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Interview: Lat Blaylock, RE adviser

24 May 2024

‘There’s a myth that children don’t learn much about Christianity in school these days. Plain rubbish’

Mum called me Latimer. She’d never heard of the martyred bishop: she just liked it. I always shorten it, but I kind of like it, too. Thanks, mum — and for a thousand other things!

I’ve always been purpose-driven. After a degree in biblical studies and philosophy, I worked in a homelessness charity for a while. It changed my life, but I couldn’t much help the people I worked with. I thought becoming a religious educator might enable me to share some inspiration with a younger generation.

I’m on the holistic and transformative end of the RE debate. Some say RE should concentrate of academic rigour, and I’m all for that; but the best RE also holds out the possibility of transformation in spiritual, intellectual, and personal ways.

I love the multifaith character and world-view focus of RE: every pupil is on the road, on their own spiritual quest. At best, week by week, RE can drop some profound little packets of learning into young minds.

RE Today is a UK educational charity, going back to the Sunday-school movement of Robert Raikes, nearly 300 years ago. Currently, we train teachers of RE, publish resources like the magazine RE Today, which I’ve edited for the last three decades, write RE syllabuses and plans, and make suggestions to government about RE — which they mostly ignore.

My focus is always on creativity in learning. I’ve made 15 series of RE programmes with the BBC, and I run the annual Spirited Arts competition, inviting about three-quarters of a million young people to express their imaginative ideas about faith, prayer, God, doubt, and all. That’s my favourite thing. It’s opened an extraordinary stream of spirituality among young people.

Numbers of people taking exams in religious studies peaked about ten years ago. In England, they’ve fallen because of government neglect at both A level and GCSE, and there’s some jeopardy to Welsh exam numbers. Still, nearly 300,000 — almost half of each cohort — do an exam in RS, including a substantial study of Christian belief and ethics and another religion, most commonly Islam.

No other education system in the world offers this kind of broad-minded, plural, and potentially profound course to its young adults. RE teachers should get great credit. Generally, young people find the RS exam courses intellectually challenging, fascinating, engaging — sometimes even fun.

We always ask pupils what they think of their RE. One girl wrote: “It is the beauty of the natural world and the ironic twists of circumstance that affect our everyday lives, as well as the strength I feel I have gained from prayer, that convince me there is some ‘Force’ controlling our world; but how can we know? On a rational level, are we simply creating a sense of security for ourselves?” To me, that’s great: she is thinking for herself, using the religious literacy RE has given her. What a privilege her RE teacher has in discussing this with her.

I advise teachers: do less, but do it better. This means that studying three religions — and maybe identities like “spiritual but not religious” or “agnostic” — is plenty of raw material for four- to 19-year-olds. Our locally agreed RE syllabuses usually ask schools to study the religions in the local area.

I’ve lived for four decades in Leicester, the best place on earth to teach plural RE, and I have a bias towards religion here, now: the lived faith of the Christians, Jews, or Hindus. It means I do less history and global study, but depth matters more than breadth in RE.

RE now uses different disciplines: textual study, expressive arts, sociology of religion, and philosophy, as well as theology: 11-14s cope well with multidisciplinary approaches to religion. I’ve enjoyed hearing 11-year-olds saying: “Well, if you look at the question of God philosophically, then . . . but a theological lens shows you that. . .” Many pupils are adept at handling Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion. We use sociological data about Easter observance in the UK and globally, alongside empathic readings of scripture and debates about the possibility of miracle and resurrection.

There’s a myth that children don’t learn much about Christianity in school these days. Plain rubbish. Standards aren’t uniform, but the RE Today project Understanding Christianity, first published in 2016, is in use in about 7000 schools, more than a quarter. From four to 14, children learn about God in creation, the Fall, the people of God, incarnation, gospel, salvation, and the kingdom of God: what I teach about 30 eight-to-11s on Sundays at church. The Church of England’s over 4400 schools lead the way.

But, yes, the half of the students we lose at 14 can end up very ignorant. We have a solution to that, but it takes government to spread the quality and quantity of RE more widely.

Head teachers who feel that the subject isn’t valid or valuable break the law, which says every student should have a course of RE while at school. They should be called to account.

Worship and singing is a different matter. School assembly is variable: strong for four-to-11s, weak for 11-to-18s. Should children worship at school? That question makes a good RE lesson. They should have the opportunity, but there’s no such thing as forced worship, not in any religion.

I went to an all-boys comprehensive school. It was pretty brutal, but my RE teacher was an inspiration: Stuart Hicks, may he rest in peace and rise in glory. He was intellectually curious, cheerful despite the chaos, and cared for us beyond the classroom. He opened my eyes to a broader Christianity than my own Christian community. I’m for ever grateful. He taught me to be a scholar.

My Christian family and community life was a gift: warm, thoughtful, open to question, but also deeply biblical, expectant that God would live among us. My dad was an eager local preacher, mum humble to a fault. I first taught in Sunday school when I was 15, and have ever since, though I name it differently now. It’s one of my favourite things.

I recall my dad praying for us nightly: “Dear God, please help mummy and daddy to be kind, and wise and good as they look after their three dear children.” It was a good and holy atmosphere of family life. I have some clear, sharp memories of the teenage intensity of the sense of oneness, the experience of patterning, and the sense of being in the presence of God. Later, I found it helpful to get all psychology-of-religion-conscious about this, but still occasionally feel a certain raw directness, especially through music and art.

I moved to part-time work this year, and I’m enjoying riding my bike more, and being friends with my friends.

Christian Aid’s research tells us that 13,000 children will die today from preventable diseases — and tomorrow. If I ever lose the cold fury that this statistic arouses, then bury me in a box.

A Krispy Kreme lemon-meringue-pie doughnut is a sure two minutes of joy, but not as good as having my children, our partners, and the granddaughter all walking through a park, having a laugh.

Life’s easy soundtrack is a marvel to people like me who grew up trying to preserve cassette tapes from unspooling. These days, even better than Beethoven, Paul Simon, or Elvis Costello, I love to listen to Bruce Springsteen singing “If I should fall behind . . .”.

God is good. The future shape of grace can’t be seen in advance, but hope is in the blood if you follow Jesus.

My parish small group includes people with special needs, and they model the directness of simple prayer to overthinking me, just as my eight-to-11s do. There’s an anti-selfishness prayer I love: “God, when I am hungry, give me someone to feed. When I am thirsty, send me someone needing a drink. When I am disheartened, send me someone to cheer.”

I’d like to keep company with Lucy Pevensie, one of only a few children ever to enter the magical realm of Narnia, and the original discoverer of the wardrobe into Lantern Waste. What was Aslan really like, Lucy? Where did your faith come from — in that world and our own? Who was your favourite of all the Talking Beasts?

Lat Blaycock was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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