Under the heading of ‘Rubbish RE’, the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE) has listed ten pitfalls of RE teaching:
Repetition; boredom; stereotypes flourishing; no time, no reflection; dissipating RE in cross-curricular work; all religions presented as the same; covert indoctrination; misinformation; information to the point of invisibility; specialism (don’t make me laugh).
The final comment is NATRE’s, not mine. A lot of the ‘rubbish RE’ characterised above illustrates the ‘muddled discourse about subjects, knowledge and skills’ described in the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review (pp 245-9), and other Review concerns are carried forward into recent research reports from the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. Prejudice and inequality leading to stereotyping are discussed in Kate Pickett and Laura Vanderbloemen’s Mind the Gap; this topic will also be picked up by Michael Jopling and Sharon Vincent in their report on vulnerable children, which will be published in the New Year.
Teachers’ curriculum knowledge is the final item in the NATRE list. This too is a recurrent CPR/CPRT preoccupation (CPR final report, pp 431-4), while in her recent CPRT blog Squirrel on acid Stephanie Northen commented:
Most teachers, in fact most humans, would struggle to become expert enough to teach English, maths and science – never mind French, computing, history, geography, art, music, RE, PE … This is especially so given that good teaching requires so much more than knowledge.
A recent report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Education entitled RE: The Truth Unmasked presents some striking figures about RE in the primary classroom. For instance: only 44 per cent of pupils are taught RE by their class teacher and 25 per cent are taught RE by a teaching assistant during their class teacher’s PPA time. Although, as the report notes, RE being taught by an HLTA does not generally affect the performance of pupils, it does underline the perceived low status of RE within schools. In as far as too often it impacts on the quality of teaching, this over-sharp status differentiation was something that the CPR final report argued against (p 505):
Children have a right to a curriculum which is consistently well taught regardless of the perceived significance of its various elements or the amount of time devoted to them.
This is echoed in the fourth of CPRT’s eight priorities:
Develop a broad, balanced and rich entitlement curriculum which responds to both national and local need, eliminates the damaging division of status and quality between core and non-core, and teaches every subject, domain or aspect to the highest possible standard.
An initial teacher educator who provided evidence to the All Party RE Group noted that a ‘lack of confidence in RE was the main reason why so many teachers avoided teaching it’. This lack of confidence first took root during teacher training’ (para. 2.8). Linda Whitworth of Middlesex University is reported (p 10) as noting that approximately 50 per cent of her students had concerns about teaching RE. These concerns included fear of causing offence, not being accurate about religions, and the difficulty of managing their own beliefs and attitudes in a multicultural classroom.
Whitword’s comments are paralleled by NATRE’s 2013 report which found that 24.4 per cent of trainee teachers had no training to deliver RE and 48.5 per cent received less than three hours across their programme. RE: The Truth Unmasked went further, finding that even RE leaders in primary schools lacked training in the discipline with 67 per cent of them lacking degree qualifications including religious studies or theology and 37 per cent holding no RE qualification at all. As CPR’s final report noted:
For as long as initial teacher training is directed [solely] at the role of the generalist class teacher, it will be hard pressed to provide what is required, especially on the one-year PGCE route.
Like any other subject, RE requires appropriate professional knowledge. Within this subject, as NATRE notes, there is no room for misinformation. RE gives rise to questions requiring accurate answers, and a lack of appropriate education may warp pupils’ perceptions of other faiths, beliefs and religious practices.
The place of RE in the curriculum was discussed at length in CPR’s final report. Evidence was provided by, among many others, John Hall, Dean of Westminister and former Chief Education Officer of the Church of England Education Division. He said (p233):
Religious Education in any faith-based school is not simply a subject making up a proportion of the taught curriculum. It pervades the whole life of the school (p 233)
While the submission from Bradford’s SACRE submission added (p 233):
[RE] …deals with some of the world’s most significant and ancient teachings and literatures and is, at its best, a challenging subject area.
What needs emphasis here is ‘at its best.’ When we strip down the curriculum stance of CPR and CPRT to its core value, it calls for not only religious education but the primary curriculum as a whole to be at its best.
A different perspective, also presented as evidence to CPR, comes from the British Humanist Association (BHA). BHA (p 234)
accepted the cultural case for teaching about religion but within a framework of even-handed and sympathetic exploration of belief, morality and worldviews from both religious and non-religious perspectives.
Everyone is included. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in God and Jesus.
In line with all this, CPR’s final report argued (p 268), though with careful qualifications, that faith and belief should be one of the eight domains of a genuinely broad and balanced curriculum:
On the question of religious education, we take the view that religion is so fundamental to this country’s history, culture and language, as well as to the daily lives of many of its inhabitants, that it must remain within the curriculum, even though some Review witnesses argued that it should be removed on the grounds that England is a predominantly secular society or that religious belief is for the family rather than the school. However, while denominational schools see their mission as the advancement of particular religious beliefs and moral codes, non-denominational schools should remain essentially secular, teaching about religion with respect and understanding, but not attempting to inculcate or convert. Further, other beliefs, including those about the validity of religion itself, should also be explored. This approach helps us to resolve the quandary of moral education, for in teaching about a religion its ethical elements can be handled with the same sympathetic objectivity as we commend for the treatment of its beliefs and rituals.
CPR has gone out on a limb here, for an Opinium survey of 2013 religious education was rated the ‘least beneficial subject’. Almost certainly, this says more about the quality of RE teaching than the value of RE as such. RE is a valuable asset in the primary curriculum; introducing students to diversity and multiculturalism. It explores ethical issues and allows children to engage in difficult conversations in a safe and constructive environment. It allows for the breaking down of social, economic and cultural barriers and helps children to grow into confident citizens of a global community.
Matt Coward is Administrator of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust