Religious Education: Where has it been? What is it doing? Where is it going?

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Lecture date: Sun, 16th Oct, 2016
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Until the 1970’s at least much Religious Instruction as it was known in the UK was confessional in character. This reflected the state of the nation in which many teachers of religion were in their posts for confessional reasons among others. With the publication of Edwin Cox’s Changing Aims in Religious Education (1968) and Ninian Smart’s Secular Education and the Logic of Religion the teaching of Religious Education as it was becoming known became more about the teaching of the phenomena of religion. Smart pioneered Religious Studies as an academic discipline distinct from Theology and orientalist perspectives on other world faiths. He advanced a
neutral approach to the study of religion in which both scholar and school pupil were to suspend their prejudices, backgrounds and beliefs in the study of religion in search of understanding. Having thus bracketed out bias, the student was then encouraged to enter into the life-world of a faith through the use of the sympathetic imagination.
The Inner London Education Authority was ahead of the pack among local authorities in teaching a full range of world faiths in the kind of non-confessional way that Smart proposed. The thematic study of faiths in the first three years of secondary school became John Holroyd especially popular. Pupils would study festivals across a range of faiths in the autumn term, places of worship in the spring term and rites of passage in the summer term. There was a pressing desire to celebrate multicultural Britain and to expunge racism from the classroom and the wider society.

The 1988 Education Act finally gave the imprimatur to non-confessional Religious Education and also gave it the odd status of being outside the national curriculum while continuing to insist that it was compulsory. However there was a backlash. Fearful that Christianity was being increasingly marginalised, the Christian right, through the work of people like Baroness Cox in the House of Lords succeeded in putting some limits on this development. Reforms to the bill for example insisted that collective worship in schools was to be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character. The thematic study of religions also came under fierce criticism and Locally Agreed Syllabuses as well as examination syllabi came to teach religions in a systematic rather than thematic way once again.

Voluntary Aided schools of course continued and still continue to be confessional as Robert Jackson concluded in his study in 2010. Church of England schools for example follow their own diocesan syllabuses and the School Standards and Framework Act of 1998 introduced the concept of schools having ‘religious character status’ whereby they could discriminate in the appointment of any staff on grounds of religious confession. Research does suggest however that an overtly confessional approach to the teaching of RE in schools today is largely counter-productive with those not already from strongly religious backgrounds being repelled rather than attracted towards faiths that take this evangelical stance within the classroom.

A further development took place in the 1990’s and 2000’s in Religious Education, this was the rise of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. The numbers taking Religious Education at A-level had been in decline in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Those studying the subject including many teachers coming into the profession in the 1990’s were less interested in Theology and Biblical Studies and more interested in discussing concepts and analysing arguments.

By the early 2000’s 90% of pupils studying A-level Religious Studies were studying a combination of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. This has also led and been influenced by similar changes at university level, in which the study of Biblical Studies has declined and Philosophy and Ethics has grown. With this however the study of world religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam has also gone into decline at examination level, at least in schools. They are taught at KS3 level and to a degree at KS4. Of a piece with these evelopments, Professor Andrew Wright of King’s College, London, has had a significant impact on the way that teachers are trained today in the teaching of RE. He has also had a key impact on curriculum design. Dismayed by the incursions of post-modernism and various shades of liberalism within RE and more widely within academe, Wright set out to distinguish between critical religious education and liberal religious education.

The essence of religion, Wright insists, is the pursuit of truth and truthful living. The study of religion in schools should therefore consider religions in terms of the truth claims they make. Its concern should be to evaluate these truth claims and thereby the validity of the entire religions on which they are based. Of course, we can’t tell straight off, which religion is true and which is not, but this is the issue before us and we shouldn’t avoid it for the purposes of social cohesion or political correctness, that’s like ignoring the elephant in the room for Wright.

For me however, there are other elephants in the room. Wright is mistaken I think in speaking so boldly about the essence of religion. As his colleagues Byrne and Clarke have argued in Religion Defined and Explained, it is hard to pin down an essence of religion. It is still harder to say what that is. Wright evades the issue as to whether his concept of truth is one of propositional truth or non-propositional truth because at the heart of his claim about essences is no essence but ambiguity. His claims are also not research based but break one of the most basic methodological rules of thumb when thinking philosophically, that the grander your generalisation the greater your evidence base needs to be by orders of magnitude.

Of interest is the fact that widespread across faiths, most especially in their mystical expression, is the view that the truth lies beyond words. As such the truth cannot be critically discussed and this does not help Wright’s cause. Yet Wright superimposes on such inconveniences a top down pedagogical approach rather than listening to what the very wide range of religious believers have to say about the essence of their faiths or if they have essences.
Today we are concerned by the growth of many religiously inspired free schools and academies. Some operate a curriculum that is disturbingly narrow and is clearly aimed at maintaining a very specific communitarianism within some exclusivist religious communities. I commend Andrew Copson’s call for broad and balanced education for all. However this is to be achieved through  argument within politics and religious freedoms cannot be ignored. It seems to me that religious freedoms should be no more or less
than other forms of freedom within the framework of the nation-state. People of some very extreme religious conviction are also as much a part of the nation-state as others, however much they seek to transform the nation-state for their own ends.

However just as the nation-state grants, rightly, a great deal of freedom to religion, it can equally demand that responsibility is operated by those who are religious just as by everyone else. If a religion is proposing violence against others in society, the state quite rightly it seems to me can call a halt to religious activities at that point. Religions sometimes also claim that they are vulnerable in relation to the
state and should therefore be afforded protection from it. I am very much in favour of looking out for minorities where they may be vulnerable to the wider cultural, capitalist and global forces at work. By the same logic, however, the state should be equally interested
in the vulnerability of individuals within religious communities where that is needed. Individuals should also both in principle and practice be able to leave the faiths of their upbringing without threat or intimidation.

Ultimately education needs to be released from the nation-state. We need to go back to the future with Diogenes rather than Teresa May and educate for global citizenship, dialogue and hope.



Thinking on Sunday

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John Holroyd graduated in Philosophy and Religious Studies and gained his PGCE from King’s College, London, in the 1980’s. He has taught Religious Studies and Philosophy in schools in and around London for the past 29 years, being Head of Religious Studies at St Dustan’s College for most of that…