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Religious education: a year of change

09 February 2024

This is a important moment for the teaching of RE, says Sarah Lane Cawte

RE Council

A teacher hangs up paintings done in RE lessons at Boutcher C of E Primary School, London

A teacher hangs up paintings done in RE lessons at Boutcher C of E Primary School, London

THIS year looks set to be an incredibly important year for religious education (RE). After many years of government neglect, the subject has finally had its teaching bursary restored. This year, a new cohort, attracted by £10,000 in support for their training, will be in the classroom.

What sort of subject will they find themselves teaching? After significant growth since the start of the century, the subject continues to attract about a quarter of a million students at GCSE each year — although, in recent years, the subject has struggled to grow at A level. Since 2003, entries have grown by nearly 50 per cent, and students have gone on to a range of careers in law, journalism, and teaching.

The subject has not just grown in numbers, but also in the way in which it tackles the nature of belief in modern Britain. The Commission on Religious Education, headed by the Very Revd John Hall, brought together faith leaders and teachers from all over the country to think about how to teach RE in contemporary culture. This was the start of an ongoing conversation about how best to prepare young people for the changing nature of faith and belief around them.

As part of this re-envisaging of RE, the Commission’s 2018 report recommended a “Religion and Worldviews approach to Religious Education” in schools, a “worldview” being any of the diverse ways in which religious and non-religious people “encounter, interpret, understand, and engage with the world”, recognising that world-views can be organised, such as an institutional religion, or can be personal.

Contrary to some misunderstanding, this was not a means of replacing the study of religion. Instead, it recognised that the faith of many religious people no longer fitted into institutional religions. It provides students with an academic and knowledge-rich understanding of faith and belief in modern Britain which allows them to engage meaningfully with their own beliefs, as well as others’.

The Religious Education Council of England and Wales works to improve the quality of RE teaching around the country. At the end of last year, the outgoing Chief Inspector of Education, Amanda Spielman, described RE teaching as “generally of poor quality”. Although this doesn’t mean that there are not plenty of examples of excellence in teaching in the country, we feel that it is a recognition that the Government — and, indeed, school management, in some instances — has neglected the teaching of RE.

This spring, the RE Council will launch a new “toolkit” for teachers to help them to develop a curriculum based on the best RE practice in the country. This toolkit is the culmination of a three-year Religion and Worldviews in the Classroom project with teachers, drawing on academic research and further consultation on the Commission’s 2018 report.

RE Council Children take part in an RE lesson at Broughton High School, Lancashire

“This is a process which has worked to understand what high-quality RE could look like in different communities and schools across the country, using guidance that sets high expectations for all schools,” the teacher and RE adviser Gillian Georgiou said about her involvement in the project.

“We have been working in diverse contexts, from urban areas in places like Coventry, to rural parts of East Anglia, from Church of England-led schools to multi-academy trusts. Through this project, we’ve built on existing best practice to provide practical examples of how different schools, in different contexts, can level up their RE provision.”

At the heart of this toolkit is a National Statement of Entitlement, which provides a pedagogical tool for curriculum-developers, setting out what all state-school pupils up to the end of Year 11 are entitled to be taught. The toolkit also gives teachers access to a set of resources to allow them to bring the best examples of RE teaching into their classroom, enriching and deepening pupils’ scholarly engagement with religion and world-views.

What does best practice in religious education look like? Shreya, a Year 10 student from Plashet School, Newham, in London, described RE as “the one time in school where you can talk, listen, and try to make sense of people, events, and beliefs in the world.” Other pupils — some in Church of England schools — have expressed an interest in how the study of religion has informed their understanding of belief outside the classroom.

What do parents make of this new approach to the curriculum? A Religion and Worldviews Parent Survey 2022, by Culham St Gabriel’s Trust, found support among parents for a religion-and-world-views approach. When asked about some of the core principles of the approach, such as teaching the historical and social context of religion, and providing children with the opportunity to explore similarities and differences between religions and different world-views, an average of seven in ten parents surveyed agreed that this was an important part of their child’s education.

There will continue to be challenges in improving the quality of RE teaching, but the launch of our teachers’ toolkit will be an enormous step in ensuring that every child in every school has access to high-quality RE.

It is important to emphasise that this is not the final say on how we teach religion and beliefs in this country. For every teacher, these resources are optional. But they are rooted in a far-reaching and scholarly approach to understanding how to teach religion and beliefs in modern Britain. It is one that is intended to help students understand how religion and world-views work — not just in the world around them, but in their own world, too.

Sarah Lane Cawte chairs the Religious Education Council.

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