The report of the Commission on Religious Education puts forward ‘a new vision for religious education in England’ (CoRE 2018) which feels long overdue. It is heartening that it is described as being ‘for students of all backgrounds and beliefs’. This certainly reflects two of the core recommendations of our earlier report, REforREal (Dinham and Shaw 2016), which helped set the scene for reform. In our research, we discovered an appetite for change which would take account of a real religious landscape in which tradition sits alongside identity, the formal alongside the informal, and in which stretchy understandings of a spectrum of religion, belief and non-belief are all taken seriously as rich for exploration. To reflect this, the Commission proposes a change of name, from ‘RE’ to ‘Religion and Worldviews’. This feels like an important step in this age of branding. But it is about so much more than the shop-front. The change of name first of all acknowledges that the old name – RE – comes with baggage. Students we spoke to think of it as the soft option, out on the margins, colonised by things which aren’t even religion or belief, though often with overlaps, like disability and abortion. It is all-too often taught by non-specialists who themselves lack confidence in the subject. It is caught up in a muddled legislative framework whereby it remains compulsory, but need not be examined, and in which it is confused with a mandatory but often-ignored daily act of collective worship, in the Christian mode. To complicate matters further, there is a right to withdraw from RE altogether. What other subjects are mixed up in so much confusion, ensuring a sense of low status which is reflected in minimal budgets and allocations of time?
The Commission is wise to seek to rebalance and consolidate the field through a new national entitlement, providing a common vision and framework for schools to develop their own approach to reflect the communities in which they work. This balancing of national baselines with local determination promises much in the way of setting the subject in a newly confident, supported context, capable of engaging with the global diversity and complexity of religions and worldviews as they are lived locally, while fostering a common bottom line. Crucially it also broadens out the lenses through which religion and worldviews can be understood, to include theology and religious studies, of course, but also sociology and politics, and a host of settings from media to retail in which religion and worldviews play out. This will satisfy the students in our study who wanted to study more about H&M’s models in hijabs and YouTube channels discussing environmentalism and tree homage.
The broadening out envisaged will depend upon the will and engagement of a wide range of interests, creating a space which is owned by us all, regardless of our own religion and worldview. Such a space is important because nobody starts from nowhere, and the ability to recognise our own starting points and to handle those of others is a critical life skill, not a nice-to-have indulgence. The proposed programmes of study that sit alongside the national entitlement may be used and adapted as locally determined, but they stand as a resource, rather than a prescription, for what could be taught and imagined. This contrasts starkly with the current system of locally agreed syllabi, in the hands of Standing Advisory Committees on Religious Education (SACREs). While laudable for the attempts they reflect at broadening out from the Christian landscape over the years since the 1944 settlement, in the end SACREs nevertheless preserve confessional perspectives at the heart of RE. Their removal from the determination of curricula will free the study of religion and worldviews from claims of vested interests and evangelical agendas. The promise is of a new space in which religion and worldviews are taken seriously for their social, individual and political efficacy, whatever one’s own perspective. This surely models a world in which simple binaries of society as secular or sacred, and religion as private or public, no longer hold, if they ever really did, and in which religion and worldviews are facts of life for everyone – prevalent, complex and diverse.
Professor Adam Dinham
Director, Faiths & Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London