There was an interesting article in the Guardian the other day suggesting that spending on religious education in British schools amounts to around £1 per pupil per year.
Not very much.
Does this matter? Well the author of a government funded report, Dr Conroy obviously believes that it does.
Does it really matter? If RE is really in such a state, shouldn’t it be
allowed to whither on the vine? My answer is a resounding ‘no’, and
that ‘no’ is based on what we saw in those schools where RE is done well. What they reveal is that good RE is about something absolutely fundamental: a space for serious, critical exploration of the meanings and values by which we live.
To live good lives, individually and together, we need to be able to make sense of our world and ourselves – and RE offers the only place in the curriculum where that can still be done systematically.
Most people I know who believe strongly in religious education come from a perspective of ‘defending the faith’ (whatever that faith might be.) What is interesting about this report is that it is not anchored to any idea of Holy Empire- rather it just appears to believe that religious education allows for a kind of moral and ethical evaluation of our communities and institutions that the rest of the curriculum simply does not have room for.
It also goes on to identify what is thought to be ‘good’ RE, and what might be ‘bad’. The ‘good’ seemed clear enough-
The point is that if we really intend that children should learn from religion as well as about religion then they must be introduced to the intellectual practice of trying to understand a particular set of beliefs and practices in their own epistemological terms, and then be allowed to apply critical faculties to religious claims. Such teaching does not turn religion into something foreign which ‘others’ do, but into something much closer to home in which we all participate – for we all have beliefs and attachments, and we all have to make sense of life and death.
However the ‘bad’ seemed to offer a little more in the way of surprise;
But what marked poor provision, above all, was teaching which contented itself with introducing students to the surface phenomena of religion. We saw RE teachers fall into the trap of responding to serious student questions (‘but why does it matter that Jesus died on a cross?’) by deflecting it or asking another student to answer. Prima facie this looks like the democratisation of the classroom but, at a deeper level, it is often driven by a fear of making substantive or normative claims, combined with limited time and resource and exam pressures. Such strategies lead to superficiality-as one student put it in a focus group when asked about the ‘usefulness’ of RE: ‘Let me put it this way, if a Jew came round for tea, I would know what to feed them!’ Learning about ‘facts’, important as it is, too rarely translates into a serious grasp of theshape of another’s life world.
To see the place of faith (as a lived experience, not an archaic abstract concept) advocated for so effectively, not least within the pages of the Guardian seems to me to be remarkable.