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A quiet revolution in school RE  

23 October 2020

A new approach could improve the teaching of an unpopular subject, says Trevor Cooling


EVERY pupil in every English school should study religious education (RE). That is the law, and has been so since 1944. And they study it together, not in separate religious groups, as, for example, in Australia, where volunteers teach different faiths or ethics according to parents’ choices.

It is quite an achievement: a real antidote to religious extremism, a tonic for community cohesion, and an opportunity for religious communities to tell others about their faith. From personal experience, I can assure you that there are brilliant RE teachers out there teaching inspiring lessons.

What, then, to worry about? A couple of statistics will answer that question. A YouGov survey in 2018 reported that just 12 per cent of the 4000 pupils surveyed in the six-to-15 age range admitted to enjoying RE a lot. The figure for history was 31 per cent, and for science 47 per cent. Ouch!

In another YouGov survey, this time of the general public, RE was near the bottom in terms of its perceived importance in the curriculum. Only drama, Classics, and Latin were lower. It is not surprising that, using government data, the National Association of Teachers of RE found that in many secondary schools the subject was simply not taught. In primary schools, it is often taught by teachers who have had little training.

The stark reality is that the subject is under threat in many schools, the main exception being church schools.


RE HAS undergone significant changes since 1944. The most pronounced was somewhere in the 1970s, when it shifted from transmitting the Christian heritage of the nation to understanding the diverse religious ways of life in Britain today. This shift is pretty well universally accepted now.

It happened because of the changing context in society at large — particularly recognition of the fact of religious diversity. The focus since has largely been on six world religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism. More recently, the religions studied have expanded to include minority faiths. Humanism has begun to figure on syllabuses. This is widely known as the world-religions approach.

In 2018, the Commission on Religious Education caused quite a stir by recommending that another big shift was essential. It advocated the teaching of world-views. Why? The easiest way of understanding this suggestion is to take note of two sentences in the British Social Attitudes Survey published in September of that year: “70% of those aged 18-24 say they have no religion. This is an increase from 56% in 2002.”

This rising phenomenon of the so called “nones” among young people reflects a complex but significant change. They are not, mostly, straightforward atheists. Rather, there is a growing sense of detachment from the world of religious mega-systems as exemplified in the world-religions approach, but a desire to explore the meaning of life and how people approach that very differently.

In putting world-view at the heart of RE, the Commission was seeking to respond to this changed context. In particular, it asserted that everyone has a world-view, even though not everyone is religious. Their new vision for the subject was that understanding the part played by world-views in all human life should now be the focus of RE.

The Commission was careful to distinguish between institutional world-views and personal world-views. The former are the religious and non-religious systems that are the current focus of RE; the latter are the complex beliefs, values, and assumptions that shape each one of us.

In this proposed new approach to RE, pupils will study the interaction between the institutional world-views, including those religions that have traditionally been central to the curriculum, and the personal world-views of both the pupils and other people. The emphasis is on understanding lived religion rather than religious mega-systems.


WHAT will such study look like? At a recent conference, the Ofsted subject-lead for RE suggested that there would be three types of knowledge involved. The first would be the substantive content, which includes information about particular institutional world-views, and general concepts related to all world-views.

The second is the ways of knowing, or subject disciplines, being used to study the content. Philosophy, theology, and the human sciences are three popular examples.

The third would be personal knowledge, with a particular focus on helping pupils to understand where they themselves stand. The skill of the teacher will be deployed in designing the interaction between these three in their lessons.

It is early days yet. It will take time for this new approach to bed down. There are controversial issues to resolve, but there are clear signs of this exciting new style of RE being taught in schools.


Dr Trevor Cooling is Emeritus Professor of Christian Education at Canterbury Christ Church University, and chairs the RE Council of England and Wales. He is the co-author of a new Theos report, Worldviews in Religious Education, launched on Wednesday and available online.

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