The Commission on RE – A retrospective
10 July, 2020
We are delighted to be launching a new summer blog series called ‘Opening up conversations about religion and worldviews’. This blog series is being run in collaboration with the RE Policy Unit, a partnership between NATRE, the RE Council and RE Today. It will include contributions from a wide range of teachers, those working in initial teacher education and researchers in this field.
Reflecting back on my time as a Commissioner and all the data we used in drawing up our final report (Commission on RE 2018), there are two further pieces of evidence which have convinced me that we were right to go for radical change and not simply aim to find more resources to shore up the present system. Both of these were from 2018 YouGov surveys. The first, of the general population, revealed that 55% of those surveyed thought that RE was ‘not very’ or ‘not at all important’ and RE was fourth from the bottom of the list. The second, of pupils, showed that RE was their least favourite subject, with the exception of Citizenship. I find these figures devastating. The title of the popular Facebook group ‘Save RE’ says it all: the subject needs to be saved and whether or not, or how far, you might agree with our recommendations, something needed to be done.
One of our main recommendations was that there should be a National Entitlement (not Curriculum) for all pupils in all schools. That’s pretty radical in itself. It is set out in tightly written prose and each of the subsections is worthy of careful study. As an example, let me take the first two areas that we say pupils must be taught about.
‘Matters of central importance to that worldview’. “Tick”, says the RE teacher and the Agreed Syllabus Conference member, “We do that”. I’d like to think that is the case, but I don’t think I did that, or did it very well, when I was a teacher. It is too easy to fit religions into our curriculum framework rather than the other way round. Take most RE textbook series: beautifully illustrated, packed with ‘knowledge’, learning activities and key questions but so many of them follow the same format, no matter which religion they’re looking at: worship, scriptures, rites of passage – as if these were all matters of ‘central importance’ to every worldview. They’re not. There might be a birth ceremony in Judaism but there’s not in Buddhism. Pilgrimage might be central to Islam but not to most Christians. The first element of the NE asks us to think again about what we are presenting to pupils and how we frame it.
The second is the one I like the best: pupils should be taught about ‘the key concepts including ‘religion’, ‘secularity’, ‘spirituality’ and ‘worldview’…’ . Elsewhere in the report we call these our ‘over-arching categories’. This presents to me a helpful spatial metaphor: rather than not just ‘under-standing’ a religion, we also have ‘over-arching’, a rising above and looking down on the complex, fascinating and essentially important phenomena of worldviews, their complex, diverse and pluralistic nature, their changing patterns and their inter-connectedness.
Each of these four concepts is complex, each contested and each needs to be understood by pupils if they are to make any sense of the world in which they live, never mind continue to create their own worldview. ‘Religion’ is not synonymous with ‘the big six’ – the whole is more than its constituent parts. The zeitgeist of the western world is ‘secular’ and pupils need to understand its meaning, its development, its contested nature and its relevance to understanding ‘religion’ in the modern world. RE teachers often lay claim to ‘spirituality’ when, of course spiritual development is a whole-school responsibility. Religion and Worldviews does not just contribute to pupils’ spiritual development through the content of the subject but through the opportunity to provide an ‘objective, critical and pluralistic’ approach to understanding the term, its meaning and its manifestations in human life, including – but not only – religious interpretations of ‘spirituality’. It is the term ‘worldview’ that has aroused the most controversy, which isn’t unexpected, but, despite its contested nature, it is a widely-used, overarching term and the one that we decided was most fit for purpose. We knew that a great deal more work needs to be done and I’m delighted that the RE Council is currently leading on that.
And that’s another misconception: there’s much more going on than is evident to everyone. The authors of some of the most significant reports in recent times, all of which called for radical change – A New Settlement, RE for Real, the report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life, as well as the Commission on RE – are continuing to work and to collaborate. Others have taken the initiative and developed responses – primary teacher educators, for example, have developed Recommendation Six and their work is available on the Culham St Gabriel website (see: https://www.teachre.co.uk/itt-providers/primary-itt-tutor-toolkit/). Many individual teachers I’ve met as I’ve travelled the country speaking about the Commission have expressed immense enthusiasm and I hope that will be translated into classroom practice. There’s a long way to go but we’ll get there in the end. We have to.
Dr Joyce Miller Member of the Commission on RE, 2016-8.