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Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Keep the faith: Why religious education is booming

Published By: The Independent - 10 Jan 2008

Is religion the most important subject children study in school?

This often-neglected corner of the curriculum is enjoying new prominence thanks to Gordon Brown’s recent recruitment of religious education teachers to the fight against terrorism. Their ability to teach about “diversity and faith in modern Britain” was essential to developing a tolerant society which could resist extremism the Man from the Manse told the House of Commons last month.

His speech followed hot on the heels of another major coup for the subject when Ian Jamison, a flamboyantly-dressed head of RE from Kingsbridge Community College, in Devon, won this year’s secondary school teacher of the year award at the National Teaching Awards.

And pupils are casting their own votes. Last year over a thousand more students took religious studies GCSE, and 800 more took A level than the year before. Some of this increase can be attributed to schools putting more pupils in for the exam, but many pupils say they enjoy the subject. “Whenever I come out of RE my head is exploding with questions and my whole body aches - this is not because I don't understand - it is because I'm buzzing with new thoughts,” one 12-year-old girl recently told the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education.

It’s easy to see why. Today’s children are growing up in a problem-beset world, but get few chances to consider the big questions of life. They are under pressure from tests and targets in school, and bombarded by commercial messages outside. They are growing up in a society where the consolations and certainties of church-going have faded, but where fears about climate change and terrorism stalk the headlines. In such choppy seas, they badly need personal anchors, and RE is a subject that can help them find them.

“Although RE is not about being religious,” Ian Jamison stresses. “It is about establishing yourself as a person. It’s about knowing that you think and being aware of what others think. What I want is for all my pupils to be able to explain themselves. To be able to say: this is what I think, and why I think it. Too often they are just led by their peer group and their standard response to anything they are presented with is: ‘That’s rubbish.’ Well, fine. But I want them to be able to tell me why it’s rubbish.”

Religious education has been a part of classroom life since before state schooling began and has gone through many incarnations. Dull Bible lessons slowly gave way lessons that introduced pupils to the Five Pillars of Islam or the Five Ks of Sikhism, which in turn have led on to more flexible and interactive courses of study, in which pupils examine how religious beliefs intersect with moral, ethical and cultural issues. The subject’s links with social and citizenship education are close, and growing closer.

What remains unchanged is the fact that RE is compulsory. It part of the basic curriculum that all registered school pupils are taught alongside the national curriculum (unless they are withdrawn from RE lessons by parents who object to them learning about other faiths.)

RE syllabuses are set out locally, by local education authorities after consultations with local faith groups and teachers. Pupils learn about the major religions, but syllabuses must, by law, reflect the fact that religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian. Voluntary-aided faith schools must also provide RE, but can follow their own guidelines.

Three years ago new national guidelines for RE syllabuses were set out by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, emphasising the importance of children being introduced to all the main faiths, but teaching is patchy, according to Ofsted, and there is a need to replace locally-determined syllabuses with a more uniform version.

Gordon Brown is now promoting this, believing that all pupils need a broad-based grounding in the world’s religions. Without it, he fears, more children will become prey to extremist messages, while others will retreat into distrust of other faiths, leading to an increasingly fractured and unstable society. He is likely to helped in his plans by the upturn in recruitment of RE teachers. “And they are coming from a range of backgrounds,” says Rosemary Rivett, executive officer of NATRE, “ not just theology.”

“I believe we do have an increasing role in the current climate,” says Helen Cairns, head of RE at The Chalfonts Community College, in Buckinghamshire. “We can challenge the messages that pupils get from the media, promote debate, and ask any of the big questions. Like: can you be a spiritual person without being religious? Why are we here? What is your purpose in life? It’s all to do with their personal development.”

Another award-winning teacher – she was voted outstanding new teacher in the South of England in this year’s National Teaching Awards – she has turned her classroom into a Sikh gurdwara, encouraged pupils to discover their own way of praying, organised the cooking of Kosher food, and helped pupils reflect on how concepts like forgiveness apply in everyday life.

“RE is also very good for helping pupils learn to communicate and to listen,” she says. They learn how to listen to someone else’s opinion and compare it to their own in a respectful way.”

Last year her school had its largest-ever cohort of students taking RE at GCSE, as well as a 14 per cent increase in the number of students taking the short course that leads to a half GCSE.

Ian Jamison’s pupils also do well in exams, but he aims to help them keep perspective. “Kids today are under such a lot of pressure to succeed. They come in with the attitude, ‘You’re the teacher. We require answers to pass exams. Give them to us.’ But I tell them that tests are such a tiny part of life. RE gives them quietness, space, the chance to be themselves, and the realisation that there is not always a right answer to things, that lots of people have come up with different answers to the same question.”

He also points out that it is an excellent subject for any pupil who wants to go on and work with people, and noticeboards in his department profile former students who now work in high-flying jobs in counter-terrorism and business.

Helen Cairns agrees that it is a valuable tool. “Our pupils today are going to travel the world. They aren’t necessarily going to work in this country. They need to understand other people’s cultures and religious practices.”

And she sees great opportunities for RE opening up under the new, flexible secondary school curriculum, launched this summer, which offers increased scope for subject collaboration. “We could have RE and design technology, RE and physics. Why not?”