Lucy Peacock

I do not identify as a Religious Education specialist. Rather, I am an interdisciplinary researcher spanning education, the sociology of religion and interfaith studies. Nevertheless, my PhD research into interfaith encounters in schools provided an unexpected opportunity to constructively and critically engage in RE debates.

School Linking: A PhD case study

My 2016-2020 PhD examined the relationship between ‘interfaith encounters’ and ‘peaceful relations’ among young people in England’s schools by evaluating the work of the Faith and Belief Forum’s (F&BF’s) School Linking programme, an extracurricular scheme which brings students together to creatively engage with questions of identity, belonging and belief. School Linking pairs two classes, from two different schools (mostly, but not necessarily, from schools with a religious character), for one academic year. The linked teachers are trained in interfaith dialogue facilitation skills, before delivering three joint interfaith workshops, called Link Days, in which the students visit each other’s schools and take part in creative activities. For a student on the scheme, Link Days present opportunities to creatively explore their background, beliefs and communities with students that they may otherwise never meet.

For my PhD, I analysed 1,488 student and teacher surveys, conducted focus groups and observed School Linking activities in four faith schools in London to better understand how interfaith encounters foster interpersonal relationships between students, and what factors influence how School Linking is experienced by its participants. I completed my PhD in 2020, presenting my research findings in a report published on F&BF’s website. Recognising the need to challenge the assumptions of School Linking and articulate the complex processes underlying the relationships between the programme’s activities and ‘peaceful relations’ in a manner that was grounded in academic theory, I chose to reassess the intergroup model of contact theory (Allport 1954; Hewstone and Brown 1986), which essentially argues that contact between two or more groups reduces prejudiced attitudes. By mapping my findings onto Allport’s (1954) four ‘conditions’ for effective prejudice reduction (equal status, common goals, cooperation and institutional support), I presented F&BF with a practical ‘recipe for successful interfaith contact’ and reflected on how School Linking can further our understanding of the theory itself.

Implications for RE: An unexpected element

My academic background is in theology, and I see myself now as a researcher straddling the sociology of religion, education and interfaith studies. Whilst I expected my research to lightly touch upon RE, the extent to which it spoke to curriculum debates and teacher practice surprised me.

Early on, I noticed that students and teachers mentioned RE in their motivation for taking part in School Linking. A year 9 student from a Muslim-ethos school, linked with a Roman Catholic-ethos school said, “I am interested in learning RE in a different environment and this may also help me in my GCSEs”. When I asked teachers to simply state why they are taking part, responses included “raises the profile of the RE department at school”, “part of our RE curriculum is living / practising your faith so by teaching others our signs and symbols / celebrations of Catholicism we are fulfilling the curriculum”, and “support study of RS”. This was in the back of my mind, when, following a Link Day visit to a school’s local mosque, I observed a teacher telling his students, “as well as being important for interfaith relationships, everything we’ve covered here will be part of your GCSEs in six months’ time”.

During my data collection, School Linking’s reach was expanding beyond schools with a religious character to include community schools. Moreover, RE teachers were regularly being nominated by their schools to lead a School Linking class. It was important to me that I positioned my research in such a way that it spoke to the educational landscape experienced by my participants, but I struggled at times to configure my empirical and theoretical insights with the RE landscape. How significant is the connection between RE and extra-curricular activities? Will the scope of my research limit the implications for RE teachers? Can the research truly speak to RE when I don’t identify as an RE specialist?

Things ‘clicked’ for me upon reading the Commission on Religious Education’s Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward report (CoRE 2018). It was clear that the report’s proposed move towards and Religion and Worldviews curriculum fundamentally emphasised the complexity and diversity of religious and non-religious worldviews; it intrinsically questioned notions of ‘typicality’. I could not ignore that School Linking was, and still is, used as a tool to enhance RE provision and experience in schools, thus it was vital for me to examine whether its theoretical underpinnings enable the programme to engage in discursive shifts in RE. My findings indicated that framing School Linking through contact theory risks closing worldview complexity down. The type of knowledge reportedly gained by School Linking students is sometimes oversimplified; generalisable ‘facts’ speak to principles of intergroup contact theory, and often align with school assessment measures, but do not accurately capture the religious and worldview plurality of the programme’s participants. I explored this in more detail in my (2021) open access article, Contact-based interfaith programmes in schools and the changing religious education landscape: negotiating a worldviews curriculum, in which I proposed an alternative theoretical framework to School Linking – the ‘decategorization’ model of contact (Brewer and Miller 1984, 1988; Miller 2002).

The process of writing the article affirmed to me a hope that academic and policy debate will recognise the value that extra-curricular programmes can provide in exploring questions of religious and non-religious belief in the classroom moving forward. I invite RE teachers to explore alternative literature, such as my own research, when considering how to facilitate meaningful student encounters across worldview difference. A summary of its application to RE teaching in this RE:ONLINE feature is a very welcome first step.

Next steps: exploring worldviews in more detail

I continue to explore interfaith encounters in education. For now, I am working on two projects related to higher education. I am a research fellow on the Building Positive Relationships among University Students across Religion and Worldview Diversity (‘IDEALS UK’) project, which explores how university students develop attitudes towards religion and worldview diversity, and examines how different aspects of university life shape interfaith learning and development. This month also marks the start of my new project, STEM and Belief in UK and USA Higher Education, which aims to promote meaningful university Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) opportunities for underrepresented belief groups by better understanding how to foster STEM environments inclusive of belief diversity. Both of these projects consciously adopt the terminology ‘religion and worldview diversity’ to recognise that barriers in communication and understanding can arise from differences of perspective not captured by conventional categories of religion or faith. Considering ‘worldview’ alongside religion enables us to explore conceptual and empirical links between our higher education research and the continued Religion and Worldviews curriculum debate, something I look forward to sharing with the RE:ONLINE community in the coming months and years.


Allport, G. W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Brewer, M., and N. S. Miller. 1984. “Beyond the Contact Hypothesis: Theoretical Perspectives on Desegregation.” In Groups in Contact: The Psychology of Desegregation, edited by N. S. Miller and M. B. Brewer, 281–302. Orlando, Fl: Academic Press.

Brewer, M., and N. S. Miller. 1988. “Contact and Cooperation: When Do They Work?” In Eliminating Racism: Profiles in Controversy, edited by P. A. Katz and D. A. Taylor, 315–326. New York, NY: Plenum.

CoRE (Commission on Religious Education). 2018. “Final Report: Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forward.” Commission on Religious Education. Accessed 2 July 2022.

Hewstone, M., and R. Brown. 1986. “Contact Is Not Enough: An Intergroup Perspective on the ‘Contact Hypothesis.” In Contact and Conflict in Intergroup Encounters, edited by M. Hewstone and R. Brown, 1–44. Oxford: Blackwell.

Miller, N. 2002. “Personalization and the Promise of Contact Theory.” Journal of Social Issues 58 (2): 387–410. doi:

Peacock, L. 2021. “Contact-based interfaith programmes in schools and the changing religious education landscape: negotiating a worldviews curriculum.” Journal of Beliefs & Values, DOI: 10.1080/13617672.2021.2004708

 Dr Lucy Peacock is a Research Fellow in Sociology of Religion