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Education books: A last spadeful of earth on Religious Education’s grave

by
25 September 2020

Dennis Richards reviews new education titles

THE recent short-lived glory days of religious education (RE) are over, according to a blisteringly honest examination of the current status of the subject in the nation’s schools. Reforming RE, by Mark Chater, pulls no punches — and that is putting it mildly.

Mary Myatt is one of the contributors, and kicks off (in both senses) in the opening lines of the book. “There is a huge mismatch between statutory expectations for Religious Education and classroom realities.” Mark Chater states that, for years, RE has “muddled through”, protected by its legal status. That position, he believes, is now wholly unsustainable in a society in which 70 per cent of young people now identify as non-religious.

In recent years, the subject could at least temporarily hide behind its popularity as Polyfilla in the holy grail of 5 A*-C grades at GCSE. Gove’s GCSE reforms and RE’s omission from the EBacc qualification definitively put paid to that.

Chater leaves us no room for doubt. This is not a “period of turbulence” for RE. It is a time to recognise “a gathering collapse of its presence in schools: an already weak intellectual credibility, and a completely outmoded legal basis”. This is Chater’s third book in the past seven years demanding a radical reform of RE. His frustration is obvious, and his prose at times makes the reader flinch.

RE teachers see themselves, by turns, as either Cinderella — deserving, misunderstood, and ill-treated, and whose prince will one day come to rescue her — or, rather, as David taking on the Goliath of secular scepticism. Then it gets personal. RE teachers have only themselves to blame. Chater sketches some of the recent initiatives to improve the subject’s standing. Each had its merits, but was undermined by the RE Establishment. “RE thinks of itself as Cinderella, but behaves like the ugly sisters. The prince does not return.” Ouch.

So, where do we go from here? Nothing less than “the establishment of a new subject identity”. Essentially, the book follows up the report of the independent 2018 National Commission on RE. Trevor Cooling, a familiar name from the RE past, and now chairman of the RE Council, charged the members of the Commission to come up with a “game-changer”. They took him at his word.

In short, RE should become R and W: Religion and Worldviews, with a National Entitlement (they mean National Curriculum), which would become statutory for all children. Agreed syllabuses and a lot of the paraphernalia of the past would disappear. It could hardly be more radical: polemical, spiky, even angry at times, and a gripping read. If this comes off, the RE world as it stands will be hugely in his debt. As he himself says, he will not pass this way again. This is it. There will be no fourth volume.

Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? is one of those delightful memoirs that you wish you had written. Written in the style of the Secret Teacher and other volumes giving us the unvarnished truth, Fran Hill has collected anecdotes from her long career. She has used the diary formula, which gives it a clever, up-to-date feel.

I trust, for her sake, that the names have been changed, or litigation will follow. The author has the priceless gift of sending herself up, along with school life in general. She attends church and a Bible-study group, but worry not: they come in for much the same treatment as her feckless Year-11s.

As for her portrayal of Adrian the head teacher, it is so funny it’s almost cruel. His Year 11 assembly is “boring them skull-less except that he was practically eating the microphone. Each time he said ‘s’ it sounded like someone sweeping up leaves.” The Head of Department, Camilla, gets a rough ride as well. The book is a veritable treat.

 

Judge Deb and the Battle of the Bands: hats off to the readers who guessed that “Deb” is Deborah, Gideon’s predecessor among the Judges of Israel. It is written in rhyme by a stand-up comedian, Paul Kerensa, who has an impressive media CV, and his series of children’s books for three- to six-year-olds deserve a wider audience (Interview, 1 December 2017).

He is certainly inventive with his titles. In the same series you could choose Moses and the Exodus Express, or Noah’s Car Park Ark. They are perfect bedtime or RE story material: short, sparky, and with lovely colourful illustrations. The story? Well, billed as a “modern retelling of the story of Deborah — the only female judge in the Bible”, it somehow metamorphoses into a Battle of the Bands. You can rest assured that Deborah is the star, and that God is behind it all.

Well done to Grove again, for tackling an exciting agenda at such an impossible time, in Sustaining Global School Links, and, on a similar theme, Nurturing Healthy Diversity in Church Schools. The authors of the former booklet recognise the unique challenge of looking outwards during the Covid pandemic.

Apparently, “courageous advocacy”, a term in use through SIAMS (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools) since 2018, defines schools where there is “a real desire to see the world change for the better”. Both volumes are rooted in schools in the Midlands. Both will give heads and governors all the presentational material they need to launch such a link. The positivity in both volumes is such that you have to believe that their day will come.

 

Reforming RE
Mark Chater, editor
John Catt £15
(978-1-91290-6-925)
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

 

Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?
Fran Hill
SPCK £9.99
(978-0-281-08199-8)
Church Times Bookshop £8.99

 

Judge Deb and the Battle of the Bands
P. Kerensa
SPCK £5.99
(978-0-281-08412-8)
Church Times Bookshop £5.39

 

Sustaining Global School Links (eD43)
A. Brown, A. Matthews
Grove Books £3.95
(978-1-78827-119-6)

 

Nurturing Healthy Diversity in Church Schools (eD44)
D. Whisker, L. Vickerage-Goddard, S. Pihlaja
Grove Books £3.95
(978-1-78827-130-1)

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