Has the CoRE brought clarity? – Dilwyn Hunt

Introduction 

At a recent NASACRE AGM Dilwyn Hunt asked a question about the educational value of RE as expressed in  the Commission on RE Report. This is an important question and for this reason we are publishing a blog which sets out Dilwyn’s views. Culham St Gabriel’s strongly supports the recommendations of the Commission on RE and its vision for RE. On Friday I attended an event entitled ‘What next for Religious Education?’ This brought together teachers, researchers, policy makers, curriculum developers as well as philosophers of education. Many of the points raised here in Dilwyn’s blog were debated and discussed. Whilst I may not agree with Dilwyn’s position, it is very important that we have robust conversations about these matters.

Kathryn Wright

CEO, Culham St Gabriel’s Trust


Has the CoRE brought clarity?

For some the Commission’s proposals ensure that RE is no longer burdened with personal and spiritual aims as it now has one very clear purpose, it is the academic study of religious and non-religious worldviews.

If this is what the CoRE had in mind it certainly provides RE with a straightforward purpose but it also weakens the educational value of the subject.  It’s all very well teaching young people knowledge about religions and worldviews but unless young people are taught material which they can engage with and reflect on, that informs their lives and answers their questions all we would be achieving is filling up the minds of young people with what Michael Grimmitt called so much ‘verbal lumber’, which is inert and quickly forgotten.

Religious Education at its best has two principal ambitions or purposes.  Of course, one of those ambitions is the study of religious and non-religious worldviews.   The second is to help young people in their own attempt to find something in life, it may be a worldview, or it may be something much looser, whatever it is it helps them to make sense of existence.

Religious Education is not just a spectator activity which studies religious and non-religious worldviews.  The subject is also for participants in that it supports young people in the human desire to find something in life that helps them make sense of existence.  We are poor creatures if we choose not to think very deeply about the world and in the light of what we make of it live our lives accordingly.  It is this second ambition that moves RE into high gear in terms of its educational value.

The idea that RE has two ambitions is not new.  Back in 1971 the highly influential ‘Working Paper 36’ affirmed that RE has two ambitions and expressed this neatly in the statement, ‘We incline to the view that religious education must include both the personal search for meaning and the objective study of the phenomena of religion’ (p.43).  The words ‘phenomena of religion’ didn’t just mean the religions.  Non-religious worldviews was also clearly on the agenda.

Why do some people think the CoRE has abandoned the idea that the subject has two main ambitions?  Commission members have expressed surprise that people have this view
but the CoRE’s report does lend itself to this interpretation.  The report is over 23,000 words but only around 200 words are about pupil’s own personal worldview and what is said is often ambiguous.  The CoRE’s entitlement statement is over 500 words but only around 30 are about making sense of life.  What is written tells us that pupils should be taught about, ‘the different roles that worldviews play in providing people with ways of making sense of their lives.’ (p.12) What does this mean?  It looks like an entitlement to explore the ways other people’s worldviews help them make sense of their lives.  What it doesn’t say is that pupils have an entitlement to reflect on their own their own worldview.

In the report there are only two or three brief references to pupils and their personal worldview.  For example, we are told, ‘It is one of the core tasks of education to enable each pupil to understand, reflect on and develop their own personal worldview’ (p.5).  These words are more or less repeated on p.26.  However, both of these statements are not about Religious Education, they are about education in general.  The CoRE’s view appears to be that young people’s own exploration of meaning is not a matter for which RE has a special responsibility but is a whole-school responsibility.

Of course, it is true that RE is not the only subject in the curriculum that can contribute to young people’s exploration of meaning but by placing it in the wooly area of being a whole-school responsibility with no subject being given responsibility for it is a recipe for weakening this aspect of education and weakening RE.

To be fair in Appendix 2 in the last few pages of the report there is a clear statement that as well as the study of worldviews the subject must also provide ‘space’ for pupils ‘to reflect on one’s own worldviews.’  Appendix 2 has none of the ambiguities that are in the rest of the report.  It effectively articulates the two ambitions of RE expressed in ‘Working Paper 36’.  This raises a number of questions – why the pretence that a ‘new vision’ is being offered when much of what is in Appendix 2 has been a part of RE for over four decades?  Why rebrand the subject as Religion and Worldviews when this is misleading people into thinking the subject is just the academic study of religion and worldviews and nothing else?

There are plenty of questions and issues that arise from the CoRE’s report.  Before we spend yet more money on political lobbying and demand legislation we should be having an open and frank discussion.  We should be listening to each other and not pretending that there is broad agreement when some see the report as a green light to just offering a study of religion and worldviews while there are others that see the subject as one that goes well beyond that and aims to help young people to think more deeply about life and what it is they stand for.

Dilwyn Hunt
RE Adviser