THINK PIECE Epistemic change and RE: how we got here and where we’re going – Dr James Robson

September 8, 2015
James' Blog, Think Pieces,

The recent publication from Linda Woodhead and Charles Clarke, A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools (, has sparked of a great deal of debate in the RE world – at least among online RE professionals where it has inspired numerous blogs and social media discussions. However, although clearly important, it is arguable that this report is simply part of a much wider movement for change in RE. It seems to me that the report is rooted in a very specific context, linked with a wide variety of educational, political and social factors, where an increasing number of people involved in RE are crying out for legal and structural change for their subject. I very much doubt this report could have been written ten or even five years ago and, if it had been, I suspect the RE world would not have engaged with it in the critically open way that it’s doing.


It is this current context that makes the potential of A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools, so powerful. There is a flurry of activity taking place at the moment as a variety of stakeholders engage in the negotiation of RE’s subject identity. For example, in early 2015 Culham St Gabriel’s held a series of thinking days aimed at discussing the future of the subject (and these are set to continue in 2015/2016); RE Today held a similarly styled workshop to brainstorm the place of research in the subject; the REC published the non-statutory National Curriculum Framework for RE and associated guidance from the Expert Advisory Group for RE; teachers are engaging in online debates and offline networking through local hubs and conferences; etc. etc. Without wanting to be too hyperbolic, this all makes for an electric and electrifying context. Thus, while a great deal of people may not agree with everything Woodhead and Clarke advocate for RE (or religion in schools in general), I suspect that many feel the same sense of dissatisfaction with the current system and an increasingly urgent feeling that RE must change if it is to survive in any kind of coherent form in the future.



How did we get here?


However, the question of how we got to this point is an important one, since knowing the path we’ve followed may help define the path we take in the future. Although this requires a much more detailed analysis and a much longer article to explore the nuances in sufficient depth, I would briefly argue that there a four main interrelated factors that may have brought the RE world to a stage where discussion about legal and structural subject change is a real possibility. These are:


Politics and Policy Changes


The destructive impact of Gove’s policy changes on RE in the first few years of the coalition government are well known and well documented. The bonfire of the quangos, the erosion of local authorities, the loss of many local advisors and the closure of some ITT providers has irrevocably changed the nature of the support networks available to RE teachers. It is arguable that this has led to the increasing number of grassroots hubs, teachmeets and networks that, with the help of NATRE and various trusts, have developed. Ultimately, this may prove to be a more vibrant form of CPD, linked to a flatter hierarchy of peer-to-peer sharing as opposed to the previous top down formal model of CPD, complete with gatekeepers and financial or even evangelical agendas.


At the same time the drive towards academisation and the creation of free schools has shaken the previously sacredly held assumptions about the statutory nature of RE and the right to withdraw. As the statutory nature of RE is only included in academies’ and free schools’ funding documents, for these schools it is no longer enshrined in primary legislation. This, along with wider issues around Ofsted and what should or shouldn’t be inspected, has brought the issue of statutory requirement to the fore and emphasised the question of whether having RE as a special case (part of the basic curriculum, a statutory subject, right of withdrawal etc.) is actually holding the subject back. Similarly, through policy changes that have increasingly placed power directly into the hand of schools, disempowering local authorities, questions about the role of SACREs and local determination are necessarily being discussed with renewed vigour.


These issues, combined with questions of subject identity, academic standing and the place of knowledge raised by the EBACC and knowledge oriented curriculum, have contributed to the current unstable context and a climate of challenge to the status quo.


The Importance of NATRE:


Very much linked with the policy changes experienced under the coalition government, and now continuing under the Conservative government, is the growing importance and voice of NATRE as an organisation. Although always clearly a vital part of the RE world, in the last 5 or so years the policy changes and particularly the threat of the EBACC appears to have catalysed NATRE into a much more political organisation than it was before. Through its campaigning work, networking and data generation through NATRE questionnaires the organisation has become better able to bring the grass roots voice of RE teachers to national debate and has developed its own direct links with policy makers. Furthermore, instead of being a single voice among the many member organisations of the RE Council (dominated by belief traditions and interest groups), NATRE has taken on much more of a partnership role, affording RE teachers a vital sense of ownership of the subject they teach at a national level.


Generational Change:


Inevitably as one generation of leaders in RE begins to take a step back, a new generation of leaders steps forward. With many of these leaders having had their entire educational experience (or most of it) in a post 1988 Education Act context it is perhaps unsurprising that their values and vision for their subject might differ from the previous generation and there should be a growing voice calling for change.


The Power of Social Media:


Finally, the huge growth in the number of RE teachers using online social spaces as opportunities to network with their peers has, at least to a certain extent, brought a sense of community to a group of professionals that would otherwise have been extremely isolated, particularly with the erosion of previous local authority based support structures. This sense of community has grown and taken on a national voice, linking educationalists and policy makers beyond the RE world through social media with online contexts providing space for active debate about the future of the subject. However, most importantly social media has enabled the voices of RE teachers on the ground to be heard and afforded them opportunities to participate in policy initiatives and activities that might previously have been reserved for educational consultants, SACRE members and members of belief traditions on the REC (all of whom may have been fairly well removed from the classroom). This has arguably had a destabilising effect on the power structures built up around the subject, disrupting previous networks and contributing to a context of change



In a sense all of these four aspects have worked and are working together to disrupt the status quo and create a context in which people can openly discuss change to the legal structures around RE and debate subject aims and identity in a critical way. The context is fluid and dynamic and, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, you can strike sparks anywhere.


When discussing what’s going on here, I think Foucault’s concept of episteme is conceptually useful. For Foucault, an episteme is a set of unconscious structures, rooted in a particular time and place, that define how people think about the world they are in. They unconsciously shape people’s assumptions and maintain and reproduce the status quo. I would argue that the RE world is now at a time of epistemic change. Old embedded thought structures about local determination, the place of SACREs and local authorities, the role of faith communities in the subject, the meaning of knowledge in RE, and subject aims and identity have all been disrupted and challenged. As such we are in a state of conceptual structural fluidity until a new epistemic thought structure becomes established around the subject. We are in the tiny temporal space between two epistemes; previous assumptions and associated conceptual structures have been smashed and it remains to be seen what new structures will emerge from the debris.


So What?


But so what, right? Does claiming that we’re at a time of structural epistemic change add much more than provide a language to use to think about the current context? Well, I would argue that this kind of analysis highlights the importance of what is currently happening in RE. Epistemic shifts are incredibly rare and being aware of a shift while things are still changing is an even rarer gift because there may still be opportunities to shape what is to come. As such understanding that we are in a fluid state places an imperative upon everyone involved in RE to step forward and actively participate in shaping the new thought structures that become established around the subject. Once these become established within the RE world there is the potential for real legal change. We should all therefore make the most of this rare state of fluidity and try and mould RE for the better before it’s too late.



Dr James Robson



James[1]Dr James Robson is the Knowledge and Online Manager at Culham St Gabriels and a lecturer at Oxford University Department of Education. His blog represents his personal opinions and does not reflect those of either of his employers.