Religious Education in the UK

October 01 2014

I wanted to write about something I know. This won't interest everyone, but if you are an educator or interested in quirks of UK education law or religion in general then read on. At the end I will lay out some of the problems with RE, for many of them you will be able to find articles in BBC News if you research. I apologise now for being a cynic, but I love the subject and just want to see it be treated better.

The Legal Status of RE

All schools in the UK must legally provide Religious Education (RE) to its students, this dates back to a time when a huge number of schools providing free education were Church schools. At various times it has been known as Religious Studies or Religious Instruction. In the past it was entirely Christian in nature and taught as fact. Nowadays it must be predominantly Christian and also reflect other beliefs prevalent in the local area. For this reason there is no National Curriculum, instead in each Local Authority (LA) area a council (SACRE) is formed of local teachers and leaders of local religious organisations as well as representatives of the Church of England to decide what students in their area should study between ages 4-14 (whilst they could advise up to 18 in my experience they instead advocate taking an approved exam course at this stage). SACREs can include Humanist representatives and many (all?) SACREs recommend teaching about atheism and reasons for non-belief as well as taking a critical approach to religion as the students mature. Since under this government many schools have become academies and are therefore freed from their LA they are freed of following SACRE guidance, but they would have to justify major changes to the syllabus. Faith schools are free to only teach about their religion.

Government guidance says the purpose of RE is 'spiritual, moral, social and cultural development' 'personal development and well-being' and 'community cohesion' - no small task!

The Problems RE Faces

- In (non-faith) schools it is often the lowest priority. Primary school teaching is often poor, with the teachers reluctant to tackle a subject they feel they know little about and that has the potential to offend. In Secondary schools it is often given to non-specialist teachers. PSHE and Citizenship are shoe-horned into it, and GCSE courses are expected to be delivered in half the time given to other subjects.

- There is no academic subject called RE. An Ofsted report last year said RE was confused about what it was trying to achieve. The curriculum is decided by, and the subject is taught by, a mixture of theists, atheists, theologians, priests, philosophers and sociologists. If we could decide what the subject is we could decide how to teach and assess it (or even if it can/should be assessed).

- There is little public understanding of the need for the subject. Public perception is often that it has not moved on from the days of RS/RI. There are particularly low results for the white working classes - the group least likely to be religiously affiliated.

- Education Secretaries do little to help the image of modern RE by sending editions of the KJV to every school (Gove) or by being a vocally conservative Christian (Morgan).

- The leeway given to faith schools (including redacting exam papers) undermines the work done in other schools.

I am out of words to mention more issues, let alone attempt solutions. I hope this was informative and feel free to e-mail if you'd like to talk about any of it further.

M. Gallagher
[email protected]

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