Looking at Religion and Worldviews teaching across schools with and without a religious character: possibilities for dialogue and co-operation

Elaine Arundell and Thomas Breakwell


In England and Wales dialogue between RE teachers in schools with a religious character and those without appears to be limited. However, it is our contention that this lack of dialogue and co-operation between schools with and without a religious character negatively impacts upon the quality of RE provision in both sectors. In short, teachers in schools with a religious character and without can learn a lot from each other.

There are numerous reasons why there has been a lack of dialogue between the sectors. For instance, RE in both sectors can have different aims and objectives and the status of the subject might vary between a religious character and one without. It could be assumed that in a school with a religious character more time might be afforded to the teaching the subject, plus more teachers and the potential impact of a different inspectorate. However, another possible reason for limited dialogue will be the focus of our discussion here, the lack of dialogue and co-operation is due to the assumptions held by RE teachers themselves. RE teachers in both sectors may have certain sets of assumptions about the aims, values and how RE is taught in their chosen sector. While this is understandable, the result is a lack of critical dialogue between teachers of RE within religious and non-religious sectors. A fruitful exploration of another sector might contain some solutions or inspirations for teachers.

An autobiographical approach

To examine teaching methods in both religious and non-religious character schools, we have chosen an autobiographical approach. In the context of education, an autobiographical methodology refers to the process in which, an individual starts by considering their own assumptions that they bring to an area of study, reflects upon their own practice, and will reinterpret theory, pedagogy, and research based on their experiences. [i] To this end, the autobiographical approach allows us to consider our own ontological and epistemological position in which we, as RE teachers and researchers, interpret the world [ii] , the assumptions we may have, and how we might understand research based on our own experiences.

The context of schools with a religious character

Elaine Arundell – I currently work as a primary RE adviser for Catholic schools in the Diocese of Westminster. I was born, educated and trained as a teacher in Belfast where I mainly experienced confessional RE. Having taught and advised in the South East of England for over 20 years, I have experienced a mixture of both confessional and non-confessional RE in Catholic schools where the quality of RE is recognised to be of a high standard nationally. [iii] However, the number of pupils from other Christian denominations and world faiths is significant as, according to the Census in 2020, 38% of those in Catholic schools in England do not identify as Catholic. [iv]

My assumptions about RE in schools with and without a religious character

One assumption I have is that developing pupils’ spirituality and morality is a strength of Catholic schools due to the emphasis on Christian values and virtues as well as the school’s mission statement. [v] In terms of my own role and my experience of multi-faith RE, I have found that pupils engage positively with the visits and visitors that support the teaching of Judaism and other faiths [vi] so that the curriculum is ‘progressive and cohesive’. [vii]  However, a challenge I have witnessed is the weakness of subject knowledge and methodology of professionals in the Catholic schools when teaching other religions and worldviews. As a result, I focused my research on the use of music, in particular song, as a way of developing the spirituality and wellbeing of pupils holding various worldviews or none within the Catholic classroom. What is illuminating is that some studies show that engaging in music/song can advantage people in terms of language, health, psychology and culture as well as socially and emotionally. [viii] While Covid-19 has widened the gap for disadvantaged pupils, emphasising the need for social justice and inclusion [ix], the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the importance of racial justice and equality. I have been greatly influenced by the use of creative arts, especially music and song, as I have observed at first hand that they can eclipse linguistic, cultural and faith barriers and thereby foster spiritual growth. [x]  As a result, pupils’ access to music and song may have a positive influence on their self-identity and their sense of social inclusion which will ultimately be a reward for society. [xi]

Furthermore, some pupils have become disengaged with RE both pre and during Covid. [xii] Evidence suggests that when pupils enjoy their lessons, have ownership of some activities and are able to collaborate, they are more likely to engage and excel. [xiii] I would argue that the use of the creative arts, especially music and song, allows for this excellence and enjoyment and appears to be an area that unites those from schools with and without a religious character as well as those using both confessional and non-confessional approaches; it therefore presents an opportunity for further dialogue and cooperation.

Through this research I have been able to reflect on the gaps within my practice and that which I engage with as an adviser. Naturally, I want all pupils in our schools to fully engage in RE and develop spiritually and morally, regardless of their worldview, and I want to ensure that every individual feel equally valued. I could learn from schoolteachers in schools without a religious character and how they incorporate all worldviews of those they teach.

