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RE for Real: The Future of Teaching and Learning about Religion and Belief – Adam Dinham and Martha Shaw

December 1, 2015

REFRIn their introduction, they point out that there were attempts to standardise RE when the model syllabuses were launched but, since then, academies have been given the freedom to make their own syllabuses. So there is not more diversity, not less.

The omission of RE from the Ebacc, cuts in funding and the subsequent loss of RE advisors, citizenship colonising RE and a disagreement about aims has made matters worse.

The religious scene is changing: many are spiritual but not religious, mainstream Christian denominations are shrinking whilst Pentecostal churches are growing.

They surveyed 331 people, including employers, RE Specialists, teachers in senior leadership, other teachers, parents and students (pupils?).

Students are concerned that they hear a lot of stereotypes in the media and in some of their learning. They want to know what’s real. They think that learning about religion and belief is becoming more and more relevant because they see more of it, and what they see is more diverse. Almost all emphasise the role of learning about religion and belief in order to engage positively with diversity. Almost all emphasise the importance of learning about religion and belief to their personal development. Almost all want to learn about a wider range of religions and beliefs and are worried that many students learn about only one or two traditions. Students really enjoy learning about real ‘lived’ religion, especially through thinking about religion and belief controversies. Most of this cohort think RE needs to be a separate subject with subject specialist teachers. Many think that RE lacks status. The majority think they should they should study religion and belief up to Year 10, but then GCSE should be optional, not compulsory.

Teachers in this study broadly assume that understanding religion and belief will result in positive attitudes to difference. They particularly emphasise the importance of learning for cohesion in the least diverse places. They think RE has an important task in rebalancing media stereotypes. They are frustrated by how little time there is for RE, often resulting in teaching about only one or two traditions. Specialist RE teachers emphasise RE as a humanities subject with an academic justification in its own right, while non-specialist RE teachers emphasise learning for cohesion and respect. Many see RE as a key space for personal, spiritual and moral reflection in school. There is concern about a tension in RE between academic and personal purposes. Teachers think religion and belief learning prepares students for the workplace. 86% of teachers in the study feel that RE should be a National Curriculum subject and be included in the EBacc. 72% say it should be compulsory to at least 16. The majority of teachers in the study think teaching and learning about religion and belief should take place in a distinct RE subject (specific) and also be included as a theme in other learning areas (distributed). Most supported the inclusion of humanism. It was also thought that GCSE simplifies religion.

Almost all parents in the study think religion and belief learning should prepare students for religion and belief diversity. Parents emphasise attitudes – respect and tolerance – rather than knowledge, as being the main point of learning about religion and belief. Parents mostly talked in very general terms about RE inculcating morals and spirituality. Parents think it is important for young people to understand the ‘world religions’, though most could not say which religions they mean. 1/3 of parents in the study did not know that RE is not in the national curriculum. 94% said it should be. 94% of parents in the study think religious education should be compulsory in schools. 70% say up to at least age 16. Some want a name change, saying they think ‘RE’ puts young people off. The majority think that students should learn about a wide range of religions and beliefs. Almost all think that this should include non-religious beliefs. Parents think there should be a focus on religion in contemporary society.

Employers said that young people need to learn about handling religion and belief diversity in ways that prepare them for workplace diversity. Learning about religion and belief should provide students with empathy with regard to the importance of religion in people’s lives. It should give young people a practical understanding of how religion and belief will manifest themselves in people’s lives. It should give young people an understanding of what are acceptable manifestations of religion and belief within the work place and what are not. Students should learn about non-religious beliefs. Most think RE should be compulsory at secondary school, though they weren’t specific as to what level. Where teachers thought that studying festivals was a low level issue, employers wanted it.

There’s a tension between people wanting all religions taught and the desire by specialist teachers to concentrate on fewer religions in more depth.

All state-funded schools will soon be Academies or Free Schools and the national curriculum will be less relevant anyway. As its role diminishes, what scope is there for an alternative framework that supports all schools?

Their ten recommendations are:

  1. A statutory National Framework for Religion and Belief Learning should be developed, and be applicable to all schools, balancing shared national approaches with school level determination.
  2. Since SACREs currently play a leading part in religion and belief learning, there is an urgent need for review of their role, and the role of others, such as professional bodies and experts, in the forming of learning. This should inform and result in the appointment of a national panel to develop the framework.
  3. The National Framework panel should be mandated to consider and make recommendations about the purpose, content and structures of teaching and learning, and about the relationship between learning inside RE, outside in other subjects, and in the wider life of schools, especially in relation to the Act of Worship requirement, and to the right to withdraw.
  1. Religion and belief learning should be a compulsory part of the curriculum to age 16, and consideration should be given to what, if anything, happens in post-16 learning.
  2. Content should reflect the real religious landscape, as revealed by cutting edge theory and data in the study of contemporary religion and belief.
  3. The process of producing a National Framework for Religion and Belief Learning should determine the mix, content and location of religion and belief learning specific to RE, and that which takes place in a distributed way in learning outside of RE.
  4. GCSE Religious Studies should remain as an optional subject for schools, and consideration should be given to reframing its content to demarcate the boundary between academic study of the real religious landscape, and other religion and belief learning associated with personal, spiritual and social learning.
  5. There should be continued investment in Initial Teacher Training for subject specialist RE teachers.
  6. There should be increased investment in continuing professional development for non-specialist teachers of religion and belief.
  7. The process of producing a National Framework should include a review and decision on the name or names of religion and belief learning in schools.

The report is online here

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