Encounters, Engagement and Experience: Making RE Real.

May 1, 2018
Think Pieces,

As an undergraduate of Study of Religions at Bath Spa University I engaged in dialogue with people and experienced ‘participant observation’ across a wide range of traditions. These experiences offered a level of insight into the lived reality of religions that reading articles and books could not. The children I teach also enjoy and benefit from meeting and engaging with faith visitors and going on trips to places of worship, but I was to discover that such practice was exceptional.


National RE experts and SIAMS inspectors I spoke to suggested that maybe only 5% of schools had a programme for trips and visitors beyond visiting the local church. This was supported by surveys of teachers and responses from subject leaders at training events and on social media -and these teachers were probably more dedicated to RE than most. Issues cited with running trips included: costs; excessive workload; dull, didactic presentations; a lack of response from places of worship and, for others, a paucity of diverse religious communities in their locale. Of those who did make the effort to broaden the experiences of their pupils, visits to synagogues were the most common and those that were used tended to be very busy. Visits to mosques followed closely but these could be marred by a few pupils being withdrawn by their parents.


What are the experiences of people who host encounters with schools?


I surveyed twenty-nine local faith reps via online questionnaire, in person or by telephone. Over 75% of all of those surveyed reported that they would like to do more work with schools, none felt over-subscribed. However, only 17% of the respondents were aware of the locally agreed syllabus and those who were very familiar were usually members of SACREs. About 30% liaised in detail with teachers about content before the visit and 70% would have liked to have more support with their outreach work. Discussions with faith reps in other areas of the country showed a similar pattern. More experienced faith reps often insisted on the children having studied the basics of their faith before an encounter in order to make the most of the experience. Sometimes the local syllabus could affect visits, especially if the faith was only covered in Key Stage 1.


What is happening during encounters with people of faith?


I observed eighteen encounters between pupils and faith reps, about half in places of worship with other schools and the rest with classes from my own school. In observations I was looking for interest levels and involvement of pupils; relevance in terms of their academic needs as well as their ability to engage with others to aid the development of a functional religious literacy ‘preparing students for the practical task of engagement with the rich variety of religion and belief encounters in everyday, ordinary life’ (Dinham and Shaw, 2017).


Where there were activities to engage children (even if just demonstrations) the visits were more successful. Didactic presentations failed to engage the children and, on occasions, had far too much coverage. Too frequently opportunities to share the realities of living the faith were missed. There were notable differences when pupils had been primed with the basics of the faith in preparation for the visit. Children were able to build on their learning in class and often able to ask high quality questions. Discussions featured in the most productive encounters, both in terms of engagement and impact. This allowed opportunities to develop a greater sense of empathy for the way their faith affected their lives. This was notable when, during a mosque visit, the host sat on the floor with the children and discussed his experiences, not just of practicing his faith, but also the impact of Islamophobia and accounts of how his faith moved him and affected his life. A similarly high quality experience was enjoyed by pupils at a Buddhist centre when the host was able to discuss their personal experiences of becoming a Buddhist and how their family reacted. The experience of stilling was one which some pupils reported had a significant positive effect on them.


Clearly there is a need for greater liaison between teachers and faith reps prior to the visit as well as honest, constructive feedback from teachers to help develop practice. -But how else could the use of trips and visitors be made more engaging and experiential?


Case study 1: ‘Participant observation’ as a research methodology for pupils?


Few of the pupils in our rural CEVC primary school have meaningful contact with people of faith outside of their RE lessons. Very few attend a church or other place of worship, even infrequently, and the majority are agnostic or atheist. This makes it difficult for them to gain an understanding of the nature of worship or the profound effect that faith can have on a devout person. Despite that many of them still join in with Collective Worship and prayers.


A special church visit was arranged for two classes, Year 4 studying Easter and Year 5 learning about the importance of the Bible to Christians. The vicar and ten parishioners kindly agreed to hold a ‘mini service’ for them in place of their regular Collective Worship. The children were prepared by watching and discussing a video clip of an Anglican service, they recorded questions for the congregation.


Case study 2: Diversity in Christianity


The following term Year 4 were conducting a local study. Guests were invited from four different denominations in our community. In preparation I visited them and observed worship and discussed their faith and practice(s) with them. I was clear about the aspects of their faith that I wanted them to focus on. I also took pictures of their places of worship. The faith reps they encountered were four ‘Quakers’, a Jehovah’s Witness, a Salvationist and three Charismatic Christians. Pupils had a worksheet for notes with sections about the place of worship; style of worship; core beliefs, and faith in action as well as room for any other issues of interest.


The essentials of four denominations, their practices and lived experiences had been conveyed effectively to the children. In assessments they showed understanding of the similarities and differences between the denominations and even the relationships between them. Issues such as pacifism, Biblical literalism, faith in action and even glossolalia were within the understanding of the children (a demonstration was a highlight of that particular encounter).


The children completed questionnaires after the last visit to give feedback on which visitors had expressed the lived experience of their faith the most effectively and why, it also asked them about whether and how their understanding of Christianity had changed because of the experiences.


The children’s experience of meeting with the four ‘Quakers’ was notable in that it was very conversational. Children preferred this way of meeting and getting to know people; it was also very clear that four people from the same denomination had different answers to the same questions. The experiential nature of worship was put across very well by the Charismatics. For the children this understanding that faith was diverse within denominations as well as between them was a revelation. Their understanding of the lived reality of religious people had increased dramatically.


The experience raised important questions such as ‘who are the real Christians?’ and ‘what does being a Christian actually mean?’ Clearly these are issues that could be deliberated upon by somebody at any age, not just 9 year olds.


Sharing practice:


Apart from seminars and conferences I was invited to discuss my research on Beyond Belief. I have supported visitors and hosts to help them develop their practice; they help support teacher training sessions that I run as part of LTLRE. South Gloucestershire SACRE offers a ‘WIRE Award’ (Widening Inclusion in Religious Education) offering grants to support schools with the cost of trips to places of worship. I maintain a sizeable database of trips and visitors for teachers in the Bristol / South Glos area to support this.


The full report is available by request from The Farmington Institute


Chris Selway is a primary teacher in the south west with a degree in Study of Religions. He attained a Farmington Scholarship researching the effective use of trips and visitors. Chris now teaches ‘Religions and Beliefs’ across KS2 and is a SACRE member and LTLRE Hub leader.