Schools without a religious character

Thomas Breakwell – I am a Religious Studies teacher currently teaching at a state grammar school in Birmingham. I am not from a religious background, I have never attended or taught at a school with a religious character. Further, my previous teaching experience has been in schools where many pupils and parents identify as non-religious. Contrastingly, while my current school does not have a religious character, most pupils identify as belonging to a religious tradition.

My assumptions about RE in schools with and without a religious character

One assumption I have is that in a school without any religious character RE distinguishes itself by its focus on a multifaith RE. In terms of my own teaching of multifaith RE (teaching the ‘big six’ plus Humanism), I have been greatly influenced by concepts such as powerful knowledge[xiv] and the movement towards a knowledge-based approach to RE and although moral and spiritual education is a statutory obligation even within schools without any religious character, I have found the engagement with moral and especially spiritual education challenging.

As a result, I focused my research on the experience of religiously identifying pupils in RE outside religious character schools. Numerous studies have examined the experience of Christian, Jewish[xv], Muslim[xvi], Hindu[xvii], and Buddhist pupils[xviii] within RE. What is illuminating about these studies is that they demonstrate how non-confessional RE can often result in pupils feeling that their religion is taught in a way misconstrued, misinterpreted and often detached from the individual’s own experience of religious tradition. Even more seriously, Jewish and Christian pupils have reported religious prejudice within the RE classroom, as they have faced ‘criticism of their beliefs or religious affiliations from their peers and sometimes from teachers’. [xix]

My consideration of the experiences of religious pupils in the RE classroom has allowed me to reflect on the gaps in my current practice. Of course, I want my classroom to be inclusive of all faiths and none. Ethnographic and interpretivist pedagogy, in response to the limitations of Smartian phenomenology, has attempted to represent multiple religious perspectives within RE through paying attention to the internal diversity within a religious tradition. For instance, how religious traditions are understood by different ‘voices’ within a tradition (for example, children). [xx] I could learn from teachers in schools with a religious character about how they might teach RE in a way that is reflective of their pupils’ self-identification and spirituality. As Hannam has recently argued, RE has been focused too much on an epistemology and consequently has neglected the development of spirituality. [xxi]

To conclude, through an autobiographical approach, we have found that both schools with and without religious character could benefit from teacher reflection upon the strengths and possible weaknesses of their school’s approach. Such reflective practice could allow for greater multi-faith engagement in RE in schools with a religious character and a greater reflection upon the experience of religiously identifying pupils within RE in schools without a religious character. We recommend that RE colleagues take the time to observe RE in one another’s schools, discuss the curriculum rationale in these schools and reflect on the possible implications for your own teaching practice.


[i] Morwenna Griffiths, ‘(Auto)Biography and Epistemology’, Educational Review 47, no. 1 (1995): 75–88, https://doi.org/10.1080/0013191950470106.

[ii] For uses of the autobiographical methodology in RE see Robert Jackson, ‘A Retrospective Introduction to Religious Education: An Interpretive Approach’, Discourse and Communication for Sustainable Education 7, no. 1 (2016): 149–60, https://doi.org/10.151/dcse-2016-0011; Trevor Cooling, ‘Worldview in Religious Education: Autobiographical Reflections on The Commission on Religious Education in England Final Report’, British Journal of Religious Education 42, no. 4 (2020): 403–14, https://doi.org/10.1080/01416200.2020.1764497.

[iii] Catholic Education Service (2018). ‘Catholic Education Service response to the Commission on Religious Education report’, accessed 14th Dec 2020 from https://www.catholiceducation.org.uk/component/k2/item/1003658-catholic-education-service-response-to-the-commission-on-religious-education-report

[iv] Catholic Education Service (2020). ‘Catholic Education Service Digest of 2020 Census Data for Schools and Colleges in England’, accessed on 13th May 2020 from https://www.catholiceducation.org.uk/images/CensusDigestEngland2020.pdf p. 22

[v] Chief Inspector, Diocese of Westminster Education Service (2020). ‘Section 48 – Diocesan School Inspection Summary Report 2019 – 20’.

