of purpose and statutory odd­ness were not resolved in these good years”.

Its relatively short-lived success was based almost solely on the part that it played in helping schools to meet the magical 5 A*-C performance measure. It was a “gimme” in ex­­­amina­tion cram­­ming terms. The rug was pulled from under it with Michael Gove’s refusal to include it in the new EBacc qualifi­cation, and also when its status was reduced to a third-division rank­­ing with the recent GCSE-grading reform.

So, where are we now? There is evidence that many schools are failing to teach RE at all ­­— flouting the law­ just as they have done for many years in relation to th­e “daily act of collect­ive worship of a broadly Christian character”. It is a mess. And, surely, Professor Woodhead is right when she says that RE has suf­­fered from a kind of “excep­tional­ism”: it is the only sub­ject still to be based on the 1944 Education Act. She en­­­­­capsulates it bril­­liantly. “RE has been freighted with too little signifi­cance and too much.”

There is widespread agreement among RE professionals that the law is in need of revision, as suggested here. A good example would be to abolish the “statutory right to with­draw from RE”. Second, RE would at last become part of the National Curriculum, with a national syllabus based on religious literacy.

Unfortunately, it is a pretty safe pre­­diction that none of this will hap­­pen any time soon. Too many vested interests, and a Department for Ed­­uca­­­tion with, they would say, more important issues on its agenda. All in all, don’t hold your breath for change any time soon.


THERE is much to admire in All By Grace: A personal account of a long headship — most notably, by the author’s own assessment, that his school was a “genuine comprehensive school”.

It is not the sort of headship post with a queue of applicants. The “stick­ability” factor is important, and Jim Cockburn has more than met the cri­terion. Close to the city of New­­­castle-upon-Tyne, the school serves a com­munity comprising both private hous­ing and areas with “significant pockets of deprivation”. Falling rolls, battles with Ofsted, budgetary prob­­lems, and recruitment difficulties make the book something of a primer for modern headship. It will, how­ever, primarily appeal to a limited reader­ship.

Cockburn is an uncompromising con­­servative Evangelical, and every as­­pect of his account is written through that prism. It is something of an educa­tion curio that this corner of the north-east became an area noted for controversial Christian input into the leadership of state schools. The sincer­ity of the author shines through, and his commitment to his school is never in doubt. It is, however, of questionable benefit for those who do not share his convictions.


BRAVE and innovative, What Does Consent Really Mean? could not be more topical.

As far as I can see, it is the first of its kind. Teachers hate being landed with classes where they feel under-skilled and under-prepared. The price is, perhaps, prohibitive for class sets, but, because the volume is published in a robust hardback form, it could well be seen as an investment for the future — certainly the next three years or so.

No punches are pulled. Readers should also be aware that some of the language will leave some schools and teachers feeling uncomfortable.

Also hot off the press is Hats of Faith. Superb illustrations of eight or so different head coverings, with a brief explanation of their significance, will be a useful and positive addition to a primary school assembly.

Doing Difference Differently is an in­­triguing pamphlet, reflecting both John Saxbee’s Ph.D. in philosophy and his long experience as a parish priest and bishop. He was, for a couple of years, chairman of the Church of England’s Board of Educa­­tion.

The second half of his pamphlet could easily have come first. There is standard discussion about utilitarian ideas and their impact on contem­porary educational thinking; but it is the first half where you can find a first-class seminar on equality: an argument for our “all being equally created as distinct from all being created equal”.

And it is here, having apologised first for his teenage naïvety, that his analysis of “competition driven by market forces” leads to the conclusion that it is “the enemy of equality”. All of this leads to huge parental pres­­sure to get their child into the “best schools”.

And here they are, right on cue, in Lessons in Spiritual Development: Ten of the best Church of England schools in the country. The foreword cannot be accused of undue modesty: the Bishop of Ely, Stephen Conway, who currently chairs the Board of Educa­tion, de­­scribes them as “ten jewels in the educa­­tion system. . . Shining ex­­­amples of what this rounded view of education can become.” Wow!

Having said that, this is a truly inspiring text. Read the chapter on St Joseph’s, in Wrexham, and be in­­spired. It is an ecumenical school as well (whatever happened to them?), which is clearly a bonus. Our guide is James, who is in Year 8. We never find out whether he is a Roman Catholic, or of some other persuasion. Perhaps equality is on the march, after all. Alleluia!


We need to Talk about Religious Education: Manifestos for the future of RE
Mike Castelli and Mark Chater, editors
Jessica Kingley Publishers £24.99
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


All By Grace: 21 years of Christian headship
Jim Cockburn
Onwards & Upwards £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


What Does Consent Really Mean?
Pete Wallis and Thalia Wallis
Jessica Kingsley Publishers £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50


Hats of Faith
Medeia Cohan
Shade 7 Publishing £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.09


Doing Difference Differently: God, grace and equality in education (eD 32)
John Saxbee
Grove Books £3.95
Church Times Bookshop £3.55


Lessons in Spiritual Development: Learning from leading Christian ethos Secondary Schools
Ann Casson, Trevor Cooling, and L. J. Francis
Church House Publishing £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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