In today’s world, can we afford to drop religious studies as a key examinable subject? – Steve Arman, Religious Studies Subject Leader for IAPS, explains why it is so important.

21 May 2013

The question of whether faith and religious belief are important to our society is one that has been gaining momentum for decades. As our culture becomes more secular, should we encourage and nurture our young people to consider questions that focus on the meaning of life? Does religious faith affect the world and current affairs? If our answer to these questions is in the affirmative, we have to consider what we are doing in our schools that will lead children to a deeper understanding of the world in which we live. Government policies change, educational philosophies change, attitudes and ideologies change, yet for many people a faith in a God is crucial to their existence. This has not changed since the beginning of time.

We therefore need to consider what we teach, and how we teach religious education. We need to consider who teaches it, and how we assess it. Government must think seriously about changes it makes to an educational system which may exclude RE from its existing status. This is a subject which should be helping many pupils to become more aware of the world in a meaningful way. Across the globe, millions of people follow numerous religions; their lives are, at times, dominated by what they believe and the traditions they follow, some of which are a result of faith, while others are unrelated. With the migration of people to this country, it is becoming increasingly important that we understand religion. Indeed, pupils in all of our schools need to develop an understanding of faith, and far more than ever before they must recognise what  the spiritual dimension of the world around them means to others. Children need some guidance and structure in which to explore issues of faith and values. If we do not give them this, they will fill in the gaps themselves with whatever else they come across, including the prejudices of others, erroneous information and, sometimes, downright ignorance.

The modern world and its technology and communications have meant that this is already happening with too many children. Misunderstandings and misguided outlooks are creating young people with religious prejudices and unfair attitudes. That is why the teaching of religious education today is of paramount importance; young people need to recognise that the global village in which we live is one full of spirituality, faith and religious tradition. Our young people have aspirations and expectations to travel around the globe, and good RE teaching will help them to have a more tolerant approach and greater understanding of various world viewpoints. This may in turn help them to consider a whole range of spiritual questions which may further extend and develop their own spirituality. If nothing else, religious education at the right age can help to familiarise, inform and enlighten young people and may help to create a better future for our society. A society where these young people will one day have children of their own who will, like they have done, take on board some of their parents’ views and identity.

In the 1990s, Jose Casanova, Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University, put forward the idea that religions will become more public and have a greater say in world affairs. The watershed moment for attitudes to religion was on 11th September 2001, when terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers in New York, causing many to question the power and the role of religion in our society. Professor David Ford of Cambridge University, in his book ‘The Future of Christian Theology’ has suggested that there is a big upsurge of interest in people studying Christian theology as a result of such events. He goes on to say that people are now studying theology because of its prominence upon world affairs, and we are not just a secular society but a pluralistic one.

As a result many companies are beginning to think how they can be more society friendly. They are also considering how they can be more inclusive of those with religious viewpoints and traditions. This enlightened awareness will make companies consider how their products affect people of religious faith, which in turn, means that companies need graduates who have a new perspective and understanding of the cultural context in which they find themselves. Thus, states Professor Ford, universities are now looking at ways to introduce more religious theology to help students better understand past and present from a wider theological perspective.

If this is beginning to happen in the wider society outside schooling, then surely religious education in prep schools and independent schools also needs to address this. A key principle for all good RE teaching must allow children to both learn about religious traditions and to reflect on the religious ideas and what these concepts mean to them. The teaching of RE must enable children to extend their own sense of values and promote their own spiritual growth and development. For example, when teaching race and diversity, pupils in Year 6 may get the chance to make up their own speeches in the style of Martin Luther King, which express their own spiritual ideals regarding equality or a strong religious viewpoint which communicates a similar sentiment.

In my own teaching, pupils have enjoyed the chance to read out and record their own speeches to the class. The process of playing these recorded speeches back has meant that the children have recognised the importance of the occasion, remembering the freedom marches and speeches of the 1960s. This is particularly helpful in providing context to religious and cultural issues in our multi-racial society today, where most recently issues of race have occurred in our sporting arena. Good RE teaching enables children to investigate and reflect on the most fundamental questions – the meaning of life and the existence of the Divine spirit – and must be discussed and considered in today’s modern classroom.

RE cannot make good the ills of the world. But if taught well can create in the minds of the pupils a real sense of understanding, tolerance and appreciation that life has a variety of hopes, aspirations, ideals and beliefs. A well thought-out curriculum will develop pupils’ awareness of spiritual and moral issues. It will also develop a general knowledge and understanding of Christianity and other major world religions and value systems, particularly those found in Britain. It should aim to develop an understanding of what it means to be a committed believer in a religious tradition and in so doing help pupils to respect other people’s views and to celebrate diversity in society. Ultimately, good RE will help pupils reflect on their own experiences so developing personal responses to the key questions of life.

Of course, the difference between reaping these benefits and boring our children with stodgy lessons to which they cannot relate is good RE teaching. This can only be provided if there is support from everyone in the school community, not least the parents. Whether or not parents understand the importance of RE is sometimes down to whether they had a halfdecent RE teacher themselves! It can also boil down to very personal beliefs and attitudes to religion they hold. But the important thing all parents should know is that RE is not about one belief system, much less is it pushing children towards a particular faith; it is simply making young people aware that there are a multitude of opinions, values and faiths out there, and allowing them to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of this world.

There is a very real need to ensure that those teaching RE are best equipped and ultimately inspired to challenge and address difficult issues within the classroom environment. School managers and administrators need to consider who they ask and appoint for this role, and parents need to be asking schools what RE provision is available at their children’s schools. All too often RE allocation of time and personnel has been a backwater of thinking when it comes to timetabling and financing. If modern employers and governments around the world are thinking of how to best make their environments more suitable to a diverse and multicultural society, then surely the good teaching of RE alongside the framework of assessment at GCSE level and above needs to be maintained, and not placed under threat. By doing all this it should mean that our young people, who are moving on to our colleges and universities and wider environs, will progress forward in a more tolerant and respectful way. Society needs pupils with disciplined minds who can respect the wide diversity of human life, whilst being able to evaluate their own views and spirituality.

It always surprises me that in some countries around the world, the teaching of religious education does not take place inside the education system. Some could argue this could be a better option compared with what can be provided by the education system here. This could be a possibility, but often the reverse will be the case, especially where coverage of this type of education does not exist for those pupils not attending places of worship, where most of this ‘extra education’ takes place. More to the point, even children who do have access to this will only have a real grasp of one faith and little understanding of any other belief systems.

We are fortunate that in this country we have been given the statutory right (and responsibility) to teach from our own religious tradition alongside that of other religions, for all the pupils in the UK. Let us not blow this opportunity; we owe it to future generations to eliminate racism and increase spiritual awareness, tolerance and understanding. The knock-on effects of sound RE teaching must have some value in the future of world peace, especially when considering the impact that the growing migration of human population may have on the world in the future. The continuing world desire and need for religious belief and faith suggests that religion is not going to die any time soon. Surely then, we cannot afford to reduce the curriculum and dumb down its role in the examination system, can we?

Steve Arman is the IAPS Subject Leader for Religious Studies and Head of Humanities at Wycliffe Preparatory School, Gloucestershire.

Wycliffe Preparatory School