Yesterday saw the publication of the Commission on RE’s report. I was pleased to be invited to join the Commission two years ago: governing boards have the role of ensuring that the school meets its statutory responsibility to teach pupils RE. Yes, for historical reasons, RE has a different legal position from other subjects. Governing boards should know that RE is being offered and taught well by teachers with sufficient knowledge.
Some governing boards still shy away from curriculum discussions; but we absolutely must not. After all how else can you be sure the school is fulfilling its duty of providing a broad and balanced curriculum? The quality of teaching and pastoral care are fundamental to a pupil’s experience at school, but what is taught is surely just as important. Many governing boards need to devote more time to this. NGA hears frequent laments about how arts and sometimes sports are being pushed to the edges of the school day; so, notwithstanding challenges presented by school funding, let’s do something about it.
When did your governing board last check that the statutory requirement to provide RE was being met? A number certainly haven’t. As the Commission reports, an increasing number of secondary schools offer no provision for RE at Key Stages 3 and 4: in 2016, 23.1% of all schools did not offer any RE at Key Stage 3 and 33.4% did not offer any at Key Stage 4, an increase of 300 schools from the year before.
On the carefully constructed commission I was surrounded by hugely knowledgeable people from the world of RE. It was my job to ask the naïve question. I was proud to have been part of a very inclusive consultative piece of work – a glance at the report’s appendices show just how many individuals and organisations contributed, in writing, in oral evidence sessions around the country and in answering our survey. I do regret that the Commission did not have the resources to include parents and the wider public in the process. It may well be a misunderstood subject with some assuming it is religious instruction, rather than the objective academic subject it is.
The passion for the subject from teachers shone through. After all this is a subject which illuminates many of life’s most important questions, why we and others believe what we do, and involves the discussions of ethics and morality. Anyone who has any doubt about the usefulness of the subject need only listen to the pupils who articulated various aspects beautifully:
I need to know why people be like they are. I don’t have to agree but I do have to know about it.
Reported comment by a year 5 pupil
[studying RE] helps understand the context of world events and what is right or wrong in the media and how to respond.
Year 9 pupil, York
We learn to accept differences in each other as understanding breeds tolerance in our diverse communities. This allows us to create a safe environment that benefits everyone.
Year 9 pupil, Birmingham
[Studying RE] has helped me have more friends in school – there are other faiths in school and my best friend is a Muslim. We are connected because we’ve got to understand each other’s faiths through RE.
Year 10 pupil, Manchester
After taking RS A level it becomes hard to ever blindly accept a proposition again… Before we studied RE, we’d have been more egocentric. Our discussions have stopped being celebrity gossip and more talking genuinely about genuine things.
Year 13 student, Birmingham
Our report sets out a National Plan to ensure that all pupils receive their entitlement to a high quality academically rigorous and rich study of religious and non-religious worldviews. The Commission heard that in too many schools RE is not good enough to prepare pupils adequately for the religious and belief diversity they will encounter, nor to support them to engage deeply with the questions raised by the study of worldviews. Our vision aims to preserve the best of current practice while demanding new developments.
A worldview is a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. It can be described as a philosophy of life or an approach to life. This includes how a person understands the nature of reality and their own place in the world. A person’s worldview is likely to influence and be influenced by their beliefs, values, behaviours, experiences, identities and commitments.
Through understanding how worldviews are formed and expressed at both individual and communal levels, the ways in which they have changed over time, and their influence on the actions of individuals, groups and institutions, young people come to a more refined understanding of their own worldview, as well as those of others. The time is right for a new vision for the subject if we are to prepare children and young people for living in the increasingly diverse and complex world in which they find themselves.
In order to secure the future of the subject, the report has a number of recommendations to ensure that a high quality national entitlement for pupils is realised. In particular the Commission called for a significant investment in highly qualified and knowledgeable teachers, including a sustained programme of teacher education and development.
The reaction of the RE sector has already been very largely positive, and many are urging the Government to take the Commission’s recommendations seriously. But in the meantime there are a number of questions your governing board can ask senior leaders, beginning with:
- How are we meeting our statutory duty to teach RE?
- How are we supporting our RE teachers and extending their subject knowledge?
During that review, you will no doubt want to hear from both pupils and teachers, but perhaps you can also seek views from parents too. I commend the Commission on RE’s report to you and your senior leaders. Please make sure your pupils are not missing out.