[vi] Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales Department of Catholic Education and Formation (2012). The Religious Education Curriculum Directory (3-19) for Catholic Schools and Colleges pp. 55-67

[vii] Diocese of Westminster Education Service (2019). Diocesan Inspection Handbook p. 19

[viii] Bailey, B. A., & Davidson J. W. (2005). Effects of group singing and performance for marginalised and middle-class singers. Psychology of Music, 33(2), 269-303; Hays, T. (2005). Well-being in later life through music. Australasian Journal of Ageing, 24, 28-32; Lally, E. (2009). ‘The power to heal us with a smile and a song’: Senior well-being, music-based participatory arts and the value of qualitative evidence. Journal of Arts & Communities 1(1), 25-44; Joseph, D. (2009). Music for all ages: Sharing music and culture through singing in Australia. International Journal of Community Music, 2(2&3), 169-181; Southcott, J., & Joseph D. (2013). Community, commitment and the ten commandments: Singing in the Coro Furlan. International Journal of Community Music, 6(1), 79-92

[ix] OECD (2020). Tackling coronavirus (COVID-19): Contributing to a global effort. Combatting COVID-19’s effect on children. Accessed on 07/04/21 from https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=132_132643-m91j2scsyh&title=Combatting-COVID-19-s-effect-on-children; NFER (2020). Schools’ responses to Covid-19: Pupil engagement in remote learning. Accessed on 07/04/21 from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED608590.pdf; SAGE (2020). Update on children, schools and transmission. Accessed on 07/04/21 from shttps://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/935125/tfc-covid-19-children-transmission-s0860-041120.pdf

[x] Joseph, D. (2018). Fostering a sense of belonging and identity through sound and spirituality. Re-Enchanting Education and Spiritual Wellbeing: Fostering Belonging and Meaning-Making for Global Citizens. Routledge pp. 189-200.

[xi] Welsh, G. F. (2011). Psychological aspects of singing development in children. Invited lecture, Goldsmiths College, London (Music, Mind and Brain), February 2011. Accessed on 02/03/21 from https://musicmindandbrain.wordpress.com/2011/05/07/psychological-aspects-of-singing-developments-in-children/

[xii] YouGov (2018) Which school subjects do boys and girls enjoy more? Accessed on 02/03/21 from www.yougov.co.uk/topics/education/articles-reports/2018/09/03/which-school-subjects-do-boys-and-girls-enjoy-more; Lucas, M., Nelson, J. and Sims, D. (2020). Schools’ responses to Covid-19: Pupil engagement in remote learning. Slough: NFER. Accessed on 05/04/21 from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED608590.pdf

[xiii] O’ Grady, K. (2003) Motivation in Religious Education: A Collaborative Investigation with Year Eight Students. British Journal of Religious Education, 25:3, 214-225; O’ Grady, K. (2006). Motivation in Secondary Education. A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Education University of Warwick, Institute of Education.

[xiv] Richard Kueh, ‘Religious Education and the “Knowledge Problem”’, in We Need to Talk about RE: Manifestos for the Future of Religious Education, ed. Mike Castelli and Mark Chater (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017), 53–69.

[xv] Dan Moulin, ‘Giving Voice to “the Silent Minority”: The Experience of Religious Students in Secondary School Religious Education Lessons’, British Journal of Religious Education 33, no. 3 (2011): 20, https://doi.org/10.1080/01416200.2011.595916.

[xvi] Julia Ipgrave, ‘Issues in the Delivery of Religious Education to Muslim Pupils: Perspectives from the Classroom’, British Journal of Religious Education 21, no. 3 (1999): 146–57, https://doi.org/10.1080/0141620990210306.

[xvii] Insight UK, ‘A Report on the State of Hinduism in Religious Education in UK Schools’ (London: Insight UK, 2021), https://insightuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Hinduism-in-RE_Project-report.pdf.

[xviii] Phra Nicholas Thanissaro, ‘The Attitudes of British Buddhist Teens towards School and Religious Education’, International Journal of Children’s Spirituality 23, no. 2 (2018): 180–95, https://doi.org/10.1080/1364436X.2018.1448762; Phra Nicholas Thanissaro, ‘Measuring Attitude towards RE: Factoring Pupil Experience and Home Faith Background into Assessment’, British Journal of Religious Education 34, no. 2 (2012): 195–212, https://doi.org/10.1080/01416200.2011.623154.

[xix] Moulin, ‘Giving Voice to “the Silent Minority”’, 489.

[xx] Robert Jackson, ‘The Warwick Education Project: The Interpretive Approach to Religious Education’, in Pedagogies of Religious Education: Case Studies in the Research and Development of Good Pedagogic Practice in RE, ed. Michael Grimmitt (Essex, England: McCrimmon Publishing, 2000), 130–53.

[xxi] Patricia Hannam, Religious Education and the Public Sphere / Patricia Hannam., 1st. (London : Routledge, 2018).